Star Trek: The Poisoned Chalice
The latest series of Star Trek novels, subtitled “The Fall,” roars on with the fourth of five books, James Swallow’s The Poisoned Chalice. “The Fall” started off strong with David R. George III’s Deep Space Nine-centric Revelation and Dust (click here for my review), and built with the terrific The Crimson Shadow by Una McCormack (click here for my review) and David Mack’s equally terrific A Ceremony of Losses (click here for my review).
Now, in the spectacular fourth book, James Swallow’s The Poisoned Chalice, everything starts to come together. This novel was billed as focusing on Captain William Riker and his crew on the U.S.S. Titan, and indeed it does, but I was thrilled by how this book pulled together story-threads from the previous three novels and moved the larger story dramatically forward.
Following the tragic events that occurred during the dedication ceremony of the new Deep Space Nine, the Titan’s mission of deep-space exploration has been cut short, and Captain Riker’s ship has been recalled to Earth. Upon arriving home, Riker is called before an array of admirals. But while he fears reprisals from his handling of the Andorian situation (in Michael A. Martin’s Titan novel Fallen Gods — click here for my review), instead he is offered a promotion to admiral. To my surprise, Riker accepts!
It is soon revealed that Starfleet Admiral Akaar (a frequent recurring character in the last decade or so of Trek novels) has been growing more and more concerned with the actions of Federation President pro tempare Ishan Anjar, particularly in light of the events that took place at Andoria (in the previous novel, A Ceremony of Losses). He wants someone he can trust helping him navigate the increasingly treacherous political waters, and so he tapped Riker.
This of course over-turns the whole dynamic of the Titan series, and I was thrilled that Riker’s promotion to admiral and his new Earth-bound post still stands at the end of this book. What that means for future Titan novels I don’t know, but I love seeing these stories move forward and the characters’ lives change.
In the meantime, this leads to a thrilling story in The Poisoned Chalice as Riker and a small cadre of allies work to determine what exactly is going on in the highest echelons of power in the Federation. As the novel unfolds, we follow several connected stories. Now on Earth with her husband, Deanna Troi has accepted a temporary post in the Starfleet Diplomatic Corps, and her first assignment winds up being trying to resolve a tense diplomatic standoff between the Andorian diplomatic contingent and President Anjar, who does not seem at all interested in forgiving the Andorians for their secession from the Federation. Meanwhile, Tuvok has been assigned to a mysterious, top-secret covert op, attempting to track down the assassins who were responsible for the tragic killing at DS9. Tuvok finds himself involved with a motley crew of mercenaries and a few other Starfleet officers from various postings, including Engineer Nog from DS9. The team have been led to believe that the Tzenkethi, members of the Typhon Pact, are behind the dastardly act, but as their chase continues they discover a far more shocking truth.
The Poisoned Chalice is an epic novel, and I love that, while the book does indeed have Riker and other members of the Titan (Troi, Tuvok, etc.) as its main characters, the story follows a vast cast of characters and involves people from across the Trek series, as well as picking up on many of the story-lines developed by the first three novels in “The Fall.” And so we see how Bashir’s actions at Andoria, and Garak’s election on Cardassian, are woven into the story of the developing threat at home. I had expected it to be a while before we picked up on where Bashir was left at the end of A Ceremony of Losses, but to my surprise we get right back to him (and to Dax, who has been stripped of her command and sent to prison) in this book, and both of their stories are moved forward. While readers (and several of the characters) had been given some cause to worry about Federation President Ishan Anjar, more and more in this novel he is developed as a worrisome threat right in the very heart of the Federation. It is becoming more and more clear to me that the rise to power of Anjar is the central story of “The Fall.”
While this galactic saga is being woven, I love how Mr. Swallow is also able to give time and attention to many of the other members of the Titan’s crew, including the Choblik Torvig’s continuing attempts to repair the non-functioning A.I. SecondGen White-Blue. I loved newly-promoted Captain Christine Vale (Riker’s former first officer on Titan)‘s adventure on the Lionheart. I hope we see that ship and crew again, most especially the wonderful new character of Lionheart first officer Atia, (from the planet Magna Roma, from the Original Series Episode “Bread and Circuses”).
In a tale focused on galactic politics, I was also impressed that Mr. Swallow was able to work in a really interesting sci-fi storyline as well, that of the almost-sentient holographic matrix, being used by bad guys for covert communications, that the Titan’s crew is able t capture. I was not expecting that aspect of the storyline, and I was really delighted by where that went. That was a great little sci-fi element of the novel.
The only aspect of the book that didn’t fire on all thrusters for me was the story of Tuvok and Nog’s covert mission. It’s great getting to see Tuvok and Nog together — I love both characters and they are a fun pairing we have never seen before. And the story of their adventure is a tense and exciting one that is central to the plot. But I just didn’t buy that the sinister forces working within the Federation would risk involving such noble Starfleet officers in their scheme. Why take that risk? It would have made more sense, to me, for them to have either just used mercenaries, OR actual covert agents from within Starfleet, men and women used to that type of work and to asking no questions. It happened several times on the Trek series that our characters would get roped into various off-the-ship covert ops (like Picard and Beverly’s involvement in the secret mission that got Picard captured by Cardassians in “Chains of Command”), and I always thought it was silly, and I think the same here. It just feels like too much of a stretch to me, a writerly way to keep our main characters involved in that aspect of the story. No surprise, Tuvok and Nog DO discover the truth about what is happening, and of course they act on that knowledge to the detriment of the bad guys’ schemes.
I am also a little uncertain about the surprise involvement of a certain character who I won’t spoil. Mr. Swallow writes him REALLY well and I love the way he is involved in the story. But I hate hate hate the Next Gen episode in which this character originated, and I really would prefer to forget altogether that that episode, and hence this character, existed. Oh well!
What else do I love about this book? It’s great seeing Deanna Troi given such a nice storyline, and such an important role to play in the plot. I also love how central Akaar, a long-running supporting character in the Trek books, is in this story, and I love getting to see Martok again (briefly).
Most of all I love the ending, in which the enemy stands revealed and, though our heroes have been stymied for now, Riker and his allies, including Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise, stand ready to combat him. I can’t wait to see how this story is continued in the fifth and final book in “The Fall,” and I really hope that we get a satisfactory conclusion to this so-far excellent series. As I have written many times before, I love how inter-connected these Star Trek novels are these days, how excitingly they are telling new stories that combine characters from all of the twenty-fourth century-set Trek series, and how fearlessly they overturn the usual status quo. Together, these Star Trek novels have been forming one of the most compelling ongoing sagas I have ever enjoyed, in any medium. I can’t wait for the next installment.
Previous Star Trek novel reviews:
Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Sky’s The Limit, Resistance and Q & A, Before Dishonor and Greater than the Sum, Destiny trilogy, A Singular Destiny, Losing the Peace,Immortal Coil, Cold Equations Book 1: The Persistence of Memory, Cold Equations Book 2: Silent Weapons, Cold Equations Book 3: The Body Electric
Star Trek: Voyager – Full Circle
Star Trek: New Frontier – Series overview, Stone & Anvil, After the Fall, and Missing in Action, Treason and Blind Man’s Bluff
Star Trek: Mirror Universe (Books 1 & 2) – Star Trek: Mirror Universe: Shards & Shadows – Star Trek: Mirror Universe: The Sorrows of Empire — Star Trek: Mirror Universe: Rise Like Lions – Star Trek: Myriad Universes (Books 1 & 2) – Star Trek: Myriad Universes: Shattered Light