This review contains minor spoilers for Claudia Gray’s novel Master & Apprentice
Since the Star Wars “canon” was reset in April 2014, I’ve had a wish list of stories I wanted to see told, all filling gaps in the prequel era. While the first few years following the “reboot” focused mainly on the original trilogy, I held out hope that we would eventually see a novel about Padmé set between Episodes I and II; an origin story for Dooku’s turn to the dark side; and the great missing piece from The Clone Wars, the Siege of Mandalore. Someone must have been listening.
What I wanted more than anything, though, was a novel about my favorite character, Qui-Gon Jinn. And after her incredible short story “Master and Apprentice” in 2017’s From A Certain Point Of View, I knew I wanted Claudia Gray to write it. From the heartbreaking Lost Stars to her work with Leia in Bloodline and Princess of Alderaan, Gray has been one of the shining stars of the new novels. So maybe I was pre-programmed to like this. I can honestly say, though, that Master & Apprentice is everything I wanted it to be, and more: a look inside the mind and beliefs of Qui-Gon Jinn, an unexplored take on his relationship with Obi-Wan, and something of a love letter to fans of The Phantom Menace.
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While there are no major spoilers below, I do discuss the contents of Queen’s Shadow in detail—consider yourself warned.
On May 19, 1999, The Phantom Menace opened in theaters. It was the first new theatrical Star Wars movie in sixteen years and kicked off a new trilogy exploring the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader, a character that had already earned a spot in the pantheon of classic villains. However, rather than opening the movie on Tatooine, where we learn that young Anakin is living as a slave, we instead start on an unknown planet in danger of invasion, ruled by a teenage girl who will do anything to save her people.
And yet, despite a whole movie and a handful of tie-in novels that centered around Queen Amidala, she became increasingly sidelined as the trilogy went on and her character became inextricable from her doomed relationship with Anakin. Her cadre of handmaidens made a brief appearance in Attack of the Clones, but by Revenge of the Sith she was alone and left to watch her world crumble around her without any apparent support. She ends the trilogy by giving birth to the next generation’s heroes and then, at the age of twenty-seven, loses her will to live and dies of a broken heart.
Three years ago I wrote an article advocating for a Padmé novel. For far too long she had only really existed as an extension of Anakin and wasn’t given a chance to shine on her own. As arguably the main character of The Phantom Menace and (inarguably) a key figure in the story of the final days of the Republic, she deserved a better legacy than only being remembered as the object of Anakin’s fears and an indirect reason for his turn to the dark side. More importantly, for a character who started with so strong a story and so interesting a backstory, it was a shame that her movie potential was wasted with bad writing. So to finally have her given a voice after getting the short end of the stick for so long is incredibly meaningful in a way that’s difficult to put into words.
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The intro, first section, and conclusion are spoiler-free. The second section will discuss spoilers and will have a separate spoiler warning.
We have been waiting a very, very long time to get a Padmé book. She’s been in plenty of books, comics, and TV shows — including a plethora of Phantom Menace-era books that a whole generation of fangirls has seemingly grown up on. But she’s never gotten the central billing in a book before. In situations like this, we usually end up with a typical “too little, too late” entry. Well, it’s definitely late — but the twentieth anniversary of The Phantom Menace‘s theatrical release isn’t a half-bad time to celebrate Padmé, given that the people who grew up with her never forgot about her. As for too little? Oh no — Queen’s Shadow is far from too little. In fact, it might be the perfect book for Padmé to finally get her due.
There are a lot of parts of this book that read like a love letter to Padmé fandom, handmaiden fandom, and the women who grew up as part of both. I’m not the best person to speak to that aspect of the book, although I can definitely see parts of it. There’s probably more there that I haven’t even noticed: things like how Padmé interacts with her friends and handmaidens (for they are both), things about female comradeship and navigating situations that I just couldn’t know anything about. You’ll hear plenty about that from people who are better equipped to discuss it than I am — in fact, check back here tomorrow for a piece on the handmaidens and what they mean to their fans. But what I can tell you is that anyone who is a fan of Padmé as a character, a fan of her faith in political idealism and willingness to get her hands dirty despite of it, and heck, even just a fan of Naboo, will love what E.K. Johnston did for Padmé in this book.
A lot of times it felt like the films after The Phantom Menace weren’t quite sure what to do with Padmé. She had a lot of potential that was sidelined in the other two films. But despite that, she was still a key part of the prequel trilogy and she had great development in Clone Wars-era books, comics, and TV despite rarely getting to headline stories. Queen’s Shadow recognizes both these things: the unrealized potential and the potency of the character, and does them justice. It’s set like a bridge novel between Episodes I and II, giving her the post-TPM development that Anakin and Obi-Wan received almost twenty years ago. But Queen’s Shadow isn’t just “Padmé’s turn” — it’s a genuinely incisive look at her character. Despite taking place between I and II, the novel also engages with ideas the audience knows will come up in The Clone Wars and in Episode III. E.K. Johnston just gave us a well-rounded portrayal that does everything it should have, and exceeded my already high expectations.
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Often, I feel like reactions to more Thrawn content roughly parallel the reactions to more Clone Wars or prequel-era content. Those who are big fans say ”yes, more of what I like please!” while those who are not either express dismay, boredom, or the exact opposite sentiment of the fans: “ugh, more of what I don’t like.”
At first blush, it’s easy to see Thrawn: Alliances as an attempt to capture a bigger audience than just fans of Thrawn or fans of The Clone Wars. I think that’s a little too simple though – for one thing, there are people who are fans of both and see the whole thing as a false dichotomy. For another, cynicism doesn’t write books (at least not good ones) – interest in telling a story does. And if there was thought put into what the fans wanted, it was probably with the intent of delivering a story people would like as opposed to thinking of ways to make people open their wallets.
So why did I bring up a false fandom dichotomy and a cynical sales theory in the first place? Well, I think there’s something there – but it’s not about fanservice or personal storytelling preferences. It’s about the idea of “more of the same” and how the combination of more Thrawn and more Clone Wars produced something new. This story is strongest when the Clone Wars setting and the character of Thrawn are put together – with the result that we also get a pretty good portrayal of Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker in a storyline that wouldn’t feel out of place as a mini-arc in The Clone Wars. Maybe you bought the book for Anakin or for Thrawn, but you may end up enjoying how the rest of the book sheds insight on those characters. Personally, I went in excited about both Imperial intrigues and Padmé — but I ended up appreciating how it all came together.
I avoid major plot spoilers below — but the Padmé section (“The Senator of Naboo”) has plot details you may not want to read until you’ve finished the novel.
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Solo was a film that I never thought to ask for, but went in hoping for a fun summer popcorn movie. After the heaviness of both Rogue One and The Last Jedi, I was ready for a more lighthearted film with lower stakes that weren’t about the fate of the entire galaxy. And for the most part I got exactly that; it was fun, there was good cast chemistry, and it added to the world of the Star Wars franchise without trying to outdo the films and stories that came before it. But though I had a smile on my face for most of the movie, I cannot truly say that I loved it. Because it was also a movie that sharply reminded me that people like myself are generally not the ones making creative decisions in this franchise.
Solo, like so many Star Wars works that came before it, is one that was so clearly (painfully clearly) written by men. The treatment of two of the female characters in particular show the blindspots that come when you’ve never had to think about what representation means to you on a personal level. That doesn’t make it an irredeemably bad movie, or make them bad people, but it shows the limitations that result when you are used to seeing yourself, day in and day out, on screen and behind the scenes and don’t understand how much it means to finally have a character who looks and acts like you. And it’s for that reason that I cannot say that I love this movie. Like with many things in pop culture, it’s one that I like…with reservations.
And with Solo, that reservation is: this movie really let down its women.
Several large spoilers below, proceed at your own risk
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