I think I’ve been waiting for Queen’s Shadow and The Afterward most of my life but didn’t how badly I needed them until last week.
Ever since E.K. Johnston’s forthcoming books were announced, I’ve been beyond excited for both novels. After all, I was already predisposed to love them given their strong emotional ties to my childhood. From the moment I watched The Phantom Menace, I’ve been enamored with Padmé Amidala and her handmaidens. To a nine year old, a band of teenage girls kicking ass and fighting for their homeworld and wearing gorgeous outfits while doing it looked like the dream. I wanted to be one of them. Queen’s Shadow finally gives Naboo’s loyal daughters the spotlight and it only took twenty years. I’m equally in love with high fantasy and stories about lady knights and read as many as I could get my hands on growing up. David Eddings, who specialized in high fantasy and the delightful use of tropes, has been one of my favorite authors since I started reading his books and, well, let’s just say there’s a very good reason we’re rereading his Elenium trilogy ahead of The Afterward’s release.
Despite that, a small part of me was worried that Queen’s Shadow and The Afterward couldn’t possibly live up to my expectations and that there was a chance that I wouldn’t love them as much as I wanted to. About thirty pages into each book, I knew that wasn’t going to be a problem. I was in love. At their highest levels, both novels are about young women at points in their lives where everything’s changing. Perhaps even more importantly, they are about the beautiful relationships between women, both romantic and platonic. Both of these books left my heart full by the time I reached the final page. Queen’s Shadow may have hit me with a tinge of sadness in its final pages but overall, these were two novels that left me happy and I mean genuinely happy. It’s rare that books leave me honest-to-god grinning from ear to ear and yet, these two did.
There’s more to what makes these books special than hitting me square in the nostalgia. It’s no secret I am a fan of the large, gut-wrenchingly emotional stories; the ones with big battles and where your favorite characters are put through hell and your heart aches as you watch them suffer. It’s the good kind of hurt that I love in fiction. Yet I found myself adoring the quiet of these novels, even reveling in it. One book at a time, E.K. Johnston is teaching me to love the soft stories just as much as the big ones and I am so here for it.
For those of us who grew up with fanfiction, these stories may very well feel comforting. Far too often, fandom treats women and their specific interests as if they are lesser. Fanfic, primarily the realm of women, is looked down upon in some circles as being silly even though people being inspired to create art because of a story is a genuinely beautiful expression of fandom. It’s not uncommon to find fanfics that focus on characters as they deal with the sweeping, life changing events or even just during quiet moments in their lives. To see two books unapologetically bring these sorts of stories at the forefront is something special. In a way, it feels like a validation of women, our stories, and how we can express ourselves.
The Afterward in particular drives the lesson home since it takes place a year after the big quest. It flashes back to Kalanthe and Olsa (our heroines) during the quest but it’s never the focus. It’s about Kalanthe and Olsa’s love story and the societal and personal obstacles they have to over come. The godsgem is far less important even if it can change the world.
Queen’s Shadow is a bit more traditional since it’s a Star Wars book and under more restraints. It too has its moments of tension and action but at its core, it is a political novel as Padmé, now the former Queen and current Senator of Naboo, must learn to navigate a new arena and do so while separated from the five young woman who she shared such a deep bond with during her reign. Only Sabé remains in her service and even volunteers for a mission that’s personally important to Padmé but takes her halfway across the galaxy. The book is just as much about Sabé figuring out who she is now and balancing that with her undying loyalty to her friend.
I don’t want to tout either novel as the wonder book that will do everything and solve all your problems. That would set your expectations impossibly high and be unfair to both. But these are books that will make you feel good and make you revel in the friendships between women and also the sweet romances between some of them. The world’s a mess but we deserve to have something nice in our lives and luckily for us, E.K. Johnston has written two of those somethings. I can’t wait until all of you can read them too.
The Afterward will be released on February 19th and Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow will be released on March 5th. ARCs were provided by both publishers for review purposes. Full reviews will be published on or after release date.