(this article contains spoilers after the intro)
It’s a good thing I’m writing an analysis and not a strict review, because it’s hard to be objective about Leia: Princess of Alderaan. I’ve long wanted a young Leia book, and there were only three authors that I trusted to write it: Martha Wells (Razor’s Edge), Alexandra Bracken (The Princess, The Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy), and Claudia Gray (Bloodline) — and we got Claudia Gray! From the moment this book was announced at Celebration Orlando, I knew I’d love it — and my sky-high expectations were met. What expectations were those? Well, I wanted a story that did credit to my favorite Star Wars film character and showed us the development of her political heroism that ends up being the driving force of the Rebellion. And that’s what we got.
Leia: Princess of Alderaan is a coming of age story: the narrative is book-ended by a particular Alderaanian rite of passage for the royal heirs, and it’s Leia’s relationship to her homeworld, her parents (Queen Breha finally gets a chance to shine, and gets developed in depth!), and Leia’s nascent awareness of a growing rebellion against the Empire that forms the framework for this story. It’s about relationships, and Leia maturing as a person and as a political leader. You’ll hear from Sarah Dempster on Monday about Leia’s relationships with her parents (particularly her mother) — today I’d like to talk about Leia’s political awakening and her involvement with the Rebellion.
This isn’t a Star Wars book with moral gray areas. The Empire is clearly the villain in this story, whether we’re talking about Leia’s point of view or the Empire’s role in the story. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy question whether the Empire should be fought, because fighting carries consequences for Leia and those she loves. While the audience knows about the fate of Alderaan, Leia doesn’t. For her, the dangers are hypothetical — but they’re no less certain.
There are spoilers under the cut — do NOT continue if you haven’t read this book!
Unlike Ezra from Rebels, Leia’s not a teenager whose story begins with her learning to look beyond herself to help others. That’s Leia’s starting point, because of how she was raised by her parents. Both Senator Bail Organa and Queen Breha Organa have taught her what it means to be an Alderaanian royal, and that entails public service and duty to her people and the larger galaxy. In fact, Leia begins the story wondering why her parents aren’t doing more to fight the injustices of the Empire and how they’ve withdrawn into senatorial business or royal banquests respectively. The reader knows better — or at least, the reader knows that Bail Organa’s not standing idly by. Queen Breha’s involvement with the Rebellion is possibly as surprising to the audience as it is to Leia, but equally welcome.
So Leia has to take things into her own hands, and the young Leia is every bit as clever and mischievous as her older self: if less poised, assured, and experienced. But by hook or by crook, she manages to win the respect of her minders — no less than Captain Antilles included — and save many refugees on Wobani from the Empire’s clutches. But it can’t be that easy, can it?
Here’s the lesson Leia learns, and it’s one that I’m very glad this book gives us up front. Many times, a character’s central conflict might be deciding between right and wrong: to choose self, or to choose others. Leia’s already figured that out, and so we’re ready for more complex, nuanced ideas. But it’s not the dreaded gray morality that provides nuance (like I said, the Empire is presented as evil in this story and Leia’s already figured out she’s gotta do something). Instead, the nuance is that sometimes doing the right thing isn’t as easy as it looks, and the simple solution isn’t the best one.
The Emperor Augustus was famous for the expression “hasten slowly,” which meant that one had to act decisively, but also methodically. Leia’s hasty decision based on incomplete information led her to assume that saving some refugees and thumbing her nose at Imperial authority would be enough to save the day. But it wasn’t — her mother reveals that she and her father have been working patiently to make political deals that would allow mass refugee resettlement without the Imperial authority figures losing face. Leia’s precipitous actions –though well-intentioned — torpedoed that deal.
Through the course of the story, Leia learns that her parents were not as passive towards the Empire as she feared. It turns out that they were both involved in the Rebellion, and they didn’t tell her not out of distrust, but because they wanted to keep her safe. That, too, was refreshing — it turns out that Leia didn’t have a strained relationship with her parents and wasn’t seeking to impress them, rather, she was hurt that they didn’t involve her precisely because they’d had a good relationship. Once Leia became more fully aware of their rebel activities, things get more complicated.
Her parents don’t want her to risk her life and one of the central struggles of the book is whether her parents are willing to let her fight on her own behalf (since they are opposing the Empire largely for the sake of Leia and her generation). It’s an interesting change from the earlier 2015 canon story of Leia’s early years with the Rebellion. In The Princess, The Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy, Bail essentially thinks Leia’s too delicate to fight for the Rebellion and Leia is bent on proving herself; this is a version of the story that fits in well with Legends and with the original Star Wars Radio Drama which that adaptation largely drew from. But that’s no longer tenable in a post-Rogue One storytelling era, so the version of Bail we get in Princess of Alderaan is consistent with the film (and with Rebels). I don’t sweat the differences — it’s basically just a result of when each story was written and what it drew from.
In fact, it wouldn’t do to understate the differences between canon works on Bail and Leia, or even the differences from Legends. Claudia Gray did a great job weaving it all together — the cautious, conservative Bail Organa of Legends and Princess/Scoundrel/Farm Boy is the Bail Organa who sought political compromises first (and minor acts of good, as seen in Ahsoka) and who was hesitant to go to war because he remembered the devastation of the Clone Wars. We see how Leia and Breha, along with some personal character growth, turn him into the Bail Organa of Rebels and Rogue One, who was in favor of fighting the Empire and trusted his daughter with his life. It’s very nicely done, and the detail that it was Breha (!) who persuaded Bail that the Empire had made peaceful change impossible and violent revolution inevitable.
Apart from a brief moment of doubt after a conversation with her then-boyfriend, Leia was strongly in favor of opposition to the Empire in whatever form it took. She was not patient with her father’s negotiating ways. But there would be consequences — and Leia was fully aware of them. She may not have expected the Death Star, but she thought she was ready to face them. And we all know that she was.
The Apprentice Legislature which Leia serves in through the novel serves as both her apprenticeship in galactic politics and a realization of how far the Empire has inhibited usual political participation. The legislature — a fascinating institution that shows that Naboo isn’t alone with its Legislative Youth Program, but that the Old Republic as a whole must’ve been in favor of civic engagement by the young — is a small shadow of what it once was, even more powerless than it used to be. Yet it’s where Leia first cuts her political teeth, first learns to negotiate differences, and first learns the realities of Imperial power.
Rebellions Are Built on People
When Leia asked Bail why he still bothered to work within the Senate if he’d decided that the Empire needed to be overthrown by force, Bail told her that the Senate was where he — and eventually, Leia — would be building networks and alliances that would support both armed rebellion and what would come after. This was an excellent touch, and it lets us see the direct line of descent from the old Imperial Senate (which was more anti-Imperial than I’d originally thought –simultaneously justifying both the Rebellion’s invocation of senatorial moral authority as well as the Empire’s dissoluion of the Senate on grounds of Rebel sympathy) to the New Republic Senate. But it’s not just connections to Mon Mothma’s government, her assumption of a chancellory title (legally dubious to be honest), and the Aftermath books that makes this interesting: we get to see Leia’s development of relationships in action and how that affects her path in the Rebellion.
Aside from Leia’s relationship to her adoptive parents (the most important relationship in the book), Leia’s other relationships become important influences on Leia’s journey to the rebellion. Her relationship to her biological parents is seen most in her personality and attributes, drawing her courage from both her parents. It’s also seen, quite literally, by Moff Panaka. I have to say that the appearance of Naboo and Moff Panaka was one of my two favorite parts of the book, and I’m delighted that we got to see a new queen of Naboo, a canon Moff Panaka, and Leia in Padmé’s Phantom Menance celebration outfit. Everything about this scene was so subtle — Gray never overtly told us Leia was wearing her mother’s ensemble, never overtly told us what Panaka discovered, and only indirectly (through Breha) told us how close Leia (and the Rebellion) came to annihilation if not for the extremity of Saw Gerrera, of all people.
Leia’s relationship to Mon Mothma is crucial to the development of the New Republic, and Leia: POA lets us see where it started. Mon Mothma had faith in Leia from the start, and this is what allowed her to really participate fully in the nascent Rebellion even when Leia’s parents were hesitant. They only had a few scenes together, but they were among the most important in the book — especially in context of later big Leia/Mothma moments in Moving Target, Life Debt, and Bloodline. Mothma and Leia have a mentor mentee relationship and it starts out strong and supportive: that it got strained later and still survived is testament to both characters’ drive and partnership. (I also have to mention that the dinner party with the Organas, Mothma, and Tarkin is my favorite scene in this whole book, and I had to actually drop the book and take a walk when Mothma interjected her line into the conversation because it was that funny).
We also see relationships that are new to the audience. There’s Amilyn Holdo, who is a delight and a revelation. I’m really glad I finally read the Harry Potter series this year, because like many others, I immediately thought “Luna Lovegood!” on seeing Amilyn for the first time. Amilyn is a character who seems odd at first, but has surprising depth and helps Leia learn more about herself. Amilyn is unhestitatingly driven to do good and oppose the Empire, and it’s wonderful seeing her friendship with Leia bloom. I am very excited to see Vice Admiral Holdo and General Organa interact in The Last Jedi, and I dearly hope that they’re still the best of friends. Leia gets cool friends in canon — Evaan and Amilyn are pretty much among my favorite new Star Wars characters.
Leia’s boyfriend Kier acts as a foil. I don’t have much to say about the romance itself, except to register amusement that Breha wishes Leia found someone a bit more inappropriate, but the Kier’s pacifism is very interesting. It’s not that he’s friendly to the Empire, he dislikes it, but he’s the embodiment of the bystander. He would rather let the Empire perpetuate more cruelty than see Alderaan negatively affected by the consequences. Is he wrong? Leia thinks so — and it is a harder question than it seems at first. It’s easy to say the Empire must be opposed, but if there’s no guarentee of victory: is it worse to rob the galaxy of a place like Alderaan, an idyllic planet where the Empire’s tyranny cannot take root? Alderaan is an idealized, Lucasian planet — an Arthurian monarchy that supports generous socialized services and good works. It’s an echo of Lucas’s Old Republic from the A New Hope prologue, and the last echo of that type of government in the era of the Empire. Losing it is no small thing, and will change the galaxy. We know that it does.
Lastly, I need to talk about Leia’s droid and about Chassellon Stevis. I love these characters — they’re my favorites in the book, aside from Leia herself. Leia’s droid is the epitome of fashion and royal protocol-obsessed, and I appreciate both the droid and Gray’s attention to details of attire. Chassellon Stevis, the Coruscanti aristocrat, is the type of character I like to play in SW RPG sessions. He’s a delight, and he’s something like a more developed version of Lost Stars‘s Ved Foslo. He’s got the typical Coruscanti elitist arrogance (including exhibiting SW version of cultural appropriation), regal insouciance (his banter and formal decorum with Leia), and some actual basic decency. He is the best and I am personally thankful to Gray for creating him, even though he is really just a minor character in the story.
I said I wasn’t going to write a review, and yet I’ve combined my thoughts on politics with some gushing about the book. So be it — I loved every moment of every page, and I’m happy to say it even if it means missing some of my intended political observations. But since this piece has gone along enough, I better leave it at that. This book was wonderful, as a nuanced take on Princess Leia Organa, as an exploration of the politics of the early Rebellion, as long-overdue development of Queen Breha Organa (who is a powerful, powerful presence throughout the book), as a novel tying Rogue One into the larger SW story, and as a connection to the continuing post-Return of the Jedi story. I can’t praise it highly enough.
This book was long overdue, but it was worth the wait. Claudia Gray did Leia justice, and then some.