Even the Star Wars prequels’ staunchest defenders would have a hard time arguing that Padmé Amidala, née Naberrie, got a fair shake in terms of character development. (Prequel spoilers follow.) She’s ostensibly the galaxy’s greatest political mind of her generation, but aside from her daring return to liberate her home planet of Naboo from the Trade Federation, in the movies she doesn’t get to do much beyond enduring a succession of damaging missteps forced upon her by the requirements of the plot.
First, she calls for the vote of no confidence that removes Valorum and elevates Naboo’s Senator Palpatine to the position of chancellor (The Phantom Menace). She then falls for Anakin Skywalker, a pouty cardboard standee half a decade her junior, and facilitates his shirking of Jedi duties to seek his dying mother and murder a passel of Sandpeople, hastening his slide toward the Dark Side of the Force.
Not that Padmé notices, because she’s too busy once again playing into Palpatine’s hands — this time by flying to Geonosis and exacerbating the galactic crisis that will lead to the Republic’s militarization (Attack of the Clones). For a grand finale, she gets to spend all of Revenge of the Sith refusing to betray her secret husband despite the fact that he’s become a raving conspiracy theorist with bloodshot eyes…and when he unsurprisingly emerges as a literal Sith Lord, she promptly drops dead of a broken heart.
So in writing the young adult novel Queen’s Shadow, E.K. Johnston had a lot of lost ground to make up. George Lucas at least did his successors the solid of leaving a juicy ten-year time gap between Episodes I and II, an interval during which Padmé and Anakin have no contact whatsoever. (Even that might not have been long enough for Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay, who efficiently canned a contestant she’d been a counselor for at summer camp.)
With Anakin off being Obi-Wan’s problem, Johnston more or less has a blank slate. We’ve gathered that nothing particularly momentous happened to Padmé in this decade — but then, when she and Anakin reunited, they weren’t exactly talking about her. Queen’s Shadow settles its focus on Padmé’s transition from queen (an elected position on Naboo, it’s repeatedly emphasized) to senator (an appointed role filled at the pleasure of the queen).
There’s rich psychological potential in the transition from worshipped monarch to elbow-jostling legislator, but Johnston keeps Padmé herself at a saintly remove. Neither a new niece nor a sexy suitor can distract the former queen from her selfless service as she sets out to end slavery in the galaxy…or, failing that, repair some aqueducts.
Rather than cook up a page-turning plot, Johnston saunters fairly suspenselessly though Padmé’s world. The author spends a lot of ink on the queen’s handmaidens, who live alongside Padmé in what amounts to a somber slumber party. The queen’s closest handmaiden, Sabé (not to be confused with Dormé, Cordé, Eirtaé, or Doc), takes on a clandestine role while she grapples with her feelings regarding a PG heterosexual affair and a Love That Had Really Better Never Ever Speak Its Name and You Totally Know Where This Is Going, Right, But It ABSOLUTELY NEVER CAN.
Beyond the mechanics of handmaidenry — replete with the implausibly successful body-swaps that figured so prominently in Phantom Menace — Johnston also fills in some gaps regarding Padmé’s developing sympathy with Bail Organa and Mon Mothma. (Matthew Stover’s superb Revenge of the Sith novelization delves into the ways in which Padmé’s political alliance with Palpatine’s bêtes noires strains her marriage to the Supreme Chancellor’s protege.)
Most surprising is a devilish twist regarding the disappearance of Captain Panaka, who was all over Phantom Menace before being replaced, with no onscreen explanation, by his nephew. At least, it was surprising to me because I haven’t read Claudia Gray’s 2017 novel Leia, Princess of Alderaan. That’s what I get for skipping the YA books!
Johnston makes much of the various registers in which Naboo notables speak (ranging, in the senator’s case, from pure Padmé to the full Amidala), and these days Natalie Portman only reprises her Star Wars role on SNL, so for the Queen’s Shadow audiobook Random House did the next best thing and tapped Catherine Taber, who voiced Padmé on the animated Clone Wars series.
Taber’s voice retains a youthful quality, leavened with a relatable millennial deadpan. It’s fitting for a story that delves into the challenges of being a young woman who rises to halls of power traditionally occupied by older men. Padmé is alternately attacked, underestimated, and fetishized by Coruscant media that, we learn, are in the pocket of the Trade Federation.
As it occasionally does, in Queen’s Shadow that long-ago galaxy doesn’t feel so far, far away after all.