“Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow” by E.K. Johnston (Book Review)

Released today on 5 March 2019 by Disney-Lucasfilm Press, Queen’s Shadow is a young adult Star Wars novel by Canadian author E.K. Johnston (whose previous work in the Galaxy Far, Far Away includes the 2016 young adult novel Ahsoka, and the short story “By Whatever Sun” in the 2017 anthology From a Certain Point of View).

Queen’s Shadow has been the subject of a lot of positive buzz lately, and is long-awaited–the first information about the book leaked out in 2017, which allegedly led to some behind-the-scenes drama; it wasn’t officially announced until a panel at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con, in July 2018–for good reason: It’s one of the very few Star Wars stories (especially in the Canon) to be centred around the character of Padmé Amidala Naberrie.

(N.B. I should note that, prior to publication, I was able to get my hands on an uncorrected proof (an Advance Reader’s Copy or ARC) of Queen’s Shadow, albeit not directly from the publisher, and this is the version that my review is (for the most part) based on. My hardcover pre-order also delivered early, which was both nice and ultimately a saving grace–I consulted it comparison to the proof out of necessity, as my ARC was missing pages 327-328!)

My ARC of the novel

I don’t plan on going into major spoiler territory with this review, and I won’t keep you waiting: I absolutely loved this book, and would happily recommend it to anyone who calls themselves a Star Wars fan. I’d also say that it has obvious appeal to fans of the Prequel films in particular, and even more so, fans of Padmé herself. The novel is set in-between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, during the transition period from Padmé’s rule as Queen of Naboo as she takes her assignment in the Galactic Senate. If you like politics, especially the politics of the prequel era–what is made explicit in the films and only hinted at–well, my friends, then this is absolutely the book for you!

While reading Queen’s Shadow, a thought occurred to me: The novel really reminds me (favourably) of Cloak of Deception, a Legends novel written by James Luceno, which is one of my all-time favourites. The comparison made sense to me because I feel like both novels handle characterization overall very deftly, and the way the plot and the lore is explored really makes you feel part of a living world. Seemingly disparate story-threads diverge and coalesce as the end nears. Johnston, in this novel, was able to achieve something that (to this point) no one else was able to, in my opinion: She made the cadre around Padmé, her Handmaidens and other staff (including her security), into actual characters instead of just set pieces. Sabé in particular (played by Keira Knightley in The Phantom Menace) shines in Queen’s Shadow in a way that was, frankly, something I never would have expected.

My hardcover copy

The believability of the world and the characterization of those around Padmé–those who live under the (former) Queen’s “shadow,” so-to-speak–are, alongside many of the connections to other stories and thematic parallels–this reviewer has heard many good things about reading Johnston’s novel in conjunction with Claudia Gray’s Leia: Princess of Alderaan–the core strengths of the book, and those elements that have not only left me satisfied but left me wanting more. That might actually be the best thing I can say about Queen’s Shadow, when I really think about it: I want to know more about the characters and situations both in the book and set-up by it. Without giving any spoilers, the end of the novel, while not exactly a cliffhanger, leaves a wide berth for future storytelling opportunities and possible connections to other stories, and I implore Lucasfilm to explore them.

Queen’s Shadow isn’t a flawless book, despite my immense enjoyment of it. Personally, I think the denouement felt a bit rushed, some of the dialogue seemed a bit clunky, and there was absolutely some fudging of details between what is depicted in this novel and what is said in other media (particularly The Clone Wars). But it is a credit to Johnston’s writing and the sense of adoration for the material (and all the details that are just spot-on nailed) that these detractions did not, ultimately, take me out of the novel or significantly change the way I felt about it. With some Star Wars media, contradiction and error is (for me) impossible to overcome; with this book, I honestly didn’t seem to care all that much.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the book–and I’m not sure if this was entirely intentional or is just a result of the fact that I’m not the world’s biggest Padmé fan–is that it really seems to be more about the the experience of everyone around Padmé and not only the Queen-turned-Senator (and future mother of the Skywalker twins). It feels like both a fault and a victory, because on the one hand Padmé herself becomes somewhat more diffuse as a character, but to the overall enhancement of the elements that are only really teased in her portrayal in the films and The Clone Wars. That’s not to say that the novel doesn’t focus on Padmé, because it does; but “Padmé” (or, rather, “Amidala”) comes to mean something other than just a singular person, it’s more of a collective identity that a group of people helped form and maintain. I’m not sure if I’m doing any of this justice, so I recommend you read the book and formulate your own ideas on it, but I believe that it’s the most intriguing and possibly the best aspect of the novel.

Quickly, I should shout-out the stunning design work of the novel by Leigh Zieske (including an awesome inset Naboo design on the cover) and the amazing cover art by Tara Phillips. It doesn’t depict anything in the story itself, but puts the duality (or multiplicity) of “Padmé Amidala” on display for all to see in glorious fashion.

As someone who has grown up with Star Wars their entire life, as someone who has had a complicated relationship with Star Wars (and particularly the Prequels), I have absolutely zero compunction in saying that Queen’s Shadow by E.K. Johnston is a worthy addition to the universe, an intriguing exploration of previously background elements and the politics of the Prequel era, and that everyone should check it out!

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