Star Wars: Leia: Princess of Alderaan
By Claudia Gray
Disney Lucasfilm Press
September 1, 2017
Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow
By E.K. Johnston
Disney Lucasfilm Press
March 5, 2019
With the recent release of the Episode IX trailer, which teases the return of Emperor Palpatine, my earlier decision to read both Star Wars: Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray and Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow by E.K. Johnston could not have been more timely. Focusing on Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan and Padmé Naberrie, formerly Queen Amidala of Naboo, both authors write about pivotal moments in these women’s lives that both shaped them and the galactic rebellions in which they each play instrumental roles. Unlike the majority of the expanded universe books I’ve read, these two differ greatly, in large part because they are focused almost entirely on the political aspect of a rebellion. But in dealing with these politics, the books also revealed some interesting aspects of the manipulations of Palpatine.
I enjoyed both books for the opportunity to learn more about these two women, but I also enjoyed the levels of political intrigue they revealed. More than ever, I find myself unsurprisingly demanding a young Leia espionage movie. But what is a surprising result of reading these two books is that, for the first time since their release, I actually want to watch the prequels again. Because, for all their flaws—oh, so many flaws—I am, in my maturity, a little bit more appreciative of George Lucas’ attempt to introduce that very important concept to the Star Wars universe: politics. Along with religion, which we have represented by the Jedi, you’ve got everything you need to shape a proper war. And because we’re dealing with matters on a galactic scale, the Star Wars universe will remain just that, forever.
In Leia’s story, she has just turned 16 and faces her Day of Demand, where she must take on trials of the heart, mind, and body to prove herself a worthy successor to Queen Breha Organa. Though Alderaan is a planet that promotes peace, the ceremony harkens back to days when its rule was bloodier. Though they are young, Leia and the other members of the Apprentice Legislature still must prove themselves strong in tough situations, including physical trials that all know almost cost Breha her life when she first endured them. As such, there are a few moments of intense physical action and overcoming dangerous terrains, though Leia soon learns that the greater danger comes from her ignorance over what it is her parents are really up to. And her parents, for their part, learn that leaving Leia in ignorance in hopes of protecting her could put her in just as much danger.
As a headstrong 16-year-old girl, much of the story circles around her natural leadership, her moral standing, and her desire to do what’s right. But in interacting with the others her age, Leia also comes to realize that politics is all there is to her life … and she initially balks at this. But we as readers know that, somewhere between Leia: Princess of Alderaan and the events leading up to her post-Rogue One escape and capture, Leia hardens into the badass rebel princess turned general that we have grown to love and respect.
After enjoying this brief glimpse into Leia’s childhood, I was eager to learn more about the life of a young Padmé. Following the thwarted siege of Naboo in The Phantom Menace, Padmé’s term as queen has come to an end. Like Leia, Padmé is initially determined to figure out who she is outside of politics. But soon she is asked by the new queen to take on the role of a senator, since Naboo’s previous senatorial representative has moved on to become the chancellor. Like Leia again, Padmé quickly realizes that politics and helping others truly is her life.
Queen’s Shadow also gives us more of the intimate relationship Padmé shares with her handmaidens. This select group of women were hand-picked not simply to be her entourage, but to be her eyes, her ears, and her shield out in the world. Each and every one of them would give their life for her, and Padmé lives with the pain of that knowledge, more so when they choose to stand by her even after she is no longer queen, particularly Sabé, her closest friend and the most skilled of her handmaidens.
Of all the Star Wars stories starring brunettes, Padmé is perhaps the one most hard done by because of the failures of the films she represents. Not everyone is going to take the time to learn more about her and her activities during the Clone Wars through auxiliary materials like the cartoon. To many Star Wars fans, Padmé remains a figurehead in fancy dresses. But this is where Johnston excels. At a book tour for The Afterward earlier this year, Johnston explained that she loves weaponizing the aspects of femininity that some consider weakness, most notably fashion.
In The Afterward, a knight must learn from her handmaiden that courtly attire serves as a different kind of armour than the one she is used to. In Queen’s Shadow, the handmaidens aren’t just the people responsible for dressing Padmé; they are part of the elaborate deception played out by the monarchs of Naboo. Johnston takes meticulous care in describing the intricacies of outfits that can protect from weapons and fire, allow for quick getaways, conceal devices, or serve as a distraction. Johnston also goes into great detail about the makeup and training that allows Padmé and her handmaidens to seamlessly switch roles.
Both Gray and Johnston shine at shaping the intricate details of their main characters and plots, but it’s their skill at foreshadowing without being overbearing that impresses me most. There is little that occurs in the Leia story that does not constantly fill me with dread, having lived with her home planet’s fate for my entire life. Poignant moments such as a heart-to-heart between mother and daughter where Breha promises that, “Your home will always be here,” send me into spirals of lamentations; Alderaan will forever be too soon.
Padmé’s story does not swing quite so close to her fate, but there are still moments that catch. She has her own heart-to-heart moment with her beloved handmaiden and friend Sabé, where they speak of their futures and the idea of possibly finding love and raising a family. This too sends me into spirals of lamentations because, oh, honey, not Anakin. No baby, not him.
I am very thankful that Queen’s Shadow is situated before the awkward and disturbing Anakin romance. The book does not focus on romance at all for Padmé, other than the conversation mentioned above. Imagine that. A story starring a woman that does not require a male love interest to fuel her fire! Padmé’s friendships are far more important relationships to dwell on, and Johnston does every moment justice. That’s not to say that there’s no romance at all. It just isn’t centred on Padmé.
Leia’s story does involve romance, but since I already read Lost Stars, I trusted Gray to handle teen and YA romances well and use them to help shape rather than overshadow the protagonist’s purpose. Kier Domadi catches Leia’s attention because he is a fellow Alderaanian who seems to respect her role as princess and share her ideals, especially when she discovers the truth about her parents’ plotting. He also helps her tap into her human side and find life outside of politics, even for just a few stolen moments. But ultimately, he also teaches her a very important and harsh lesson about people’s commitments, reasons for doing the right thing, and the usage of one’s power and privilege to help others.
Gray’s plot also introduces Amilyn Holdo who, like Leia—and every other teenager—is struggling to define herself. This Holdo is vastly different from the vice admiral who smacks down an insubordinate flyboy and takes the Supremacy head on. This Holdo is more like the Luna Lovegood of Star Wars, appearing in a myriad of colours and crafty accessories to go with her whimsical hair. Unlike Leia, though, Amilyn does not immediately command attention and respect. But Gray with her subtle manner shows us that Amilyn is an admirable strategist who thinks outside the box and, when necessary, outside of rules, making it clear that her future reputation is very much earned through proven actions and results.
Johnston’s plot touches on a complaint about the prequels that I once saw in passing on Twitter. The complaint theorized that the greatest plot hole in the prequels was that Padmé failed to use her influence to rescue Shmi Skywalker from slavery, thereby preventing the slaughter that tipped Anakin to the dark side. Tamping down my own rage at the concept of Anakin’s turn being all Padmé’s fault, I appreciate that Shmi Skywalker, and slavery in general, played a role in her story. It is part of the many political paths, manipulations, roadblocks, and misunderstandings she and her handmaidens must navigate, and shows the reality that not everything works the way one might like when someone else is pulling much larger strings.
Other important figures featured in both books are the Organas and Mon Mothma. Breha Organa plays a larger role in Leia’s story, but she does appear in Padmé’s story after inviting her for a visit to Alderaan. Though her appearance is brief, the significance of Padmé’s conversation with the queen of Alderaan cannot be missed.
But as I said, it’s Tarkin and Palpatine’s machinations that intrigued me the most, because dramatic irony means that we know what they are up to and where their machinations take them. But getting these brief glimpses into the intricate details surrounding their political plotting, the connections they have, the strings they pull, and all the dealings going on on the side to build the Empire made for an incredible experience. There is a Tarkin book out there, and Thrawn’s books touch on this as well, so now that Palpatine is making his glorious comeback I might need to do a bit more reading.