Sunday, June 24, 2012

Deep Space Nine’s The Soul Key: Another Piece Of A Larger Puzzle That Stands Up!

The Good: Well-written, Engaging, Sense of movement/development
The Bad: Largely focused on characters with little empathy from readers, Technique is annoying at times.
The Basics: Fun, but very self-referential, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine The Soul Key wraps up the Iliana Ghemor story!

For those who might not know – and my wife and I had a discussion about this this morning when she revealed to me that she did not think I was as much of a science fiction geek based upon our first few communiqués – I am a big fan of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (reviewed here!). In fact, I am a big enough fan that it is almost shocking how ling it has taken me to get into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season Eight, which is happening in novel form. As the books have developed and the characters from my favorite television show have progressed, I have been more wary, much the way I suspect some fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer are about the continuing effort with that franchise in comic book form. Still, I may be late to the party, but Season Eight of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is continuing and the nineteenth adventure has finally arrived (I had no conception how late I was until I counted up the book list at the front) as The Soul Key.

The Soul Key is a misleading title to the book, as it implies that the artifact in the title might be even remotely important to the story and it, shockingly, is not. Instead, The Soul Key continues the story of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and it does so with a self-referential tint that makes it rather inaccessible to anyone who hasn’t been keeping up with the books. As such, it is a very true sequel to Olivia Woods’ previous Star Trek: Deep Space Nine outing, Fearful Symmetry (reviewed here!). This novel picks up – sort of – right where the other one left off and it continues, possibly concludes, Pocket Books’ obsession with the Mirror Universe. As such, this is a very true sequel, but at the same time, it actually manages to hold up pretty well as its own work for those who might not remember the content of Fearful Symmetry as well as they ought to.

What makes The Soul Key difficult for fans of the series who have been keeping up is that much of the book is spent filling in gaps from prior installments and as a result, there is the sense that this is finally putting specific puzzle pieces together to allow readers to finally understand events they have read in other stories. And while most of that works, some of it is a little annoying or just plain sloppy. But before Olivia Woods is criticized for being sloppy – in truth the only real example that comes instantly to mind is in Chapter 16 (beginning on page 224) – most of The Soul Key is based upon a clever idea and is rewarding because it finally resolves dangling elements of the story of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine while building something bigger. The Epilogue, though, is also annoying because for some of us who have missed prior installments are lost until the very last line of the book and then it is a piece in a completely different puzzle!

Olivia Woods does something the very best Star Trek writers do, which is to tie together elements of the Star Trek universe that were created for single episodes or incidents and makes them have larger meaning or significance. So, for example, the Soul Key itself takes an element from the tragically unpopular “The Storyteller” (reviewed here!) and finally gives it context. As well, in order to truly understand The Soul Key, it helps for readers to understand the Mirror Universe episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and “Second Skin” (reviewed here!). In fact, even more than “The Storyteller,” like Fearful Symmetry, understanding The Soul Key is hinged upon seeing “Second Skin.” The elements that are germane to this book that aren’t in that episode tend to be found in Fearful Symmetry, which makes sense as the characters focused on most in this book were actually introduced in Fearful Symmetry.

With the mirror universe’s Iliana Ghemor advising Captain Kira Nerys to the threat to both universes, Captain Kira and first officer Vaughn have gone into the Mirror Universe to stop our universe’s Iliana from becoming the Emissary there. Flashing back, then, the backstory of Iliana Ghemor is filled in more with her time on Harkoum explored following her escape from Dukat’s private prison. After building a small army and taking control over Taran’atar – Deep Space Nine’s Jem’Hadar officer - Iliana captures Ke Hovath, the keeper of a Bajoran artifact used to keep the Dal’rok at bay over a small village on Bajor. Taking the artifact, Iliana becomes convinced that she can infiltrate the Mirror Universe and open the wormhole there, thus installing herself as Emissary and taking control of the Mirror Universe.

Iliana’s plan, though, is far more self-serving. She wants to use the Wormhole and the Prophets to move through all realities to kill Kira Nerys in each and every dimension. As she manipulates General Kurn with the idea that she can provide a loyal army of Jem’Hadar soldiers from the alternate universe, she works to stay alive and gain access to the Celestial Temple. While her machinations develop, Kira and Vaughn make contact with the Bajoran dissident movement which offers the best chance of thwarting Iliana . . . if only it can keep it together long enough to succeed, an unlikely possibility given that the Rebels in control of Terok Nor appear to have bombarded the Bajoran capital from orbit!

The biggest liability to The Soul Key is that it is so self-referential as to be stifling to those who have not been fans of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But as a fan, it was enjoyable to see how Olivia Woods managed to tie together the disparate elements of the series in order to create a tense, engaging character study. Unfortunately, the liability is not entirely limited to new readers. Almost the entire book is focused on Iliana Ghemor, a character who Woods fleshed out almost entirely in the prior novel. The character is intriguing and Woods finally makes her make sense, but the end result of The Soul Key is an overall lack of a sense of real consequence to anyone the reader is likely to care about. After all, the Mirror Universe characters are almost all dead and they are recurring guest stars in the overall narrative of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. So, too, is Iliana Ghemor and what happens to her ultimately only matters to most readers for how it affects the characters we care about.

Most notable among these is Kira Nerys, who is Iliana’s doppelganger. Unfortunately, Kira’s growth is stiflingly small in this book and most of it is related to her dealing with the Taran’atar. Taran’atar actually has a fairly decent arc in this book as he makes the inevitable leap from Iliana’s tool to an actualized character. If nothing else, while the other characters may seem peripheral, Taran’atar finally feels like he has an arc worthy of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Ever an outsider, the Jem’Hadar officer finally comes into his own as a character who is more than just the Deep Space Nine “type.” And Woods gives him an interesting character path one is actually interested in seeing the consequences of.

As for Iliana, the character finally becomes a villain worth watching when she has a motivation – if flimsy – for her plan. Until now, readers have seen the effects of her machinations, but not known why she is doing what she is doing. The Soul Key satisfactorily explains that and the sense of revenge is a very classic one.

Unfortunately, because of the gaps in the prior novels, Olivia Woods is left filling in vital pieces of information throughout The Soul Key. For the most part, it works because after the “teaser,” Woods sends the reader back to the gap of time on Harkoum nine months prior where Iliana’s story left off before. Woods then works up to the present day and she does a decent job of painting in the details in Iliana’s story that one needs to make sense of the convoluted machinations the character is engaged in. This sense of telling the story as details become necessary becomes problematic when the reader reaches the “present” and Woods seems stuck with her own technique. So, for example, in on page 224 a line comes up mid-chapter that is instantly flashed back for several pages from and the reader has to work back up to the line and it seems more sloppy than a matter of technique. So, it works when Woods clearly labels the timeframe and jumps around, but when she jumbles the times up within a chapter, it seems less engaging and more confusing.

And things are confusing enough in a book with two Iliana Ghemors, at least one of whom looks like Kira Nerys! But for those looking for a good character study, The Soul Key is a pretty classic revenge tale with a madwoman who is bent on manipulating two universes out of her sense of injustice. Woods does what all of the best writers working in the Mirror Universe do, which is to bring familiar characters into play in the alternate universe with little twists and readers will delight at the way she places Martok, Kurn, Entek and Dukat in the Mirror Universe.

And if this sounds very confusing, it is because The Soul Key is exactly what it promises to be, a science fiction adventure set in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine franchise. It is not designed to be overly accessible to those who do not know the television show. That said, if one has read Fearful Symmetry, it is remarkably easy to follow and is quite enjoyable.

Finally, for all of my problems with moments of sloppy narrative technique, Olivia Woods deserves a lot of credit for her level of diction throughout The Soul Key. Instead of making the language more adult-oriented by including curses in made up languages, she peppers the books with words that are a higher level of diction than most Star Trek novels. There was even a word I had to look up (I can’t even find it now, but it impressed me that Woods was writing at something above a high school level of vocabulary).

Anyone who likes science fiction and alternate identity stories will enjoy this, but it truly is only for the fans. But those who might have been more lukewarm to Fearful Symmetry will find this justifies their faith in Olivia Woods and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

For other books featuring Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, check out my reviews of:
The Best Of Deep Space Nine – Mike W. Barr
Twist Of Faith
Millennium – Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens


For other Star Trek books, be sure to check out my specialized Star Trek Book Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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