The Phantom Menace is 21 years old this year--if you saw it as a youngling, you're fully qualified to be a Jedi Master by now, and have a drink while you're at it. If you saw it as an adult, congratulations: you might as well be Yoda (you're not alone). Even in the days before every movie was debated and summarily trashed on social media, the prequels were wildly controversial additions to the canon if for no other reason than they offered something very different from the original Star Wars trilogy. And, let's be real: there were other reasons. But time has been relatively kind to Episodes I, II, & III and, even if they're still not regarded as unqualified masterpieces, they're hardly poodoo, offering up an experience that's unlike anything else in the carefully (overly?) managed Star Wars franchise. They're technological marvels, for one thing, and far weirder (*cough* Jar Jar *cough*) and more broadly operatic ("Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?") than the typical sci-fi blockbuster.
The Clone Wars animated series has itself done wonders for the prequel trilogy--with only the very beginning and very end of the conflict portrayed in the films, the show has given a singular focus to one of Star Wars' most essential periods. Following its improbable return on Disney+, it's coming to an end (again), having not only deepened the tragedy of Anakin's fall but also having made us care deeply about animated characters like Rex and Ahsoka Tano.
Part of the broad revaluation of the prequel series has to do with the spin-off media: comics, cartoons, and novels (canon and Legends) have taken on bits and pieces of the prequel trilogy and put focus on the elements that worked, and directed us away from the things that didn't. Of course, the books all have the benefit of hindsight. Writers have had two decades to look at the prequels with an eye toward things they'd like to tweak, or characters about which we'd like to know more. Some of that is by design: Star Wars' oldest and best trick is making us wonder what's going on just outside the film frame, and the books give us a chance to explore the world in a way that the films just can't. They're two different mediums, and the books can afford to take us on a more leisurely trip around the galaxy, poking into corners that the movies can't. While it's fair to say the books make the movies better, they also have an advantage in that they get to pick and choose from the source material. E.K. Johnston's forthcoming Queen's Peril, following on from last year's Queen's Shadow, promises to dive more deeply into the life of ill-fated queen Padmé Naberrie.
Here are some of the ways in which the canon Star Wars novels have improved upon the films.
Queen Amidala Herself
The queen of Naboo during an invasion by the Trade Federation; a galactic senator who advocated peace during wartime; and a fighter who more than held her own in the arena during the run-up to the Battle of Geonosis in Attack of the Clones. She’s one of the prequels’ most engaging and impressive figures, but, by Revenge of the Sith, she’s largely a supporting character in the story of Anakin's descent. We rightly bristle at stories in which the death of a female character is used to propel the journey of a male lead—here it's a death foretold that spurs him on, which isn't really much different. It’s hard to reconcile the leader and warrior we’d seen earlier in the series with her subordinate role and the facts of her demise: in spite of various intriguing fan theories and alternate explanations, what we get onscreen is a woman who drops dead (having lost the will to live) because her husband turned out to be a jerk. And, look, we've all been taken in by the guy with the broody eyes and cool job and strong opinions on sand (PREACH). But gurl--he was not worth it. Not even a little.
One of the best Padmé stories in the novels is in Timothy Zahn's Thrawn: Alliances, a split narrative for which half the story takes place a couple of years before the Battle of Yavin in A New Hope (and during the run of the Rebels animated series), while the other half takes place during the Clone Wars. In Padmé’s portion of the story, she travels to Batuu (in an early introduction to the setting for Disney's Galaxy's Edge) to investigate a mysterious message from her friend and former handmaiden, Duja. Unfortunately, Duja is dead by the time that Padmé arrives, but we can add detective to the Senator’s credentials, because an investigation of the body leads her to determine that Duja was murdered, in spite of protestations from the locals about a speeder bike accident. Recovering Duja’s ship, Padmé is able to retrace her steps back to the planet Mokivj, which Duja had discovered was home to an important Separatist factory. Before she does that, though, she composes and performs a song in honor of her fallen friend—a nice touch of humanity on the part of the former queen that also fits well with the cultured ruler we saw on Naboo. Before the story's over, Padmé will singlehandedly solve the mystery of her handmaiden's death--but when her story dovetails with Anakin's, she finds his overzealous actions in her aid alarming in a way that very nicely foreshadows his future path.
E.K. Johnston's Queen's Shadow likewise fills in details of the Padmé's life in and around the prequels (including the revelation that the name "Amidala" was adopted as part of a crafted public persona). Johnston focuses on that divide between the public Padmé and the private one, even as the latter comes to be absorbed by the former. The slightly confusing roles of the handmaidens of the prequels is fleshed out most significantly, with the book as much about Keira Knightly's Sabé as it is about the queen and her transition to senator--but not before Padmé makes plans to return to Tatooine to free the planet's enslaved people. Casually dismissed by Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace ("I didn't actually come here to free slaves."), it's nice to know that someone spared a thought for poor mama Shmi Skywalker after they took her only child away. The portrayals of the one-time Queen in the books are in keeping with her portrayal in the films, but offer both a more nuanced picture of the doomed hero, as well as a bit of a corrective to her rather inelegant end.
Masters & Apprentices
The original Star Wars trilogy offered up some truly memorable characters: more than 40 years later, we're still in love with Leia, Luke, Han, Chewie, R2, and C-3PO. The prequels, on the other hand, were intentionally pitched more operatically, and with no real point-of-view characters to ease us into the world as Luke did in A New Hope. So they're more of a mixed bag in terms of relatable characters. Liam Neeson, though, offers a slightly more naturalistic performance as Qui-Gon Jinn: the character is the calm center at the heart of the pod races, sea chases, and battledroids of The Phantom Menace. Which is why it's a bit of a shame that Darth Maul had to kill him. And, even though it was hinted that his spirit was hanging out in the Force, he's also the rare dead Jedi that we never get to see again. We do get to hang out with him before, though, thanks to Claudia Gray's Master & Apprentice (and, to a lesser extent, in the audio play/book Dooku: Jedi Lost). Taking place several years prior to Episode I (this is the only book of the new canon, so far, that takes place before even the prequels), the book deals with the relationship between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, a partnership that's much less settled at this point than it was in the movie. As it happens, the two are on the verge of a permanent split for reasons that reflect their later characterizations: Obi-Wan the rule-follower vs. Qui-Gon the outside-the-box thinker. As in Queen's Shadow, the book also challenges the Republic-era Jedi's casual acceptance of slavery, as well as offering insight into Christopher Lee's Count Dooku, former master of Qui-Gon and padawan of Yoda who's well into his Dark Side fall at this point, though no one knows it.
Dark Disciple picks up the story of Quinlan Vos, a (very) minor character in The Phantom Menace who became a more significant presence thanks to appearances in Legends stories and comics, as well as in the Clone Wars animated series. In the book, the Mace Windu, with the support of Anakin Skywalker, convinces the Jedi Council to put out a hit on Count Dooku--Master Vos gets the job. Not only does the book make a major presence out of a cameo character in the movie, it also offers up a picture of a morally compromised Jedi Council desperate to save a corrupted Republic from something even worse.
The prequels hinted at the construction of the battle station that would come to be known as the Death Star, and that would inspire both a duplicate of that planet-killer and the rather larger, but nevertheless vulnerable, Starkiller Base. In Attack of the Clones, we see that the insect-like Geonosians were involved in the initial design, and that their plans were ferried through Christopher Lee's Count Dooku before making it to Emperor Palpatine in time for the finale of Revenge of the Sith, during which the under-construction battle station makes a cameo. The appearances are largely gratuitous: aside from the bit about the bug people, we really only learn that the Death Star was in the works during the Clone Wars era, something that we already kinda knew. That's OK, since the prequels aren't in any way about the station's inception, and, to the average fan, the intricacies of the Death Star's construction might well seem to be a bit TMI. For the rest of us, there's no such thing when it comes to Star Wars--and it's that kind of detail that we grab the books for.
While Catalyst is, by design, a prequel and tie-in to Rogue One, it also serves to bridge the prequel era with that film and the original trilogy, spending a lot of time in and around the Attack of the Clones timeframe as Lieutenant Commander Orson Krennic works to recruit scientist Galen Erso to the Death Star project, already under construction over Geonosis and overseen by Poggle the Lesser, one of the chief bug people. The novel provides more shading to the political scheming involving the Separatist factions while personalizing the story of the battle station's creation by introducing the conflicted scientist Erso and his family, including future rebel Jyn.
Less directly, other books weave the story of the Death Star construction through the period that saw the downfall of the Republic up until the first station's destruction over Yavin. James Luceno's Tarkin is largely about the rise of Peter Cushing's memorable villain, but also introduces the political jockeying that would come to define this era in the absence of any major military threats to the Emperor's newfound supremacy. Here, and particularly in the Thrawn books, we learn that there were those who foresaw the Death Star's destruction, among them master strategist Grand Admiral Thrawn, one of Palpatine's few non-human lieutenants, who considered the battle station an expensive boondoggle, placing entirely too many of the Empire's resources in one basket. In the finale of the first trilogy, Thrawn: Treason, Tarkin would come to mediate between Thrawn, spearheading a plan for highly advanced TIE Defenders with shields, better weapons, and hyperspace capability, and Krennic's project, code-named Stardust. The prequels suggest that the station's creation was relatively straightforward, as we see some holographic plans in one movie and then a partly completed station in the next--the novels (along with Rogue One) reveal that the project wasn't without drama of its own, nor was it built without sacrifice.
As the Death Star stuff demonstrates, the books don't have to take place during the prequel era to reflect on it. Several characters we never expected to see again meet their fates in works set later in the timeline: Queen Amidala's brave, loyal Captain Panaka meets an unhappy fate in Claudia Gray's Leia, Princess of Alderaan, the result of misplaced loyalty. In Chuck Wendig's Aftermath: Empire's End, a brief interlude reveals what everyone's favorite Gungan Jar Jar Binks has been up to following his inadvertent power play on behalf of the Empire (his lovable goofball days are well behind him). Likewise, Mas Amedda (the blue-skinned Vice Chair of the Senate) meets a similarly melancholy fate in the same book.
For a while, the new canon books seemed to be largely avoiding the prequel era, sticking instead to the era of the original trilogy, or filling in the three decades between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. With this year's Phantom Menace anniversary, and the growing realization that a generation that grew up with the prequels as THE Star Wars movies sees them a little differently than older fans, there's every reason to expect that we'll see more stories from an era that's as rich as any in Star Wars' history. Come back in another 21 years for a fresh look at the similarly contested sequel trilogy.