The arrival of E.K. Johnston’s new Star Wars novel, Queen’s Shadow, couldn’t come at a timelier moment. Focusing on former Queen and then Senator of Naboo Padmé Amidala Naberrie, it shines a spotlight on a quiet woman leader who is all too easily overlooked alongside more obvious franchise heroines Leia, Rey, Rose, and Jyn.
And this is a necessary endeavour: badly served by writer-director George Lucas with her sexualized crop-tops and often weak dialogue, Padmé has blended into the background of Star Wars just like her decoy handmaidens. In the prequel trilogy, she dies giving birth to twins Leia and Luke, and is heartbroken that her husband Anakin, a rancor-sized mess of toxic masculinity, is transformed into the evil Darth Vader.
As feminist critic Sarah Jeong points out, the inability of clinicians to save Padmé’s life during childbirth—while Anakin’s body is literally rebuilt despite catastrophic injuries—is evidence of a patriarchal order that fails to value women’s lives.
But Queen’s Shadow changes all that.
E.K. Johnston’s second Star Wars novel (after her Star Wars: Ahsoka) is my favorite of the Disney-era canon stories, owing to her believable portrayal of Padmé. Set in the aftermath of The Phantom Menace and focusing on Padmé’s transition from Queen to Senator, it (thankfully) leaves Anakin out of the picture and instead invites us into the wardrobes, offices, and secret missions of the Senator and her handmaidens.
The coolest girl gang in the galaxy leaves Naboo and heads to Coruscant to join the Senate; high on their agenda is ending slavery and helping others. All of the women—including Versé, Yané, Rabé, Eirtaé, Saché, Cordé, and Dormé—are brilliant and skilled in their own right and have careers as scientists, artists, politicians, musicians, and caregivers. However, it’s Padmé and her right-handmaiden Sabé whose stories resonate mostly clearly throughout the novel.
In writing the women, Johnston successfully recreates the more mannered speech patterns adopted by Padmé and Sabé actresses Natalie Portman and Kiera Knightly as the onscreen Queen—and here, the author’s attention to detail is startling—but it’s in the women’s more naturalistic dialogues and internal monologues that the characters come alive, and they are sympathetically rendered on the page.
In fact, Johnston’s observation of Padmé is so pitch-perfect that she could herself have been a handmaiden (in an interview for StarWars.com, she says that as a teenager she wanted to befriend the Nabooese Queen). Consequently, both Padmé and Sabé emerge from under the Queen’s shadow with real heart, and they wear their fallibility and sense of public duty on their heavily embroidered sleeves.
For many readers, Johnston’s story about powerful women questioning their abilities and ethics while trying to serve others will be just as familiar as the planets visited in the novel, as will the countless news reports that feature throughout the book, all eager to undermine Padmé as too young, too fashionable, and too female to be a good leader. There’s a distinctly Hillary Clinton subtext to Johnston’s writing, and you can easily imagine the Senator and her handmaidens lined up like an (albeit whiter) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib in the Galactic Senate.
Queen’s Shadow, which champions collaboration and women’s political abilities, comes packed with feminist feels. It’s not just in the public sphere that Johnston subverts tropes about the Naboo women, though. Behind the façade of the mask-like makeup and the elaborate hair sculptures is a carefully crafted armory of blaster-proof fabrics and concealed weapons that would make James Bond chuck out his tux in a heartbeat. The trappings of femininity and patriarchal tradition are effectively recast as essential tools in the women’s espionage: Girly is great, and you don’t want to mess with it.
Beyond the Senator and her entourage (if I have one criticism, it’s that the novel confusingly sticks to using the women’s similar-sounding handmaiden names, rather than distinctive given names), we also visit Breha Organa on her home planet of Alderaan. Whereas she appears in Revenge of the Sith for mere seconds, she has an extended walk-on part here, and we get to learn more about Leia’s adopted mother as a friend and confidante of Padmé. Amid the fast-paced action of identity switches and inter-planetary humanitarian missions, the slow exchanges between the two women and their worlds are a touching reminder of the broader Star Wars story unfolding around them.
The Star Wars universe, then, is all the brighter for a thoughtful and sentimental story about the women of Naboo that never—unlike Chancellor Palpatine—underestimates them. Alongside Padmé’s appearance as the female face of the “Star Wars Identities” museum exhibition, the tributary Tumblr pages and Twitter feeds, and even a handmade, Padmé-inspired wedding dress sold by fans online, Johnston’s novel is a welcome, canon addition to the recuperation of the Queen for feminist fans.
Invited to slip in and out of the Queen’s shadow just as Padmé does, readers will be now able to revisit the prequel films with her internal monologue resonating over the action like a voiceover in a director’s cut. No doubt the book will be met by her fans with thunderous applause.
Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow by E.K. Johnston is available from Disney Lucasfilm Press from March 5 (USA) and May 2019 (UK).
(image: Disney Lucasfilm Press)
Rebecca Harrison is a feminist film academic, curator and critic. She’s currently writing a book about gender and race in the Star Wars franchise. You can follow her on twitter at @beccaeharrison.
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