Friday, September 19, 2008

Destiny Book I: Gods of Night

Spoilers ahead.

The concise review: wow.

On to the more detailed commentary.

Gods of Night is the first in a trilogy that features characters from Enterprise, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Titan. It's the culmination of the Borg storyline from several recent Next Generation novels, but it's much more than that.

I've been trying to avoid finding out too much about Destiny before reading it, so I haven't read the excerpts online. I didn't want to have too many expectations of what was going to be in the story beyond big, earth-shattering, that sort of thing. But from the book back cover copy and the covers I did learn that Erika Hernandez and some mysterious aliens were involved. Oh, and this is also the big Borg invasion trilogy, and lots of characters are involved.

But now I've read it. That stuff sounds big. But this is bigger.

Gods of Night has four main alternating story threads. Captain Ezri Dax and the crew of her ship U.S.S. Aventine find the wreck of the Columbia... and something more. Erika Hernandez and the Columbia, back in the 22nd century (just as the Romulan War is about to begin, carrying on nicely from last month's novel Kobayashi Maru), survive an attack only to find themselves with a difficult choice that leads to a risky first contact. Titan, on a deep space exploration mission too far from the Federation to help directly in the Borg invasion, is on the verge of discovering something strange and unexpected. Picard and the Enterprise are about to be in the thick of things, as Picard is hearing the Borg again. Four storylines seems like enough to work with, so it's not terribly surprising that Voyager and Nan Bacco don't get too many pages in this book. At any rate, each of the four storylines advances significantly over the course of the book, and each one reaches an appropriate point for the pause between volumes.

If I have a criticism, it's that a lot of the character development moments are given to Picard, Crusher, Riker, and Troi, four characters we already know pretty well. I'd like to learn more about what kind of person Ezri Dax has become, and more about Erika Hernandez, but there's plenty of time for that, with two more books to come.

Speaking of Hernandez, I'm glad to see her getting a major part in this epic, because she made more of a positive impression on me in her brief appearances on Enterprise than Archer ever did. It's also a refreshing change to see a big crossover story that involves Enterprise rather than the original series. I was never a huge fan of Enterprise as a TV series, but it's part of Star Trek now, and shouldn't be ignored or retconned out of existence. It should be used in new and interesting ways, and using Hernandez is a good way to do that. She did get a fair amount of screen time in the new Enterprise novel Kobayashi Maru, in scenes leading up to the beginning of her storyline here, but she wasn't given much characterization beyond thinking warm and fuzzy thoughts about Archer. Here, she's much more central to the story, and though it would be dramatically overstating things to say that the trilogy will stand or fall on her characterization, the amount of attention she's getting means she has to develop a few dimensions beyond what we saw on TV. Over the course of three long books, I think Mack will be able to pull that off. Not all of Hernandez's crew get as much characterization as I might like, but there's a huge cast already. Foyle and Pemberton at least get their moments, and I wouldn't be surprised to see some "Foyle was right" posts online. I don't think he was, and any moral ambiguity that might have been there early on dissipated pretty quickly as the situation escalated and he kept making things worse, but I'm sure he'll have his defenders. (Don't anticipate yours truly offering names 3.)

Continuing with the Hernandez storyline, I really liked the big old-fashioned space opera/adventure feel of it, with its mysterious and powerful aliens, and the huge, scientifically advanced alien cities. It helps that this is a 22nd century Earth Starfleet crew having this particular adventure, with their lower level of Treknology, because too often in Star Trek alien cultures are either at the Federation level of tech or so far beyond it that don't need bodies, or cities, they're just energy beings or beings that dump the characters into an Earthlike environment because the humans couldn't understand the aliens' usual environment. The Caeliar world has a good, old-fashioned SF alien feel about it, and it's fun to find a big exploration and adventure story as part of what so many people think will be a Borg overdose.

The Ezri Dax storyline is a change of pace, with its mystery/thriller elements. What happened to Columbia? What happened to the dead Aventine crew members? What managed to get aboard the Aventine? It's good to see that a lot of this was wrapped up in the first book, so readers get some resolution at the end of the first book even as other storylines carry on.

The Enterprise and Titan storylines have a lot of good compare-and-contrast things going on, as the ongoing threads from their respective book series continue here. The shipper paradise of Picard and Crusher and Riker and Troi becoming married couples with plans for families is looking a lot less like paradise now, with Troi's emotional problems relating to her inability to have a viable child and Picard's distraction due to his enhanced connection to the Borg. Both relationships seem to be in very uncomfortable places, though part of me wonders if the Caeliar's reverence for life and high tech may have some role to play in Troi's situation. (Well, if Janeway's not coming back, there should be some kind of light out of the darkness.)

The Enterprise is in the somewhat predictable situation of engaging the Borg directly, making use of Picard's knowledge and connection to them, but I'm glad we're not seeing the foolhardy risktaking of Resistance or the over-the-top Borg attack sequences of Before Dishonor. The focus on the impact of the devastation being done is more effective than an attempt to recreate a flashy visual effects extravaganza in print. More appropriate, as well; the Borg have raised the stakes, and this isn't about gosh-wow explosions, it's about how far they're going to get, and how our heroes will be able to stop them -- assuming they do.

Titan has its own kind of despair to deal with, the intimate personal despair of Riker and Troi over her miscarrying, and the crew's frustration over being too far from Federation space to be able to help against the Borg. But their exploratory mission may be about to pay off in a way they couldn't have predicted. I think a case could be made that it's conveniently coincidental that the Aventine and Titan missions are both connecting to the Caeliar at roughly the same time, but that's not something I'm going to worry about. This is fiction, and in fiction, we usually expect separate storylines to converge at some point.

In conclusion... I liked that all four storylines had distinctly different tones, that only one dealt directly with the Borg, and that some things were resolved (setting up others, no doubt). I like the fact that the continuity established in different Trek book series can be drawn on and built on in an event like this, which feels a lot less contrived than some of the crossover events of the past.

Also, though I'd like to see more character work in certain places, this is nonetheless a very strongly character-oriented story so far, and not simply about interchangeable cogs in a big space war. I don't really know yet where "destiny" fits in here -- is it Picard's destiny to be changed forever by the Borg? is it Hernandez's destiny to be something more than human and fight the Borg? Is it the Borg's destiny to be eliminated or change beyond recognition? Is every major character going to have their lives change drastically as a result of the events of this trilogy? Too early to tell. But I'm looking forward to finding out.

Ob$quote: This is how to do a Star Trek crossover. With epic scope, intensity, and raw emotion, Gods of Night is a powerful beginning to a story that looks likely to have real consequences for the Star Trek universe. Not to be missed.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

IKS Gorkon, at last

I have a lot of books I haven't read yet. Hundreds. When you have that many, the fact is that some good books go unread for too long. But I have begun to rectify that.

I have to admit that I've suffered from Klingon fatigue. Not only did TNG, DS9 (for most of its run), and Voyager have characters with Klingon heritage issues, there have been a lot of episodes centering on the Klingons, some of them just recycling the old honor and violence cliches. It's almost surprising to remember just how new, different, and exciting TNG's Klingon arc was when episodes like "Sins of the Father" first aired.

Keith R.A. DeCandido established his bona fides as a good and smart writer about the Klingons with his first Star Trek novel, Diplomatic Implausibility, which was in part something of a test run for the IKS Gorkon series. It was a solid novel that showed the possibilities of a Klingoncentric Trek novel, taking the Klingons and their culture seriously and demonstrating the diversity of characters who can actually exist within that culture.

So why did I wait so long to read these books? I dunno. It's no reflection on the author, who hasn't let me down yet. If it helps, I have books that I've had for a lot longer that I haven't read yet. Better late than never, right? So why bother reviewing these books this late in the game? To remind people who may not have read them that they exist and that they're worth reading, so we'll get more of KRAD's Klingon adventures. (I'm currently reading the third Gorkon book and expect to read the first -- and so far only, though I hope that'll change -- rebranded Klingon Empire novel soon thereafter.)

As always, there are SPOILERS ahead.

A Good Day to Die reintroduces the IKS Gorkon, its captain Klag, and his crew, ensuring the book is completely accessible for anyone who hasn't read (or doesn't perfectly remember) Diplomatic Implausibility. Rather than presenting a wholly standalone adventure that happens to be set aboard a Klingon ship, the book sets up a more ambitious series premise. This is the Klingon version of the Enterprise's five year mission. With the Klingon Empire low on resources following the Dominion War, Chancellor Martok sends a fleet of Klingon ships into uncharted space to seek out new worlds. As the book's back cover says, their mission is "to explore strange new worlds... to seek out new life and new civilizations... and to conquer them for the greater glory of the Klingon Empire!"

The A story of the first novel is the Gorkon's encounter with the Children of San-Tarah, wolflike aliens with little technology but a proud warrior culture. Unsurprisingly, first contact Klingon-style is a lot different from the Federation approach, with military conquest the goal. But this planet is surrounded by subspace eddies that interfere with the Klingons' technology, which means that instead of disruptors, the Klingon troops must rely on bat'leths and other traditional weapons. And they have woefully understimated the people they expect to subjugate. Klingons and San-Tarah develop a mutual respect as fellow warriors, and the leader of the latter proposes that instead of simply warring indefinitely, the Klingons meet a challenge: if they win a majority of five traditional competitions, the Children of San-Tarah will voluntarily join the Empire; if not, the Klingons must leave and not return. Klag accepts, not only because he expects to win, but also because he has come to respect the San-Tarah, and he intends to live up to his end of the bargain honourably. He is, after all, a member of the Order of the Bat'leth, which Martok hopes will help restore the traditional Klingon values to the Empire.

Meanwhile, the B story -- well, it's not as simple as a B story, really. The "meanwhile" is the stuff exploring the characters. Viewpoint characters among the Gorkon crew range from the captain and his senior officers down to grunt level, as we get to know one of the squads of Klingon soldiers. Many of the characters have secrets, or flaws, or both -- and some are not who they seem to be. KRAD excels at taking a collection of characters, some of whom had originally appeared onscreen in TNG or DS9 episodes, some new, and making each a believable character with his or her own motivations, concerns, and pleasures; these are not interchangeable Klingon cliches, but people.

In the end, the Klingons lose the competition. Klag prepares to leave.

Honor Bound deals with the consequences. General Talak, the man overseeing the fleet's mission, refuses to allow Klag to let the world go unclaimed. Klag cannot cast aside his word and his honour and chooses to fight beside the Children of San-Tarah to defend the traditional honour of the Klingons. He sends a message to all members of the Order of the Bat'leth to call for help. In the second book, instead of fighting aliens who prove to be as honourable as Klingons, Klag finds himself fighting Klingons who lack honour.

And somehow Blogger lost the remaining several paragraphs of this review. Let's see if I can reconstruct what I wrote. It might have been a little like this, but it was longer...

Honor Bound deals with the consequences of Klag's decision to stand by his word, and the consequences of Martok's decision to once again make the Order of the Bat'leth a meaningful force for the restoration of Klingon values. In doing so, it kicks up the action of the story, with lots of ground-based and space-based battle sequences and a high body count. But the consequences also play out in a number of ways for all those characters who are driven by secrets and issues from the past. There are divided loyalties, among the Klingon fleet and among Klag's own crew, and several characters find themselves facing the consequences of their own past actions as they play their part in the struggle for San-Tarah and for Klingon honour.

Though the story is on a larger scale this time around, with other ships of the fleet becoming involved, KRAD never forgets to keep the focus on the people in the story. Some characters don't do well under the pressure of the situation; others face their worst nightmares and survive.

The duology is almost like a Mirror or Myriad Universe tale in a way; the Gorkon's mission is, after all, the Klingon equivalent of the various Enterprises' mission, and resembles some of the more extreme anti-imperialist critiques of the original Star Trek. And yet, though the Klingons' values are almost antithetical to ours and the Federation's, KRAD ensures that we not only understand Klag and his crew, we sympathize with them and cheer them on. That's no mean feat.

I think my first version ended with something like, I look forward to reading Enemy Territory and A Burning House soon, and I hope that they will be followed by more books in this series. But Blogger lost all that.

Now I've just finished reading Enemy Territory, which continues the Gorkon's mission of exploration and conquest, this time dealing with a civilization more technologically advanced than the Children of San-Tarah. This time it's first contact with a spacefaring species, but the irony is, it's the Elabrej, not the Klingons, who shoot first. The Klingons are the aggrieved party here, and the crew of the Gorkon must attack the Elabrej homeworld, where several survivors of the detroyed Klingon ship are being held as prisoners, kept from an honourable death. Though this is largely a standalone novel, it nonetheless continues the ongoing subplots around several characters and relationships. Some of the tensions on the ship this time around are due to the ship taking on a number of soldiers and officers who fought against Klag's forces on San-Tarah, and who are planning to demonstrate their discontent as forcefully as possible. The Elabrej, meanwhile, have their own malcontents to deal with, and Klag's people find themselves working with the Elabrej separatists, who have a lot to learn about insurrection.

Once again it's a strong mix of action and character development, this time with an ironic ending: the Elabrej have used up so many of their world's resources that making their world part of the Empire may be more trouble than it's worth.

I'm really looking forward to get into A Burning House and see how the scope of the series is widened up with the Klingon Empire rebranding.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Case of the Colonist's Corpse

Yep, I'm going back a bit this time. Though its publication date is January 2004, I had not yet read Bob Ingersoll and Tony Isabella's The Case of the Colonist's Corpse. I wanted to watch the original series episode "Court Martial" first, and between Xbox use and TV shows we haven't already watched, that just kept slipping lower down prioritywise. But on Monday I watched it as part of a multi-series Trek marathon (well, it was September 8, after all) so it was time at last to read the book.

As the alliterative title and the unusual cover design are meant to suggest, this is basically Perry Mason in space, with "Court Martial" guest characters Samuel T. Cogley and Areel Shaw standing in for Mason and his unlucky prosecutorial nemesis, Hamilton Burger. The authors also bring in new characters Peter Lawrence and Jacqueline LaSalle, stand-ins for Perry Mason's investigator Paul Drake and secretary Della Street.

It's been years since I read any of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels, so I can't say to what extent the book captures the original, but I suspect the authors did a pretty good job. This is a solid and conventional murder mystery that, even with the addition of Klingons and 23rd century technology, plays fairly by the rules of the genre. (One thing missing that was usually present in Perry Mason novels: the page at the beginning of the book listing the cast of characters.) There's courtroom drama, multiple suspects with motive and opportunity to spare, red herrings, and a frustrated prosecutor. Shaw's characterization seems to be slightly changed to make her more of a Burger character as the book goes on; I suspect the authors were developing a more adversarial relationship in case they had the chance to write a sequel or two.

In general, the book is a lot of fun, and the characters are well drawn; we have a few chapters to get to know the victim before he's killed and to see the web of intrigue being cast around him. It's a good storytelling choice, because if you've come to like the victim, you'll be emotionally involved in the solution of the crime, not just enjoying the puzzle-solving aspect of it.

There are a lot of nice touches. Cogley's base of operations on Earth is an office in the Bradbury Building, the famous LA landmark seen in Double Indemnity, Blade Runner, Harlan Ellison's Outer Limits episode "Demon With a Glass Hand," and many more. With its history, it's exactly the kind of place someone like Cogley (who prefers books to computers) would be. There's even mention of Blade Runner in the book, as Cogley discusses the building's history with a client who's come to visit. Which led me to think: if Blade Runner is looked at as neo-noir, then William Sanderson's J.F. Sebastian character is the equivalent of some of the characters Elisha Cook, Jr, who played Cogley, played in such film noir classics as The Big Sleep. Whether that was on the authors' minds at all, I don't know, but I like that it adds a little metatextual fun to the book. Also, Cogley's insistance in "Court Martial" that the answers are to be found in books plays out literally in the novel.

So, it works as a mystery novel. Does it work as Star Trek? Yes. Though Kirk and the Enterprise make only the briefest of fleeting appearances, the book draws on characters established onscreen, and builds on elements from several episodes: "Court-Martial," obviously, but also "Errand of Mercy" and "The Trouble With Tribbles," as the murder occurs on a planet that the Federation and the Klingons are both trying to colonize, following the Organians' declaration that both sides may try to colonize unclaimed worlds, and whichever side is more successful can keep the planet. Klingon culture is important to the story, as are phasers and computers.

Though this was apparently John Ordover's pet project and he's no longer at Pocket, I'd be happy to read another Cogley case or two. And if they never materialize, well, I've got this one.

Incidentally, there's a chat transcript with Ingersoll and Isabella on in which they mention that they hoped to do more (and Ingersoll mentions that Isabella had the idea of doing a police procedural featuring Odo, which isn't a bad idea either). It's a shame that the number of book series and the limited number of publishing slots makes these possible follow-up books less likely. Maybe we need a trade paperback collection of novellas or short stories of mystery/crime stories in the Trekverse, with stories starring Cogley, Odo, Philippa Louvois, maybe a heist/caper story involving Quark, Dixon Hill, etc....

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Kobayashi Maru

This is a book review. There'll be spoilers.

Kobayashi Maru follows directly on from The Good That Men Do, continuing the adventures of Archer and most of the regulars on the Enterprise and an undercover Trip Tucker in the Romulan Empire. The Romulans are trying to start a war by using a weapon that takes control of other ships, giving them a number of Klingon and Vulcan starships they can use to stage attacks that will cause turmoil and leave the Romulans safely unsuspected by the other parties. Meanwhile, Trip is trying to keep the Romulans from developing faster warp technology. Archer and Columbia's Hernandez are doing milk runs, escorting civilian ships. And a couple of civilian starships, the Horizon (home of Travis Mayweather's family) and the Kobayashi Maru, are conducting business far from Earth.

The order of business here, then, is to depict the original no-win scenario involving the Kobayashi Maru, and to set the stage for war.

The Romulans keep attacking, people keep falling for it, lots of people get killed. Meanwhile, back in the Romulan Empire, it's starting to seem like everybody knows Trip isn't a Romulan, but different people let him stay alive for different reasons, not that he's entirely aware of it. He's just not spy material. T'Pol and Reed manage to steal an Enterprise shuttlepod and sneak into the Empire and have a little reunion with Trip, who declines to return with them, because the leading warp 7 researcher is dead and he has no one to spy on so he has to make sure no one else is getting anywhere with warp 7, even though he now has reason to suspect his cover is completely blown. T'Pol and Reed manage to safely return from their pointless excursion.

Back on Earth, we revisit one of Star Trek's dumber classic traditions. The so-called diplomats representing the Coalition of Planets member worlds are a bunch of loudmouth dumbasses who yell at each other and generally refuse to act like grownups. They don't really need the Romulans' help in destabilizing the Coalition. Not that the Romulans are presented in a better light; some of them are less dumb, but too many of them are one-dimensional villains who might as well be members of the Moustache-Twirling, Evilly Cackling Bad Guys Club.

Another key issue: now that we've saved Trip Tucker from his stupid and pointless death as depicted in Riker's holodeck program, what do we do with a guy who everyone has to believe is dead? Sending Trip a long way from home disguised as an alien is a good way to keep people from knowing he's still alive, but the whole spy angle is threatening my willing suspension of disbelief. At least he isn't being presented as so successful that no one blows his cover, but even so, one of the many Romulan villains should think he serves no real purpose (other than forwarding misinformation, which he does) and have him killed.

Meanwhile, the authors want to carry on the Trip/T'Pol relationship. I'm fine with that; I finally watched the Enterprise episode "Bound" for the first time a few days ago, and the T/T stuff was by far the best part of the story. But something has to change; either Trip gives up the spy mission, or T'Pol joins him, because her little jaunt to find Trip in this book really tested my suspension of disbelief.

One of the surprising developments in the book also struck me as a bad idea. Mayweather's family is killed and their ship destroyed. Enterprise never did enough to explore boomer culture, and that's something the books could have done more with. The Horizon could have been an interesting way of exploring the effects of the rapid pace of change for humans in space -- new alliances, new enemies, new technology. (I may be misremembering, but ISTR that Horizon's fate was explicit, and that Mayweather won't be getting a happy surprise later on. What is it with Star Trek characters and dead or missing parents, anyway?)

Overall, the book was... okay.