****SPOILERIFIC REVIEW AHEAD****
I find myself growing more annoyed as time passes with this narrative device that describes a character’s actions and emotional states for a whole novel as if the two are connected, and then at the end reveals that it has all been because of an entirely different motivation than we’d expected. The only novel where this almost worked was Serpents Among The Ruins, and even then it was I think the single reason that novel wasn't a perfect 10 for me. You spend a whole novel sympathizing with a character and their struggles, only to find out that it was actually other struggles completely? It's jarring; it pulls you out of the story.
Here, it really all but eliminates the emotional impact of most of the twists and turns in the story, leaving us only with a sense that Saavik is eminently capable even when in emotional distress (which, duh) and the admittedly amazing scenes with her emotional connections with Mikal. And I suppose building a character around that struggle is valid, but through the middle it was starting to seem as if this would be a complete emotional collapse and renewal, and it turned out to be something much less powerful; just a struggle through adverse conditions. And to think the story you're reading is much more interesting than it actually turns out to be is never a selling point for a novel.
I did enjoy the strange-new-world part of the story; though confined almost entirely to the first half of the novel, it could’ve made a great novel all on its own, and it was great fun reading this kind of story so well accomplished after so much recent larger-scale drama. I also loved the Captain that she served under, and the characterizations of the relationships between the scientists as well as their investigations; MWB really has a knack for writing the wonder of a new place.
Really, I think this book really could’ve gotten by much better just chronicling Saavik’s first assignment after the mess, and her decision that Starfleet was right for her, using this same strange new world with a little more added drama at the climax, since in the end the whole Romulan plot just didn’t work for me at all. It confused her story arc, didn’t gel with my impressions of Romulan society (sounded much more Cardassian), and erased a lot of the novel’s distinctiveness.
I ended up feeling like the first half was an 8.5/10 and the second half was a 5.5 /10…a sort of weirdly bipolar rating. Either way, I remain a huge fan of MWB’s effortlessly emotional nonlinear weavings of language, and continue to await her next Trek novel with great anticipation. This just didn’t end up being a story that really grabbed me. I think I might’ve enjoyed it much more if we’d just known what Saavik was doing from the beginning. Her deciding which group to betray for the other (Starfleet, family, Hellguard survivors) would’ve been much more dramatically compelling than her having made the decision already, and her actions merely leading the reader to keep having to guess which choice it was.