REVIEW: Queen's Peril by E.K. Johnston

4/5 stars — a nostalgic, clever insight into Amidala’s many faces

Like Queen’s Shadow by the same author, Queen’s Peril dives deep into the life of Padmé Naberrie, better known as Queen (and later Senator) Amidala of Naboo. In a short, (bitter)sweet story, the prequel novel offers insight into Padmé’s duties and dreams, the perilous lines she walks as a politician balancing what is expected of her as a leader and what she wants for the future of her people. But most of all, this story acknowledges and celebrates that the iconic queen was a teenage girl—and that’s what makes it so much fun to read.

Padmé’s five handmaidens, who also serve as bodyguards and decoys, play major roles. Sabé (played by Keira Knightley in The Phantom Menace!), is a musical prodigy who always comes in second, a fact she turns to her advantage in supporting her new queen. Each of the others brings her own expertise to the queen’s coterie, and they slowly form a unit in which each girl’s strengths shore up the others’ weaknesses. Although they train to protect the queen by fighting, they have an assortment of strengths beyond physical prowess, upholding the post-Whedon understanding of what it means to be a “strong woman.” This is true to canon with regard to Padmé, and I liked seeing it spelled out: “Her appearance was her first line of defense, and she planned to muster it as deliberately as possible.” Amidala, a constructed persona, is elegant and eye-catching on purpose. Beauty is her tool.

Again, Johnston takes into account that this is a group of teenagers—skilled, dedicated ones, but still children. She writes the queen and her handmaidens like the young women they are, including occasional squabbles from big and conflicting personalities living in proximity. Sometimes, they take risks and flout rules—at one point, they even sneak out to go to a concert! Padmé, like most kids, finds adults frustrating at times. Once, other planets’ dignitaries send their children to a gathering she organized as a slight, but Padme’s response (“Dealing with adults could be very tiresome.”) is gold. Her response to being underestimated by the captain of her royal guard will resonate with anyone who’s ever been a young girl: “We have worked to become a fluid, adaptable group, and we are powerful, Captain. Even if it’s not the kind of power you are accustomed to.” Finally, Johnston adds two separate references to menstruation (yay!), including an awkward first period and the queen needing to miss duties because of period pain.

On a craft level, I found a lot to love in Queen’s Peril. From the decision to keep the word count low to the balance between nods to canon and new material, the book was well-written and well-edited. Johnston’s good at writing intellectual property and makes good use of cameos and POV inserts by much-loved (and much-hated) characters. There’s unexpected humor (dark, appropriately) in some of the parts focused on the Sith lords: Maul not bothering to find out where the chute in the generator room leads; Sidious possibly kicking off the attack on Naboo early because he wanted a bigger office. Further, Johnston knows how to wield the weight of Star Wars canon to emotionally devastating effect, which is particularly evident for a character like Padmé whose arc is eventually tragic.

Two main things kept this from being a five-star book, in my opinion. First, while I enjoyed the short length of the book, I felt the pacing was off in the third act. Everything after the Trade Federation blockade felt rushed, possibly as a result of juggling so many points of view and possibly because of several massive time skips. I assume those skips were necessary from an IP standpoint so as not to rehash scenes directly from The Phantom Menace, but those were exactly the places where I would have liked this nuanced version of Padmé’s insight, as well as that of her handmaidens. Second, while I thought most of the emotional hits landed, there were a few places where drama tipped over the edge into melodrama, making otherwise-serious moments feel laughable. Overall, however, the book worked for me.

And as usual, here are a few tidbits/quotes that I particularly enjoyed that don’t really fit into any of the above categories.

  • use of parallel construction at the sentence and story levels to deliver a few well-timed emotional punches

  • the handmaidens: “We’ll be your shadow.”

  • Jar-Jar: “He’d heard stories about how uncivilized the Naboo were all his life, but the buildings he saw indicated that they must be at least reasonably intelligent.” The movies framed Jar-Jar in a way that was failed comedy at best and colonizer-centric at worst, so I enjoyed this bit of retaliation.

  • the deactivated Trade Federation droids being melted down and their high-quality materials used, in true Naboo form, for art

To summarize: I enjoyed Queen’s Peril at least as much as Queen’s Shadow, although I think reading them in the opposite of publication order (ie. according to the actual timeline of events) would have made Queen’s Shadow more resonant. I recommend both books to Star Wars fans—although your mileage will definitely vary depending on whether you love or hate the prequel trilogy.

Content warnings: brief physical torture, prison camps, slavery mention (fictional)

** I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. **