“Her name, to which various people had recently been appending curses, was Ael i’Mhiessan t’Rllaillieu. Her rank, in the common tongue, was khre’Riov: commander general. Her serial number was a string of sixteen characters that by now she knew as well as she knew her fourth name, though they meant infinitely less to her. And considering these matters in such a fashion was at least marginally appropriate just now, for she was in a trap.
“How long she would remain there, however, remained to be seen…”
–Diane Duane, My Enemy, My Ally
Don’t ask me how to pronounce Ael’s second and third names, because I’m afraid I’m just as lost as you probably are. What I can tell you is that she is one of my new favorite heroines of all time, and that if you’re going to read any of the Star Trek novels, Diane Duane’s fantastic Rihannsu series are some of the finest you’ll ever get your hands on. Which is why I’m taking the time to sing its praises and that of the Commander-General.
Ael is a Romulan, and the aunt of the female Romulan commander in the Star Trek episode “The Enterprise Incident.” Unsurprisingly, Ael harbors considerable anger against Captain Kirk and Spock for their deception of her niece (who was subsequently punished for her “carelessness” by the Empire’s corrupt government and exiled). She sets aside her resentment, however, when she uncovers a blood-curdling plot by the Romulan government to capture Vulcans and harness their mind powers for their own ruthless purposes. She reaches out to the now-Admiral Kirk, betraying her own government to let him know about the captured Vulcans; together they plan a daring rescue and sabotage mission, eventually becoming trusted allies and then friends.
That’s just the first book, though. I didn’t realize until I was almost finished with My Enemy, My Ally that it was only the first in a quintet! The Romulan Way ends with Ael’s “theft” of the legendary Sword of the Empty Chair; Sword Hunt and Honor Blade follow her rise as a revolutionary figure and the outbreak of war between the Romulan Empire and the Federation; and The Empty Chair concludes with the liberated Romulans (AKA the Rihannsu) declaring a reluctant Ael their new Empress.
My love for Star Trek aside, these books are just good literature. As a writer I’ve learned so much about world-building from them! Honestly and truthfully, I haven’t been so immersed in a fictional culture (namely, the Romulan Empire) since I first read Tolkien. Yes, I know: grand, sweeping statement there, but it’s true. And Diane Duane’s writing style is so beautifully vivid. To paraphrase the old quote about showing-not-telling, she doesn’t tell you the moon is shining; she shows you the light on broken glass.
Not only that, but she gives us complex, admirable characters. Ael is described as a tiny woman (“If she was five foot one, that was granting her an inch or so; if she weighed as much as a hundred and ten pounds, that was on a dense planet”–now that is what I call showing, not telling!), but awesome things come in small packages: she’s as fierce and cunning as she is kind and good-humored. She’s burdened by concerns for her crew’s safety, her value for innocent life, and her devotion to the Romulan principles of honor: unlike the leaders of her nation, she’d rather do the right thing and risk losing her life–or worse, her name–than tolerate injustice.
And yet, even with all these admirable qualities, she still develops as a character. She and Jim Kirk start out very distrustful of each other; he doesn’t know whether or not she’ll stab him in the back (physically or figuratively), and it’s a long time before she trusts him enough to confide in him. By the end, though…well, let’s just say that they become very good friends. Ael is also the only person I’ve seen yet, besides Spock or McCoy, who can sass Kirk and get away with it, and his intellectual equal. Talk about matched wits.
Besides Ael, though, you have a full and diverse cast of characters: Arrhae, the Federation agent genetically altered to look like a Romulan; Tafv, Ael’s enigmatic son; the three Praetors who really rule the Romulan Senate, each a distinct character in his own right; and, of course, all of our old friends: Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov. Even Ambassador Fox, the busybody diplomat in “A Taste of Armageddon,” makes a brief appearance. It’s an epic tale, with plenty of humor, mysterious subplots, and revolutionary, even libertarian overtones. Writers of dystopian novels should take note: stories about freedom fighters–especially female freedom fighters, ahem–don’t have to be depressing.
So, if you’re interested in reading any Trek novels, I highly recommend these. Of course, I am biased towards anything about Vulcans and Romulans…but if you like political intrigue, good and noble heroines, clever banter, and vivid storytelling…with these books, you’re in for a treat.