Wait! Don't run away screaming, I'm not about to discuss the horrendous fifth Star Trek film-- maybe another day. Before the Shat appropriated the title, Final Frontier was a perfectly entertaining Pocket Books "Giant Novel" released in 1988. It concerns the first adventure of the very first Constitution-class starship, so new that it hasn't yet even been christened Enterprise.
James T. Kirk only appears in the novel's framing sequence; the main character of the story is Jim's father, George Samuel Kirk. While young Jim is still a boy of 10 on his Iowa farm, George is light years away, serving as the security chief on Starbase Two. He and his friend Drake Reed are shanghaied by mysterious strangers and he is pressed into service as the first officer aboard the Federation's crown jewel: a new starship larger and more powerful than any ever before designed. Considering the ship's captain is a benevolent cardigan-wearing Brit named Robert April, it seems Kirk could have been asked politely, but possibly Diane Carey was desperate to hook readers with some action right away.
The kidnapping makes little sense, but the book improves considerably after that. A group of Federation colonists are stranded on the wrong side of a deadly ion storm with only days to live, and the newly-minted starship is the only vessel that has powerful enough shields to make it through in time to save them. So desperate is the situation that the untested vessel is launched unfinished with just a skeleton crew of just 57 souls.
The fates not only of the Enterprise and the colonists, but of the Federation itself are threatened by a single act of sabotage which strands the would-be rescuers deep in Romulan space-- practically on the doorstep of Romulus-- with most of their systems offline. Through no fault of their own, April and Kirk have broken the peace treaty and brought two enemies to the brink of a second galactic war. The Romulans can tell that the invading ship is immensely powerful and assumes the Federation is preparing to roll right over them. The only thing that prevents them from blowing the (as-yet unnamed) Enterprise out of the sky is the possibility that they can seize her and unlock the secrets of her advanced technology.
Central to this story is the clash of wills between the pacifistic captain and his more aggressive-minded first officer. They represent the dual nature of Starfleet vessels: primarily built for exploration and making peaceful contact with the greater galactic community, but also packing the firepower to defend against species that don't want to play nice. The idealistic April is so concerned about the principles of the Federation that he seriously considers surrender, while the more pragmatic Kirk argues that force is necessary to prevent the greater danger of the Enterprise's secrets falling into Romulan hands. This personality conflict leads April towards the end of the book to theorize that "it'll take someone wiser than the two of us to command this starship. An amalgam of us, probably, if such a person can be found," an obvious foreshadowing to Jim Kirk's future captaincy.
Beyond the two main characters, the rest of the Starfleet crew rather pale in comparison to their more entertaining Romulan counterparts. While it's interesting to know who the original Enterprise crew was, many (including Kirk's friend Drake) are basically namechecked and given little opportunity to shine beyond that. The only other crewmembers to have much impact are the cantankerous chief engineer Dr. Brownell, who provides comic relief with his cranky biting remarks and the extremely high-strung medical officer Sarah Poole, whom we know from the animated series episode "The Counter-clock Incident" is fated to become April's wife. Meanwhile, over on the Romulan vessel Raze, all sorts of cloak and dagger intrigue and chain of command struggles are afoot. The even-handed T'Cael, a reflective non-militaristic captain, has been basically exiled to a dishonorable interior patrol for being out of favor with the Praetor of the Empire. On board to keep tabs on him is Ry'iak, who initially seems like a cowardly and ineffective toady of the Praetor, but once the crisis begins it soon becomes apparent just how dangerous he can be to have around.
One needn't be a hardcore Trekkie to enjoy Final Frontier, just a fan of exciting, unpredictable space opera action adventure. There's planetary bombardment, attacks from indigenous carnivores, perilous rescues, and exciting chases through unfinished sections of the Enterprise. There is an act of murder so disturbing in its cruelty it borders on belonging in a horror story. And the starship battles... personally I love starship battles on screen-- they're usually my favorite parts of the films or shows they appear in-- but ship battles in prose are often dull to me. I've actually been known to skim the dogfight scenes in X-Wing books, ostensibly the most appealing part to other readers. Maybe it's her nautical experience, but Carey manages to string together several exciting set pieces in the inevitable battle. Also, there is a clever final stratagem at the close that will show why the Romulans decided to prioritize the development of cloaking technology.
There are are a few missteps, too. One pretty significant villain from the first half is significantly downplayed in the second half to the point where he/she is practically a non-factor. Also, the April/Poole romance is a misfire because the doctor is such a irrational, shrieking headcase you feel sorry for the poor captain to be saddled with her. The most unfortunate disappointment of the book, though, is through no fault of Carey's, and that's that subsequent Trek series and films, especially Enterprise, have rendered a lot of the "historical" aspects of this book moot. The dates are way off, for one thing, and it turns out that the NCC-1701 Enterprise was far from the first starship of significance. Also by the time of TOS, transporters were old hat, and the Romulans already had cloaking technology.
Regardless of these discrepancies, Final Frontier is a very fun book worth a read. In fact, I would go far as to say that Pocket Books should hire Diane Carey to revisit the book and rewrite it so that its finer details are more in line with current Star Trek canon. This is too successful a book to stay out-of-print due to petty details like whether the dates add up. This book didn't deal all that much with Jim Kirk's early years, but the sequel Best Destiny apparently does. The screenwriters of the upcoming JJ Abrams film cite Best Destiny as a book they looked at while developing their version of Kirk; after reading Final Frontier I'm very much looking forward to tackling the sequel next.