I remember really liking this book the first time I read it. I was actually excited to get back to it. So how did I not count it among my absolute favourites until now? Well, that probably had something to do with reading it for the first time covertly, under my desk, while I was supposed to be working… I am of course talking about Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray.
Further amending my statement from the Lost Stars review: all the Claudia Gray books are officially my favourites. I don’t usually laugh or cry out loud if I’m reading or watching something by myself. This book made me do both of those things.
Before she becomes the Rebellion-running, bad-guy-sassing, no-time-for-bullshit-having political leader we all know any love, Leia Organa was a teenager whose heart is in the right place, even if her head hasn’t caught up yet. It’s not that she’s unintelligent, but she’s filled with the kind of reckless passion that every teenager has felt at some point or another.
Unlike for most teenagers, though, the stakes are higher for Leia. Heirs to the Alderaanian throne don’t just inherit the crown. They must prove their worth through three challenges: one of the Mind, one of the Body and one of the Heart, the specifics of which they choose for themselves.
For the challenge of the Body, Leia decides to climb Appenza Peak, the highest summit on Alderaan. For the challenge of the Mind, she joins the Apprentice Legislature as a junior representative, and for the challenge of the Heart, she decides to bring relief aid to planets negatively affected by Imperial policy. Seems simple enough, but then again it always does.
She signs up for a survival course where the instructor seems keen on making her students face the realities of mortal peril. Her humanitarian missions always seem to hit a bureaucratic Imperial snag. Her work with the Apprentice Legislature is always taken and twisted by the Empire for its own selfish and cruel ends.
As the world around her changes, whispers of rebellion against the Emperor start to become more than whispers. At the heart of this nascent rebellion are Leia’s parents, Breha and Bail Organa, who absolutely do not want their daughter involved, no matter how many times she accidentally (or not so accidentally) stumbles into it over the course of completing her 3 challenges.
It’s not all bad news for our princess though. She also begins to find friends her own age: handsome, shy and serious Alderaanian Keir Domadi and awkward, big-hearted free spirit Amilyn Holdo (yes, that Holdo).
This book provides us with the unique experience of watching a character come of age while knowing exactly what kind of strong, capable and loving leader she will grow up to be.
5 Things I Liked (and 1 I Didn’t)
1. Leia messes up. Like. A lot.
By the time we meet her in the movies, the worst thing you could say about Leia’s decisions is that she tends to err on the side of caution where a bolder move might be more appropriate. Here, though? Our girl messes up. A lot. And I love it.
I love that she has a natural predisposition for diplomacy and politics. She figures out what people need and does her best to ensure that they get it. But she doesn’t have much experience navigating the real world beyond interning for her dad, she’s never come up against the Empire on her own. And it’s those lessons she learns here.
Her first goodwill mission is where she realizes that her actions have consequences beyond the immediate effects. She drops off supplies on the soon-to-be prison planet of Wobani for the many families living there, but realizes this isn’t enough. When the Empire will not let her leave with refugees, only with her crew, she signs up as many people as she can to “join her crew”, focusing on those most in need. Though the action feels right to her in the moment, she learns on her arrival home that her father had been working to evacuate people from Wobani en masse, and that her actions embarrassed the local Imperial official enough that he was unlikely to let it happen now.
As she does research for various tasks, she digs into inconsistencies and problem spots within Imperial structures. She frequently charters one of her father’s spacecraft to go investigate with very little regard for getting caught. When she follows a suspicious trail to Crait (which winds up leading her to her father and to a rebel base) she is almost shot out of the sky by rebel forces.
She also feels very frustrated with her parents (though honestly, which teenager doesn’t). They keep throwing elaborate dinner parties, and she cannot understand why this has become such a focus suddenly. Even once she learns of their rebellious intentions, it still takes her a while to realize the parties are excuses for their co-conspirators to have an excuse to gather. Once she realizes this, it is then she begins to turn it to her own advantage and tries to get more involved with the movement, in a more effective way. She even begins to befriend Mon Mothma, who we know will become a close collaborator in the future.
2. Leia and her parents
It wasn’t until I started to consider what I watned to talk about in this post that I came to a realization. A lot of Star Wars is about fathers and sons. It is sometimes about mothers and sons. But it’s very rarely about daughters and their parents. This is something EK Johnston did well in Queen’s Shadow and it’s something Claudia Gray does here to marvellous effect.
Bail and Breha Organa love their daughter very much and it shows. They value her input but they fear for her safety. They recognize that they may not make it out of this fight alive, but to them it’s worth it if it means their daughter will live in a better, more just world.
We see that Leia often thinks along the same lines as her father, and it breaks his heart when he realizes that she still holds on to the idealism he has long had to give up. He teaches her how to play the intergalactic politics game, while her mother teaches her what it means to be a sovereign. There is one especially touching scene towards the end of the book where Leia’s mother accompanies her on her hike of Appenza Peak which gives us the mother-daughter bonding scene I had been hoping to see.
It was admittedly probably a little easier to demonstrate Bail and Leia’s relationship, as both are characters we are familiar with from the movies, whereas Breha had to essentially be formed from scratch. But it speaks to the skill with which it was done that Breha does feel familiar throughout the novel.
Leia’s relationship with her parents forms such an integral part of the fabric of this novel. I am doing it no kind of justice by trying to explain it here, so please do yourself a favour and read it if you haven’t. If you have, then you know exactly what I mean.
3. The Trip to Naboo
It’s not often that I include an entire scene from the book as a thing that I liked. However, this book features Leia heading to a moon of Naboo on a goodwill mission, and that entire sequence was so bittersweet and beautiful I had to single it out.
When she’s first arriving on the moon, she feels a pang in her heart, which she chalks up to the fact that the Emperor is from Naboo, and he turned out poorly. I’d like to think that this feeling has to do with her connection to Padmé, whether or not she knows it.
She visits the current queen, who tells her that her role is not what it used to be, and is primarily ceremonial now, due to the Emperor hailing from the planet. The roles of the handmaidens have even been reduced. Coming off a book like Queen’s Shadow, where you see exactly how the handmaidens operate, and seeing how effectively Padmé advocated for her people in The Phantom Menace this is heartbreaking. Though honestly, that kind of power move is probably why the queen’s power was curbed to begin with.
But then. Oh man. Leia and the new queen go to speak to the local Moff to advocate for better conditions for the miners. And who should this person be, but Quarsh Panaka, former Captain of the Guards to Queen Padmé Amidala. Though he is generally easy-going as Imperial officials go, the queen warns Leia that he is fiercely loyal to the Emperor. When he sees Leia, he basically immediately puts two and two together, and starts trying to figure out if she’s actually Padmé’s daughter. He is almost certain that she is, though, because he agrees to her requests almost immediately. He is killed by rebel insurgents as Leia is leaving his residence, so he never gets a definitive answer, he does not get to assist the miners as he said he would, nor does he have the chance to communicate his findings to the Emperor (if that was his intention). His suspicions are never revisited, and I’m not sure what role they play in the book overall, but I just absolutely loved that Leia gets the chance to learn a bit about her mother, even if it’s indirectly and she doesn’t see it for what it is.
4. Amilyn Holdo: Hippie Child
Have I mentioned before how much I love Amilyn Holdo? I have actually, you can read that here.
She is introduced here as a quirky, slightly odd teenager who dresses in a very outlandish way, and will never go from point A to B when talking, preferring to just start at point E, assuming you can catch yourself up.
She hails from Gatalenta, a matriarchal society where everyone dresses very neutrally. But she wants to stand out and be different. So she expresses herself by shooting for the other extreme. She wears a lot of colours, that don’t necessarily go together, she accessorizes with bells and shells. She decorates all of her survival course equipment with glitter. It is only when Leia points out that by defining herself as the exact opposite of everything she dislikes, she is still letting that thing define her, and that is when she strikes a balance and starts to wear bold colours that actually suit each other, eventually becoming the purple-haired Vice Admiral we see later.
Amilyn is a free spirit. She meditates and practices what is essentially aerial yoga. She has a tendency to not explain her thought process (and no, this is not the same as what happens in The Last Jedi). When the survival course is stuck on a cliff, one member of the group having twisted her ankle, Amilyn beings talking about how much she loves sledding. No one can figure why she’s gone on this tangent until they see that she’s fashioning a toboggan out of her emergency tent. To her, the tangent was sufficient explanation of her intentions, and she does often explain her ideas in a roundabout way that take a bit of getting used to (Leia calls this “speaking Holdo”).
She may come off as odd at first, but her heart is always in the right place. She is deeply philosophical and cares a great deal about justice in the galaxy. When Leia tells her about the rebellion, she dives into the cause headfirst, wanting to do anything she can to make things better. I just love this character so, so much.
5. The Dinner Party
Yes, this is the second scene from this book that I just loved in it’s entirety. It’s the scene that made me laugh out loud while reading it. It’s the scene that I most want to see onscreen somewhere. Here’s how it goes:
Tarkin, suspecting Leia’s parents are up to rebel activity, shows up at one of their dinner parties uninvited. As Leia now knows the true nature of these parties she’s alarmed, thinking he’s on to them. The adults all suspect the same thing.
In order to throw him off at dinner, Bail, Breha and Mon Mothma pretend to get drunk and stage a very loud, angry, over the top argument where Breha accuses the other two of having an affair behind her back. Leia, catching on to the trick begins openly weeping at dinner until Tarkin leaves in disgust.
In a book that is largely about the tense, secretive and careful movements of the early rebel alliance, it was great to see them go full soap opera for a moment.
6. The quick ending
None of the beats that happen at the end of the book are surprising, unearned or unmotivated. Every plot point is wrapped up in a way that makes sense. So this is, yet again, a nitpick.
With that said. Towards the end of the book Keir Domadi follows Leia and Amilyn on a covert rebellion mission to ensure that Leia makes it out ok, but also to gather information on the budding rebellion. His plan, which fails, is to turn it over to the authorities to nip the rebel movement in the bud, thereby protecting his homeworld. Though he hates the Empire and all it stands for, at multiple points in the book he expresses his concern that having the queen and the viceroy of Alderaan be so central to the rebellion movement means that the world is in very real danger of being punished by the Empire. He feels Alderaan should play it safe instead, and act as a safe haven. His point of view is not incorrect, either. It is an absolutely valid concern to have. My one problem with this is just how quickly he goes from expressing concern verbally to outright sabotage.
I feel like most people in this galaxy seek knowledge as a way to become more powerful. But Leia is excited at the prospect of her expanded role in the Senate because she believes more power will lead to more knowledge. Come to think of it, it’s this same rationale that led Anakin to follow Palpatine, albeit with drastically different results.
I appreciate a good shorthand when world-building, and a planet having “hazy skies” is pretty effective shorthand for telling me the Empire is up to no good.
Sometimes these books include a line that is a very deliberate wink to the future. When her parents realize Leia has feelings for the very suitable, parent-approved Keir Domadi, Breha tells Leia that while she does approve of the choice, she also feels a girl should fall for a “scoundrel” now and again. Your majesty, you have no idea how right you are.
In another wink to the future, Leia finds herself thinking that Holdo would be thoroughly useless in a crisis situation, which she most decidedly is not.
Adoption is so common on Alderaan that the ceremony to name the heir accounts for this possibility in the language.
The movies draw a very clear parallel with Luke and his father, even having them grow up on the same planet. What I like about these books is that they draw a similar connection between Leia and Padmé. She grows up on a planet that is very similar to Naboo: they are open with regards to who you choose to love, there is an emphasis on the arts and architecture, children are highly valued, as is family, no matter how you choose to define that.
Bail and Breha Organa are couple goals. I know I regularly complain about a lack of satisfying romance in Star Wars, but they’re as close as it comes.
Leia and Amilyn discuss whether or not it is right to feel happiness in a world where many are struggling. The idea doesn’t sit right with Leia, but Amilyn points out that it is our moral imperative to focus on things that make us happy, because one must be strong to tackle the struggle and injustices we face, and to that end we must nourish our souls and our minds. This point resonated with me, particularly given the world we live in now. I’d like to end this post by saying that writing these posts have helped sustain my mind and soul, and I hope they’ve done something similar for you.