Diane Duane has finally completed her Star Trek alternate universe Rihannsu series, with the publication last year of The Empty Chair (unless, of course, she has some more ideas about what to do with her characters in, oh, another five or ten years). The first Rihannsu book, My Enemy, My Ally was written way back in 1984, more than 20 years ago. The only problem with a series – or in this case, more of a sequence of three related books, one of which was divided up into three volumes – that is written over such a long period of time is that every time a new volume comes out, you pretty much need to go back and re-read everything that’s gone before so that you don’t miss any nuances.
So over the past week I’ve read the whole series, including the final volume:
My Enemy, My Ally
The Romulan Way
The Empty Chair
At one time, I read all the Star Trek books that were being published, starting with the James Blish episode adaptations, his original Star Trek novel Spock Must Die!, and the Marshak-Culbreath anthologies. Somewhere around the 50th Pocket Books novel, I stopped reading them all, and only bought the ones that really drew me – primarily those that were about Spock or the history of Vulcan, and those written by a very small handful of “Star Trek authors” whose work I’d come to anticipate, whether it was Star trek related or not. One of those authors is Diane Duane.
In terms of plot, there’s nothing all that spectacular or unusual (as Star Trek novels go) about the Rihannsu books, although they’re certainly well-conceived and interesting, and considerably more complex than most: but when all's said and done, what it all boils down to is Kirk, Spock and McCoy save the Federation from the aliens and the aliens from themselves, on an ever increasing scale, with lots of action and intrigue and phasers in space and on the ground. What’s special about these books is Duane’s world-building. The Rihannsu are not the cardboard Romulans of ST:TOS (or even the slightly more developed Romulans of ST:TNG and ST:DS9). Star Trek’s Romulans are aliens who hate us, er, the Federation because they hate the Federation, who are sneaky because they are sneaky, and who are villains because they hate the Federation and are sneaky.
Duane’s Rihannsu are a people with a highly developed culture, religion, and history who have very good reasons for mistrusting the Other and whose ways of acting and reacting are perfectly appropriate within their cultural context. Of course, like any civilisation, they have good leaders and corrupt leaders, and in Duane’s ST universe, this is a time when the leaders of the Rihannsu have become corrupt. But Duane’s Rihannsu are not inherently evil or treacherous, and that’s part of what makes the Rihannsu books so interesting.
Duane also writes for an audience composed of Star Trek/science fiction fans reading something they love but don’t take seriously as “great literature,” which means there’s a wealth of in-jokes and ironic commentary on all sorts of subjects. Just as examples, there’s a metareference to the growing popularity of slash fanfiction made by McCoy in My Enemy, My Ally: “People start the damnedest rumours about this ship’s crew, even without provocation…” and Duane’s agent, Donald Maass, is listed among the crew members taking part in a particular mission. And in the final volume, there's a lovely comment about how the English language doesn't just steal from other languages, it drags them off into dark alleys and rifles their pockets for spare change.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed these books. The “guest protagonist” of the series – Rihannsu commander Ael i-Mhiessan t'Rllaillieu of the starship Bloodwing, and aunt of the unnamed “Romulan Commander” from the ST:TOS episode “The Enterprise Incident” – is a marvellous character. We see Ael first in My Enemy, My Ally where, finding corruption and a deep violation of the traditional Rihannsu code of honour (mnhei’sahe, which is of course untranslatable and means much more than “honour”) at the heart of her own Empire, she turns to her bitterest enemies, the crew of the Enterprise, to help her destroy a Rihannsu military/scientific installation where captured Vulcans are being used as experimental research subjects to find a way to give Rihannsu leaders the dangerous mental abilities of Vulcan adepts without the necessity of years of personal discipline and adherence to logic. Ael fears that to give the corrupt and dishonourable leaders of her Empire such power without any restraint would be a disaster for her own people, and sees Kirk and the Enterprise as the only way to stop it, even if it means that she and her crew will be at best exiles from the Empire they are trying to save.
Ael plays a much smaller role in the second novel, The Romulan Way. This book is primarily an exploration of Rihannsu society and politics; plot is secondary – although it does very nicely set up a major character, Arrhae ir-Mnaeha t’Khellian, born Terise Haleakala LoBrutto, and later known as Arrhae i-Khellian t’Llhweiir – for the final three-volumes. In this novel, Arrhae/Terise is a deep cover agent gone “native” and the Federation picks none other than Doctor McCoy to go in after her to see whether she’s still a Federation asset or has been assimilated into Rihannsu society to the point that her allegance is compromised. McCoy eventually discovers that the answer is “both,” and Ael shows up at the very end to yank McCoy’s chestnuts – and an emblematic sword – out of the fire.
The final three volumes deal with the consequences of the events of the first two books, political intrigue and civil unrest within the Rihannsu Empire, the threat of war on a galactic scale involving the Federation, the Rihannsu and the Klingon Empire, secret orders, plausible deniability, the demands of honour and the possibility that one man – or woman – can change the future. Duane makes good use of both the Canon enterprise crew and her own additions (including the young Horta, ensign Nahraht), she draws together all the loose ends from My Enemy, My Ally and The Romulan Way, and brings in as a major character the physicist K's't'lk from one of her other ST novels, The Wounded Sky. The pace suffers from having been released as three separate volumes, but it’s a highly satisfying conclusion, with two minor exceptions. First, I’d been enjoying the idea that Kirk and Ael shared loyalty, honour, respect and friendship, and nothing more; Duane chooses to change that – although in a restrained fashion – at the very end of the final volume. Second, just before the final events of the book, when Ael makes a necessary and honourable choice, it takes Kirk to finally convince her that this is indeed what she must do; the Ael I came to know though these five volumes wouldn’t have needed Kirk to show her what mnhei’sahe requires.
As with almost all Star Trek fictions, this series is marred by the inherent assumptions of the inherent rightness of Federation intervention in the politics and cultures of other peoples (the First Directive is only honoured when the Federation has no vested interest in doing otherwise, and so it has always been), but then we always knew that the Federation was constructed as being intrinsically good. But anyone who is still reading Star Trek fictions at this point in the game has learned to live with that in their own fashion. And within that set of assumptions, Duane’s Rihannsu series is among the best fictions created in the Star Trek universe.