The upcoming Star Wars prequel novel Queen’s Peril is for anyone who ever wondered about the inner workings of Padmé Amidala’s handmaidens, and how the young queen managed to fool the entire political circle of Naboo.
Written by E.K. Johnston, who penned Queen’s Shadow, a prequel about Padmé’s transition into senator, Queen’s Peril follows the young royal as she becomes Queen Amidala and forms her inner entourage of chosen handmaidens (some played by Keira Knightley, Sofia Coppola, and Rose Byrne in the prequels). It’s an origin story not just for the Queen of Naboo, but her most trusted confidantes, taking place before and during the Phantom Menace. As the girls work to create a tight system of decoys, bodyguards, and assistants, they must also face rising intergalactic tensions and great threats to Naboo.
Johnston talked to Polygon about fleshing out Padmé’s closest friends, approaching Star Wars canon, and coming from a fanfiction background.
Queen’s Peril hits shelves on June 2. Check out the interview and excerpt below:
[Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
What was it like crafting origin stories for each handmaiden? How did you figure out who had which strengths?
E.K. Johnston: That was so much fun. It was something that the fandom — which I’m part of — has been doing since 1999, right? It was really fun — and also challenging because I didn’t want to copy anybody, even by accident — to go through and figure out who they were all going to be. I started very basic. I wrote down everybody’s name. I wrote down what I needed, what the story needed their primary function to be. Sabé was going to be planning, Rabé was going to be intelligence, and Saché was going to be observation and all that kind of stuff. I built the characters around those traits to give them a function, and then fleshed out beyond that.
Padme and the handmaidens have to navigate through tense political situations — but there are also moments of teenage girl downtime. Why was it important to juxtapose the two together?
It adds to the relatability of characters. One of the reasons I love writing YA so much is that teenagers — or at least I did and my friends did and I’m assuming other people did too — they have these huge problems like, “What about university?” “The rainforests are on fire!” And all that kind of stuff. They have these huge problems, but they always have really personal problems, and the stakes feel just as high. So even though your friendship issues and your relationship issues don’t matter quite as much to the global economy they still matter that much to you. I love that juxtaposition of these personal problems, which are tremendously important, and also the Trade Federation, and playing them back and forth off each other. I think it makes them relatable. I think it helps make the human. And honestly, it’s fun.
Was there an existing and popular Star Wars character that was hard to write? Was there one that came more naturally?
The hardest one was probably Darth Maul just because I’m so used to seeing him as the grandiose version of himself that he becomes in the Clone Wars. So it was a challenge to go all the way back to the Phantom Menace and write him as this slightly more contained, like he hasn’t been betrayed yet, this almost feral and mean character, not this grandiose planner and the executor of all these grand schemes — because that’s way more fun! I had to be like No, no wait, Darth Maul’s not there yet. That was a bit of a challenge.
It’s always really hard for me to write Panaka because you know what’s coming in terms of his storyline, so everything that he does just becomes tragic.
And I wrote the first scene with Shmi towards the beginning of the book, and we weren’t sure if I was going to keep it — if we were going to keep the alternate point of views, so I started to dramatize them to write them into conversations with Padmé. So the same character stuff is happening, but Padmé is present. The first one I did that for was the Shmi scene. It happens later in the book, so it’s the second Shmi scene, and I wrote it and then I was like, Well, now I just have two Shmi scenes and I like them both. But she was a lot of fun. I like getting into her character. There’s so much tragedy involved, but she’s so hopeful and so positive and so good and I really love writing that character.
There’s a big stretch of Queen’s Peril that takes place during the events of Phantom Menace. How do you pick and choose which scenes and characters to focus on?
That was based on who was where at any given point. I skipped a lot of Padmé’s scenes in the movie because we’ve already seen that stuff. I wanted to do scenes that are just off-camera or scenes that we come into the very end of or [a scene] from a different character’s point of view. A lot of the time, it was the decentralized version of what was happening. Then by the time we got to the Battle of Naboo, I just had this gigantic picture in my mind of who was where at any given time and I was moving all the characters around to make sure that the story could still happen.
Was that intimidating to approach?
I don’t think so. I come from a fanfiction background. I learned to write [by] basically writing different scenes and writing my own extensions and stuff. For me, it was kind of like coming home. It was a lot of fun. There were definitely challenges because you don’t want to get too self indulgent. You don’t want to rewrite scenes that are already there just because you can. But it was very much like a sort of homecoming for me because of my fandom background.
Does it feel surreal to be writing officially approved fanfiction?
Totally! With Ahsoka, my first Star Wars book, I was really contained like, Oh no, I can’t do this I can’t do this I can’t do this like has to be very professional. But there were a couple of things that I kind of squeaked in around the sides and I was like, they’re gonna get cut, and then they didn’t. Ever since then I’ve kind of been like, you know what, if I’m going too far, they’ll tell me. If I’m doing something I’m not supposed to do, they’ll tell me. It’s really a great kind of collaboration because it lets me still have fun. I don’t restrain myself the way that I did the first time through. It’s been nice every time to approach the story and be like OK, I trust my team, let’s do this, which is wonderful as a writer
Out of the handmaidens, do you have a favorite?
I am always going to love Sabé, she’s the nearest and dearest to my heart for a variety of reasons. But in this book when we were writing Rabé’s background and she kind of became our con artist/grifter and that just catapulted her to the top. She became so much fun immediately because everything she does has this noir-ish background. Like she could sneak through a room and then all the paintings are gone. She was definitely something I wasn’t expecting with her character but it was definitely a fun time.
And now read this exclusive excerpt from chapter six of Queen’s Peril:
There were five of them altogether, including Tsabin, who already stood behind the throne. Panaka presented them to the Queen with minimal flourish at the end of the second week of her reign. They each bowed politely when he put them forward, and Amidala acknowledged them with an identical nod. Her face was painted for full court, and her elaborate headpiece extended from her head in both directions. She was carefully impersonal, a mystery in voluminous green. Panaka was decently sure she hadn’t actually moved in several hours, but there was no indication that her attention was flagging.
It had been a long day with the regional representatives—there was a projected labor shortage for this year’s grain harvest, and debate was split over whether to bring in offworlders to help with the work or to simply buy food from off planet and let the grain become next season’s fertilizer—and they were all eager to wrap up. Still, Amidala sat straightbacked on her throne and looked each girl full in the face as Panaka introduced them.
“Rabene Tonsort, gifted artist and actress.” Rabene’s placid expression indicated there was a great deal Panaka left out of her biography. “Eirtama Ballory, scientist and engineer; Suyan Higin, seamstress and maker; and Sashah Adova—”
Panaka trailed off as Sashah bowed, unable to quantify why exactly he thought the twelve-year-old was qualified for this, even though there was no doubt in his mind that she was. Amidala caught his pause and risked half a smile, more emotion than she usually showed in public.
“Thank you, Captain,” she said, as though the introductions had been completed without incident. “You have done a remarkable job in a short time to find such excellent candidates.”
“It is my privilege,” Panaka said, bowing.
“We will go up to the suite and talk further,” Amidala continued, now speaking directly to the girls. “There are a few things we need to discuss.”
Panaka ground his teeth. Amidala had been exceptionally firm about not allowing guards into the suite without a very good reason, and he had a feeling she would shut him out of the coming conversation quite deliberately.
The Queen rose and led the way upstairs. The girls followed her into her rooms, and Tsabin shut the door, doing her best not to smile at Panaka’s expression. In the sitting room, Amidala indicated that they should all sit down, and then she perched on a chair by the hearth and pulled her headpiece off. Tsabin was standing next to her before she’d finished extricating herself from all the pins, and accepted the handoff seamlessly.
“Just put it on the table for now,” Amidala said. Tsabin did, and took her seat again. Padmé took a moment to shake her hair out and look at the girls Panaka had chosen. They were all physically similar to her, except Eirtama, who was blonde, and they all looked politely interested. Even Sashah wasn’t cowed by the apartment. Padmé was impressed.
“My name is Padmé,” she said, by way of introduction. She wanted them to understand. “I imagine Captain Panaka has explained the dangerous aspects of this position well enough, but I am hoping for something else in addition to bodyguards.”
“It’s not an addition,” Sashah said. She had a dreamy voice. “It’s an expansion.”
“Indeed,” Padmé said. “But it’s also a collaboration. Panaka selected each of you because you have talents that I do
not. I want to take that beginning and make us into something even stronger.”
“Not just six parts,” Suyan said. “You want us to gain each other’s skills.”
“He hired me to teach you how to cheat,” Rabene said. She spoke with such candor that Padmé suspected she was keeping secrets. That was all right for now, at least. Padmé had plenty of secrets of her own. “Apparently he doesn’t think you are deceitful enough on your own, but I’m starting to think he’s underestimated you.”
Padmé smiled demurely. This was going better than she had expected. Leaving the selection up to Panaka had run the risk of him picking girls who were talented and loyal, but who weren’t compatible with her particular style and goals. Somehow, both captain and Queen had gotten what they wanted: a group of handmaidens who could, hopefully, evolve into a unit to be reckoned with. Assuming, of course, their personalities were cohesive. There was a difference between ambition and commitment, and wanting to serve was not the same as being part of the whole.
“Padmé and I have already started combat training together,” Tsabin said. “And I’ve been teaching her breathing exercises, which help control physical reactions.”
Eirtama leaned forward and picked up the headpiece. Apparently she was the type who always wanted to be doing something with her hands.
“Are they all like this?” she asked, turning the piece over to examine the part that attached to Padmé’s head.
“So large?” Padmé replied.
“So stiff and ungainly,” she clarified. “Is this an original or a replica of a historical piece? It must be super uncomfortable.”
“It is,” Padmé said. “An original and uncomfortable, I mean.”
“I can design one that looks exactly the same and weighs half as much,” Eirtama said. “No one will know the difference except for us.”
“Let me see that,” Suyan said, holding out her hands. Eirtama passed the headpiece over without hesitation. “Oh, yes, we can improve this. I think it was made before Karlini silk was imported in bulk, and there’s no reason we can’t duplicate it in a more wearable style. This one can go in a museum or something.”
“We’ll look at your dresses as well.” Eirtama examined the green gown Padmé wore with a critical eye. Suyan nodded. “That at least looks like it was made with modern materials, but we’ll see if we can’t make some modifications for comfort and functionality.”
Tsabin turned expectantly to Sashah, who hadn’t saidnanything indicating why Panaka had chosen her yet. Padmé looked at her curiously, too.
“The captain thinks we work for him,” Sashah said. “He thinks of us as an extension of the Royal Security Forces. He doesn’t understand what you want from us. And he has something on Rabene that he thinks he can use to control her.”
That was not a surprise. Rabene shrugged.
“When he said ‘artist and actress,’ what he meant was that I forge classic art pieces and then convince offworlders to buy them as originals.” Rabene buried a snicker. “He left out the part where I am also an accomplished musician, though. I just had to pick something at school, before they kicked me out, and I picked—”
“Crime?” Tsabin was openly laughing now. Suyan looked vaguely scandalized, but even she was smiling.
“I picked music because I’d never used it unconventionally,” said Rabene deliberately.
“Of course,” Tsabin said.
“Did he threaten you?” Padmé asked. She would not stand for that.
“Not in so many words,” Rabene said. It didn’t sound like Panaka had her worried about anything. “The school didn’t press charges after they caught me, and none of the offworlders know better. He did imply he could make it difficult for me if I said no.”
“I will tell him that’s inappropriate,” Padmé promised.
“I don’t think you should,” Rabene said. “Not yet, anyway.”
The six of them sat there, digesting what that meant.
“Why does he think it’s so dangerous?” Suyan said. “There hasn’t been an attack, direct or otherwise, on a Naboo monarch in decades. You’re brilliant, but so was Sanandrassa, in her own way. So was everyone who has been queen. What does he think is coming?”
“Honestly, I think he’s just paranoid,” Padmé said. “He was a clerk in the legislature when he was young, and then
he went into security instead of art. I know he has a passing acquaintance with Senator Palpatine, so he probably knows more about offworld politics than most other guards. I think it started as just a hunch.”
“And now?” Eirtama asked.
“I’m not sure.” Padmé hesitated. “We’re facing a labor shortage for the harvest, which is nothing new. Debate usually goes back and forth on which solution to take, and this time the offworld buyer faction seems to be the strongest, probably because Sanandrassa supported isolationism during her reign and I’ve had only two weeks to start changing things. The Galactic Senate is trying to change some taxation laws, and Naboo would definitely be affected by that if anything passes. But there’s no way to tell yet.”
“So it’s paranoia with a good direction,” Rabene said.
“I don’t want it to get out of control,” Padmé said. “I want to be ready for anything, of course, but I don’t want to be so afraid of my own shadow that I give up the parts of me that want to stay idealistic and hopeful. That’s why I wanted to be queen, really. To show that Naboo can be strong in its own traditions and a part of the galactic community.”
“We’ll be your shadow,” said Sashah.
Padmé looked at each of them in turn. As with Tsabin, she had already decided she was going to trust them. They had been honest with her, and they had agreed to Panaka’s original terms, which included a significant confidentiality promise. They’d all given and gained to get here, to this room in the palace where they could plan the future for millions at a time, and that was common ground to start from, at the very least. When Padmé met Tsabin’s eyes, the handmaiden nodded once.
“In that case, I think there are some preliminary precautions we can take,” Rabene said. “I think we ought to have new names. We’re all keeping secrets from our families, and everyone else on the planet, and I am slightly notorious, after all.”
“Do you have any suggestions?” Padmé asked.
“You had to give up Padmé,” Tsabin said. “What if we all chose names that sounded similar to that?”
“That would be perfect,” Rabene said. “I guarantee you that most people will hear that many ehs in a row and literally never be able to remember how many of us there are, let alone who is who.”
Eirtama clearly had objections to giving up her name but said nothing. Padmé leaned forward.
“You are allowed to disagree with me in private, you know,” she said. “Especially when we’re brainstorming ideas.”
“I like my name,” Eirtama said after a brief silence. “I was going to make it famous someday, you know? Building things or at least fixing them. I don’t want to give it up.”
“It has to be all of us or none, or it won’t work,” Rabene said. “And you can make your name famous after, if you really wanted to.”
“I—” Eirtama hesitated again.
“It’s very strange, to hear someone call you by a new name,” Padmé said. “It took me a while to get used to. I didn’t have a choice, so I won’t make yours for you.”
“The point is to be invisible,” Sashah said. “If you want to be famous, this isn’t the job for you.”
Eirtama straightened up at the critique, like she had been issued a direct challenge.
“I can do both,” she insisted. She slumped in acceptance, not quite defeat. “But you’re right about waiting. I won’t be the youngest to do anything, I guess, but I can still be the best.”
It was clear Eirtama wasn’t thrilled, but the first obstacle had been crossed.
“When you’re in makeup, we should always call you Your Highness,” Suyan suggested, clearing her throat to change the subject. Sashah looked at her and then quickly averted her eyes. “That will help establish boundaries and let us know when we’re allowed to argue about things. Even if we’re alone.”
“We’ll all wear the makeup at some point, I think,” Tsabin said. “Even if it’s only for practice.”
“Whoever wears the face gets the title,” Eirtama said. She seemed determined to help make decisions, if only to make sure they were the ones she agreed with. It was better than nothing. “And we’ll practice not being shocked if some palace page addresses us in company.”
“Speaking of pages,” Sashah said. “I think I should be one. You’ll need someone who can run errands and not be suspicious because people see her all the time. I’m the smallest and the least likely to be the Queen. I’m the best choice.”
Padmé turned over all the suggestions in her head. They were coming together better than she could have hoped, and they were only getting started.
“I think Padmé should be a page, too,” Rabene said.
“How would that work?” Tsabin asked.
“If there’s magically another girl around the Queen, someone might notice,” Rabene said. “People should get used
to seeing her. No one pays attention to pages.”
“I think that’s a direct contradiction,” Tsabin said. “But I also think you’re right.”
Panaka would never allow it. The idea of Padmé wandering around Theed as herself would push the captain too far. She was sure of it. But perhaps he would understand why that role would be a good one for her to play inside the palace walls. He was a reasonable person, and Rabene’s logic was sound.
“We’ll ease him into it,” Sashah said, discerning the problem. “And I’ll be the primary page, anyway, which will help.”
They were all grinning openly now, delighted by the scheme they were weaving, the secrets they would hold close between them.
“Rabé,” Rabene said. “Your wardrobe mistress, I think.”
That would give her access to the most personal items that protected the Queen—her clothes, jewelry, and other accessories—and provide a reason for her to always be on hand. It was perfect for an intelligence officer.
“Yané,” said Suyan. “I’ll be in charge of liaising with the palace staff and droids.”
She would have her finger on the pulse of everything that went on inside the walls. No one would suspect anything abnormal if she was to appear suddenly in the kitchens or gardens to talk to someone about the Queen’s needs.
“Eirtaé,” Eirtama said. “Communications.”
Everyone would be used to seeing her with a variety of tech in her hands. They wouldn’t think about what she was doing with it.
“Saché. The lowly page.”
No one would think much about seeing her at all.
Each girl had chosen something that would make them seem completely harmless, yet would also allow them to have additional functions without causing anyone to look twice. Their skills could be brought into play without anyone being the wiser.
Padmé smiled and looked at Tsabin. Her first handmaiden. In the two weeks since the election, they had spent nearly every moment together, though most people hadn’t been entirely aware of Tsabin’s presence. She had offered opinions on a variety of matters, and Padmé was already coming to rely on Tsabin’s good sense to temper her own idealism. They were friends, or they were on their way to friendship. And they were learning to navigate the power imbalance between them. It wasn’t perfect—Saché seemed to be avoiding Yané deliberately—but it was a start.
“I will be everyone’s assistant,” Tsabin said. “That way people will get used to my stepping into random roles, and also not question my absence if I’m not visible.”
“And?” Padmé asked. Tsabin would always have to follow the choices of others. The least they could do was give her this.