Review by Frank Plowright
Boy, this must have been complex to follow when originally published as one-shot, a two-part series and a subsequent three episodes rather than as a single series. Anyone who might have given up at the time can pick up Romulans: Pawns of War and understand the full breadth of John Byrne’s political action thriller.
It’s set in the era of the original Star Trek TV series, although few known faces from the series appear, and the crew of the Enterprise is entirely absent. They’re not missed, because by the time it’s apparent they won’t appear, Byrne has sucked us all into a devious plot of assorted people on the verge of a power grab. The new Romulan ruler, extremely happy in his position, is showing off a new spacecraft to his most accomplished commander, a dour man who prioritises duty over a viable relationship with his own son. The commander is astute enough to realise the purpose of the new craft is attack, and key is the Neutral Zone, a vast area of space off limits to both human and Romulan fleets, the instruction imposed by aliens whose power is beyond the knowledge of either race. The Romulans, however, have become increasingly confident no action will be taken if they break the terms of the truce.
Byrne’s plot is a complex one, and it’s clever, filling in gaps of what happened to Romulans and Klingons beginning after the Balance of Power episode from the original series and weaving forward from there with passing references to other episodes. However, if you just want an engaging read about what were then the Federation’s enemies, there’s no requirement to know any of that. The Romulans and Klingons scheme, and at the heart of the plot is the cloaking device enabling craft to appear invisible to the tracking technology of the Federation fleet. It’s an advantage the Klingons and the Romulans have over the Federation, and we learn how the technology was shared, and are introduced to the first Federation ship fitted with a cloaking device.
Understanding the final portion is complicated by Byrne’s storytelling, ending the first chapter of the ‘Schism’ sequence with a shock, then diving back to the past to open the second chapter before relating events occurring after the ending to that first chapter, and therefore puzzling. It’s not until the third chapter’s revelations that the entire picture falls into place and a right stramash develops.
Artistically Byrne is having fun. He ensures the various Klingons and Romulans can be distinguished, and is disciplined when it comes to what are now awkward designs for the Klingon and Romulan spacecraft. His ending is perhaps predictable given the basis on which his story is set up, but anyone immersed in the world of classic Star Trek ought to enjoy Pawns of War, the absence of the Enterprise crew notwithstanding.