Reviewing the Upcoming Star Wars Books
Queen's Peril, Poe Dameron: Free Fall, The Clone Wars: Stories of Light and Dark
All three Star Wars books are coming from Disney summer 2020
E.K. Johnson’s Queen’s Peril is the prequel to her Queen’s Shadow, but likely more useful for fans. While Shadow followed Padmé as a new senator, befriending her future conspirators, Queen’s Peril fits more directly with main events. Likewise, Shadow sees the heroine bumbling about the senate trying to fit in and failing as the local schemes go over her head, while Padmé of Peril is competent and succeeds in her mission (in a storyline that indeed reflect the contrasting Padmés of Episodes I and II). As soon as she’s elected, the young queen works with Captain Panaka to create her handmaidens – a security detail of widely varied and talented individuals. First among them is Sabé, whose talent, beyond music, is in effacing herself and always willingly coming in second. She becomes the queen’s main decoy, but all learn the part, constructing a joint persona of Queen Amidala with a new voice and royal impassiveness.
Before Padmé has had a chance to make many policy decisions (except perhaps for the one that will leave her people precariously close to starving if their planet is embargoed), the Trade Federation launch their mischief. The book takes the queen and five handmaidens through the events of Phantom Menace, following those left behind on the planet and revealing how Padme’s closest friends faced the crisis with cleverness and courage. Since the events of the story’s beginning precipitate the Phantom Menace crisis, the book hangs together well as a single story, while offering perspective on the events of the film.
Padmé takes an active hand in organizing her team’s perpetual deception but also willingly listens to the others and compromises to make them comfortable. As such, they evolve from strangers to friends. As events go on, readers fall in love with the individual handmaidens and discover how the inventor, forger, musician, and weaver all use their talents to reshape their world. Star Wars’ new message, that ordinary people can fight for their planets without being Jedi or chosen ones, thus comes into prominence. The young women are not only distinct but endearing and believable as they joke and sneak out at night. As they train in weaponry and pick locks, they establish themselves as clever and competent. Of course, when several fall in love, the young women must confront how they will handle the conflict between individualism and duty. Queen’s Peril shows us a teenage girls’ realm where men are unwelcome and the girls shape each other’s identities as well as the planet’s future – it’s a nice change for Star Wars.
A frame references Leia in a sweet, beautiful fashion, playing with readers’ preconceptions as the frame in Queen’s Shadow did. Certainly, the two are a set, featuring the handmaidens as no other works have done (and one might remark on the fact that it’s taken two decades to expand on their and Padmé’s roles from Phantom Menace). At the same time, snapshots of Anakin and Jar-Jar’s thoughts are more distracting than helpful – a nod to fans but a digression from the story. At the same time, Padmé spends little time thinking about or establishing relationships with the Phantom Menace main cast, leaving her feeling a bit shallow in this part. The duology work well together, with Shadow offering the women’s resolutions, as each celebrates the end of Padmé’s queenship by choosing her own path and reassuming the goals she’d once placed on hold to bodyguard the queen.
The Clone Wars: Stories of Light and Dark is written by Lou Anders, Tom Angleberger, Preeti Chhibber, Zoraida Córdova, Jason Fry, Yoon Ha Lee, Rebecca Roanhorse, Anne Ursu and Greg Van Eekhout. The short stories retell Clone Wars episodes from perspectives rarely seen in the expanded universe – Yoda narrates the first episode from his perspective, and Dooku shares his snarky view on the events of “Dooku Captured.”
More emotional stories are related by Anakin and Padmé, who filter episodes through their mutual love and relationship anxiety, heightened by readers’ full knowledge of where the story is going. As Padmé in particular balances her friendships and her lack of confidence in herself in “Pursuit of Peace,” she echoes the deep character of the novels rather than the weak damsel of the films. In fact, her story echoes Queen’s Peril as it explores how her public persona has transformed from the stoic queen to the senator expected to move others with her carefully channeled passion. Meanwhile, fan-favorite Ahsoka’s story is told more through one of her young admirers she aids in building a lightsaber. (Her lack is a surprising omission but one that works thematically with her outsider status or vanishing.) Asajj Ventress, meanwhile, intrigues readers with her nuanced personality, filled with rage at her mistreatment and a surprising empathy for another young victim. This story truly benefits from the extra insights of prose. Likewise, in Rex’s story, he spends quite a long time struggling with the ethics of obeying a bad commander and thus benefits more from the new format than many characters.
Of course, the nastiest, most selfish characters can be the most fun. Hondo gets a chance to snark as he explains, “Now, if you ask Moralo Eval, he’ll probably tell you something different. I wouldn’t be surprised if that ugly old wheeze bag tried to blame it all on me. I’ll tell you what really happened: the true story of the biggest crime ever attempted this side of Kessel.” Still, the most delightful voice belongs to maddened Darth Maul as he describes his resurrection and overwhelming hatred for Obi-Wan in a story brimming with personality. As it begins, “Tell me, child, do you know who I am? Do they whisper my name in the classrooms of your academy, down the winding halls of your space station, in the hollows and fields of your farming planet, or across the dunes of your desert home?” Maul continues through his angry reminisces of tangling with Obi-Wan, focus of his total obsession. This is followed by Obi-Wan’s own epic adventure trying to save his lost love, but it can’t match up to his spitting, hissing nemesis. There’s little new information in this Clone Wars celebration, but plenty of fun.
Poe Dameron: Free Fall by Alex Segura gives the hero a clear arc – something significantly shallower in the films. His parents, established in the comics and other tie-in works, get more establishment as well. Young Poe is struggling with his father’s expectations and mother’s legacy, as well as his determination to get offworld. As such, it follows many traditional hero’s journey steps. It’s a lively children’s novel in which he teams up with Zorri Bliss and willingly joins the spicerunners. Together the pair have youthful adventures, telling a fast-paced story while setting up events in Rise of Skywalker. As it introduces planets already seen in the larger universe, there are few surprises, but the book entertains well.
This straightforward story still offers some nuance. Poe has his first time comparing being a good guy and a bad guy as he finds the universe offers shades of grey. The book also establishes how one can switch from a law-abiding child to a Han-Solo-type criminal. It’s an interesting topic, approached with authenticity and soul-searching. It’s also a practical, realistic story instead of one of the mystical Force. Adding nuance to the larger universe, Poe’s desperation to escape his parents’ legacy as squeaky-clean war heroes mirrors Ben Solo’s – especially when his father poignantly pleads with him to come home. It’s a good establishing story for Poe, like several adventures in the comics. Though it does feel as if, since the theme park opened, too many books have the characters ordering off Disney’s food and drinks menu.