Biweekly Book Review: Queen’s Shadow

I am a child of the ’90s. While I had seen the original Star Wars movies, it wasn’t until The Phantom Menace that I got to see a Star Wars story in theatres. It wasn’t until then that I became interested in reading a Star Wars book (my much loved and very battered copy of the Phantom Menace junior novelization still sits on my shelf). It wasn’t until then that I was interested in owning a Star Wars toy. Because in 1998, my attention was totally and completely captured by a lady in a big red dress, and her sweet but scrappy handmaiden, who turned out later to kind of be the same person.

I think you see where I’m going with this. It’s time for Queen’s Shadow by E.K. Johnston

I also thank/blame her for my obsession with red lipstick

*Spoilers Below*

The Story

The story starts as Padmé’s two terms as Queen of Naboo are coming to an end and she accepts the new Queen’s offer to serve as Senator. But life on Coruscant takes some adjusting to, especially since most senators remember Padmé as the teenage Queen who called for the removal of former Chancellor Vallorum due to the Senate’s inaction during the Occupation of Naboo by the Trade Federation. As the story progresses, she finds alliances with future friends and Rebellion leaders Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, and begins to understand how to play the Senate game.

But a large portion of the book also concerns itself with Padmé’s handmaidens. Most prominently features among them is Sabé, Padmé’s decoy from her days as Queen (portrayed, as trivia buffs know, by a very young Keira Knightly in The Phantom Menace). Here, Sabé has volunteered to take up the cause near and dear to Padmé’s heart: bringing an end to slavery on Tatooine. She is the boots on the ground, while Padmé sees what can be done from inside the system.

Though there are episodic incidents that drive the timeline forward, the plot is moved forward by Padmé herself. The overarching struggle and conflict is internal. The story is not “how Padmé overcame this thing”, it’s “how these events shaped Padmé and took her from Queen to co-founder of the nascent rebellion”.

5 Things I Liked (and 1 I Didn’t)

1. The Clothes

Oh my God. The clothing descriptions. I want one of each please.

That first Star Wars toy that I mentioned above? It was a set of Queen Amidala paper dolls that I very dearly hope is in a box somewhere. I have been obsessed with this woman’s clothing my whole life and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon.

The book adds the interesting detail of noting that the clothing is all designed for function as well as just aesthetics. That clothing that seems cumbersome is actually quite easy to move in, but might deceive an attacker. That all Padme’s clothing is designed with protective layers to deflect blaster bolts.

2. Objectivity vs. Attachment

Oh no, I’m back on my attachment bullshit again. There’s a line in Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith novel where Obi Wan commends Padmé’s intuition, telling her she would have been a great Jedi.

First of all, I agree.

Second of all, we see more of why she would make a great Jedi, and why she makes such a great politician in her attempts to strike a balance between political objectivity and attachment to her homeworld.

It’s made clear by everyone fairly early on that they either think she has forgotten where she came from, or that she is too close to her homeworld, and not ready to think about the galaxy at large. She tells Mina Bonteri (who also appears in The Clone Wars) that the best thing they can do is try to strike that balance, and she really does try. She uses her experiences as a monarch who dealt with the invasion of her home to make empathetic choices for others, ensuring that as many people as possible benefit from her decisions. She is a great example that leading with love for a specific person or place does not necessarily lead to bad decisions, if you have the tools to manage your emotions (ahem, looking at you, Jedi)

3. Sabé and the handmaidens

For someone who is in the majority of The Phantom Menace we know surprisingly little about Sabé. I didn’t even know her name until around the time this book came out. All I knew about her, as I said, was that she was played by Keira Knightly.

Then again, given what we learn about her in the book, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that she planned it that way on purpose.

Having spent her formative years acting as someone else part time, Sabé is very guarded, and doesn’t let people get close to her. Even the third person narration that follows her point of view is fairly limited in how much emotion and openness it conveys. And I don’t think that’s the writing, I think it’s a conscious choice.

We get very short third person narrations from the points of view of some of the other handmaidens, all of which are much more open than Sabé’s narration. Because that’s not who Sabé is.

As for the other handmaidens, I was happy we got to meet them, but by the time the original set broke up, I felt I didn’t know any of them well enough to differentiate between them, other than a couple of key character points. But hopefully they will be expanded on when the prequel comes out this summer!

4. The relationship between Padmé and Sabé

These two are close. Closer than close. After all they spent 4 years sharing the persona of Amidala.

I do find it interesting that even here, “Amidala” is treated like a totally separate entity from either of them. In one party scene, when Sabé is wearing the fancy dress and makeup, she is referred to as Amidala by the narration. Because it doesn’t matter who is in the dress. As far as anyone, reader included, is concerned, that is Amidala.

I found I was also struck by how formal the relationship between Padmé and Sabé seemed, given how close they were supposed to be. The narration does explain that they are most comfortable when they are being formal, but then I really started to pay attention, and I think it goes deeper than that.

While we do get scenes of the two of them interacting with each other, or with the former handmaidens as a group, we never get to see how they speak to each other when their guards are totally down. There is always someone else in the room for whom they maintain that closed off formality. We’re told that they can say a lot with very little. We’re told how close they are. We never see it though. Then it clicked. They are a closed group of friends, with a shared experience we cannot understand. And the narration decides that we are not privy to the more intimate conversations they have with each other. They keep their lives and personas discreet within their universe, and the narration helps them do it by keeping it secret from us.

Though odd, I do like this approach because I think it is very very difficult to write dialogue between such close friends convincingly. No matter what the author did here, it wouldn’t come across conveyingMost of the time it comes across sounding like the writer has no idea what friends are or how they speak to each other.

5. The Epilogue

Oooof.

The first time I read this book, I read it in one sitting. By the time I got to the epilogue, I was so tired it didn’t really register with me. Like at all.

Not so this time.

So, first of all, the epilogue starts the way the first chapter begins, with the same imagery. The description at the start of the book is meant to evoke Padmé’s funeral, and just when you’re wondering if this is really how we’re kicking things off, you realize that it’s not what it seems to be.

Not so in the epilogue. There’s no one to pull the rug out from under you this time and laugh. Where the last chapter ended on a hopeful note, the epilogue begins by reminding you how tragically short Padmé’s life was. How much she wanted to achieve and couldn’t.

And not even calm, steady Sabé can help you this time. Where every other adversity in the book had been faced with a level-headed approach, by the epilogue, we see her more unhinged and outwardly expressive than we ever have. Because she just doesn’t care anymore. Because what was it all for, if she couldn’t protect her friend at the end. Because she’s right and nothing about this makes sense. She lost the person who was essentially her other half and she has no idea why. Her conspicuous absence from Revenge of the Sith makes me wonder where exactly she was in all that time, and why she wasn’t with Padmé (a story I hope we get to see one day).

6. The lack of resolution in the slavery subplot

I’ll start by saying that I don’t think this is the fault of the writer. I think part of the issue when writing one piece of a large universe like this, particularly a piece set fairly early in the story we know, is that you can’t change too much of the story. At the end of the day, no matter what they did in this book, you still have to end up where you are in Attack of the Clones, where slavery seemingly still happens on Tatooine. It’s not like Shmi Skywalker was freed by default because it was suddenly outlawed. Not to mention, I don’t think the dancing girls in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi are there by choice…

That said, it’s sad and frustrating to see your characters work towards a cause they clearly care about very much, only for them to fail. Unless I’m mistaken, we don’t see this issue come up in the books again. We never see a resolution to Czerka’s use of slave labour in Master & Apprentice, we don’t see Anakin make good on his childhood wish of ending slavery on Tatooine.

It can’t be an easy subject to cover, but it is something I’d like to see them bring back, hopefully set far enough in the future that we can have some resolution.

Random Thoughts

Obi Wan will always have my heart, but can we all take a moment to appreciate what a fine man Bail Organa is?

Sabé reports to Padmé that when she went searching for Shmi Skywalker, the house was empty but had a white sun carved over the door. I then remembered that Beru’s (as in Aunt Beru) maiden name is Whitesun. This is just to notify you all of my headcanon that her family are the ones running the anti-slavery movement on Tatooine that Sabé mentions to Padmé.

Mon Mothma tells Padmé that it could be helpful to add a Representative to her entourage, which we know is going to be Jar Jar Binks, and I was definitely screaming “don’t do it!” at my book.

Padmé tells Bail Organa, after he catches her and Sabé switching places, that Qui Gon Jinn was the only other person to ever figure out the deception on his own. That hadn’t been my impression in the movie, though that may be because during the reveal I was too distracted by Obi Wan’s amused “are you seeing this, this is the funniest shit ever” face.

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