Monday, June 18, 2012

Somewhere In The Middle Of A Convoluted Story, Fearful Symmetry Underwhelms On Its Own.

The Good: Interesting plot, Strong sense of knowledge of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Cool gimmick
The Bad: Light on character development, Predictable, Terribly incomplete story
The Basics: In a VERY weak recommend, Olivia Woods sets to cleaning up the mess from the last Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel while telling the story of Iliana Ghemor.

It has been quite a while since I picked up a Star Trek novel. I stopped collecting them when Star Trek: Voyager began and Pocket books began churning out so many books that it became clear they were just in it for the money. That may sound like a silly overstatement of the obvious, but the truth is, reading the first Star Trek: Voyager book, it became clear that the writers were going off original notes for the series; none of the characters sounded like they were supposed to and the book just stunk. I've picked up a few since then, but my time has been pretty limited, so it has been a while . . .

But on my recent trip out to Las Vegas, I found myself absolutely fascinated by Fearful Symmetry, the latest novel in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine storyline. For those unfamiliar with my reviews, I absolutely love Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (reviewed here!). It is my favorite Star Trek series and, to date, my favorite television program of all time. As I understand it, Pocket Books has been given license to freely develop the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine storyline as it has become apparent that it is one of the portions of the franchise that is cinematically dead and buried. Fearful Symmetry instantly intrigued me because it is a book with two covers and no indication of what is inside outside those covers. Arranged like an old audio cassette or record, the book starts with "Side One," as a book with Kira Nerys on the cover. Midway through the book, the story ends and the novel must be physically flipped over to reveal "Side Two," a book with Iliana Ghemor on the cover.

And as I leap into my review of Fearful Symmetry, it is worth noting right off the bat that reading this book on its own is futile for two reasons. First, it relies so heavily on specific information presented in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Second Skin" (reviewed here!) that anyone who has not seen that episode will be so completely lost and unable to suspend their disbelief long enough to even enjoy Fearful Symmetry. It helps, as well, to have seen "Ties Of Blood And Water" (reviewed here!), though for most of the rest of the book, there is adequate explanation or the inside jokes can be safely missed without truly missing anything essential. (So, for example, only the true die-hard fans are going to catch the beautifully obscure reference to Gul Danar on page 95 of "Side Two." In a discussion on how many aliens look like Cardassians and they could be surgically altered with minimal effort, Gul Danar is referenced as being an ideal match for humans, Klingons, and Romulans, a reference that means absolutely nothing save to those who know that Danar was played by Vaughn Armstrong, who appears in various episodes of various Star Trek series' as a human, Klingon, and Romulan - as well as several others.). But even more than being an Alpha Geek in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it quickly becomes apparent in reading Fearful Symmetry that one needs to have read the other Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novels, most notably Warpath, which immediately precedes this one. Sure, the reader can fudge through the changes in personnel, but all of "Side One" is a reaction to events in Warpath and as a result, it is singularly insular. This has, almost from its outset, the feeling of being a middle act in a much bigger piece and that is carried through to the last pages of both sides.

The problem with Fearful Symmetry boils down to a simple truth: the writers and executive producers of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine earned my trust by planting threads and paying them off, allowing for a few episodes wherein nothing truly happens, but it bridges a larger story. Author Olivia Woods has not earned that trust (yet) and whether she is creating on her own or working from another's larger sense of where and what the Star Trek universe ought to be (Pocket Books, just scanning their current Star Trek reading list, does seem completely obsessed with alternate universes and the Mirror Universe in particular), Fearful Symmetry is a bridging novel and some aspects of what it appears to be setting up are terribly predictable, at least to astute readers (loyal Star Trek: Deep Space Nine book readers, I'd be expecting a casualty in the near future!).

Following an assassination attempt by the station's resident Jem'Hadar, Captain Kira Nerys of Deep Space Nine welcomes home her first officer, Elias Vaughn, only to relieve him of duty for disobeying orders after she was nearly killed. Recovering from being stabbed through the heart, Kira finds herself interrogating a prisoner recovered from Harkoum, Iliana Ghemor. Iliana, however, is not native to this universe, she is the Mirror Universe Iliana and she has made a crossover to try to stop our universe's Iliana Ghemor - who is disguised as Kira Nerys - from entering the Mirror Universe to replace their Intendant Kira, become the Emissary and overthrow the Alliance. Kira slowly validates Ghemor's story and . . . [her story ends, flip the book]

Starting during the Occupation of Bajor, Iliana Ghemor (our universe's Iliana) is raised by Tekeny Ghemor as an artist. She falls in love with an officer who is assigned to Bajor and as a result, she joins the Obsidian Order until she is given a deep cover assignment. Unfortunately for her, her assignment is cut short after she is surgically altered to look like Kira Nerys and she spends the next fifteen years imprisoned, being raped by Gul Dukat.

Yes, it's a thrilling story. Actually, to her credit, Olivia Woods makes two (potentially) good observations in Fearful Symmetry. The first is in the character of Benjamin Sisko as he relates to the Mirror Universe. Woods observes that there is a certain naivete that allows fans to believe that the incursion into the Mirror Universe in the episode "Crossover” (reviewed here!), which happened while a Runabout passed through the Wormhole was a random event. With everything else in his life being orchestrated by the Prophets, Woods rightly notes (in the guise of the Prophets) that it can hardly be considered random that the Wormhole was involved in the crossover. This would be a compelling and actually insightful observation that worked the way Woods wants it to, save for one nagging detail: Sisko wasn't in that Runabout in that episode. The idea that the Prophets were guiding our Sisko to the alternate Sisko only truly works if Sisko were involved in the crossover (which he wasn't). Woods is making do with the best she has at her disposal, but it's still a bit of a stretch.

Sadly, this results in a rather convoluted plot being spelled out over the course of the first 137 pages ("Side One"). The thing is, all "Side Two" then becomes is an explicit explanation of the backstory divined in "Side One." The pieces that are slowly put together in the first half of the book are reassembled in order in "Side Two" and lead to the lack of resolution that sets up the next volume. This allows Woods to make a very neat, if convoluted, connection between Iliana and Kira that works. Borrowing from a few lines of "The Darkness And The Light" and the story of Silaran Prin, Woods connects Iliana and Kira in a very close way.

Unfortunately for Woods, the connection - by that point - is predictable. Many of the things that seem set up to try to surprise the reader, like how much Entek and the Obsidian Order have orchestrated is obvious from the outset to those who are savvy with Star Trek or spy stories. Whether from watching all of Alias or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, from the moment Woods puts Iliana in a holodeck scenario against her first Bajoran, it is obvious to the reader that the Bajoran is not a hologram. Sorry, it's not a huge plot point and, as noted, it's not a surprise to the caliber of reader who will be engaged by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The final problem with Fearful Symmetry is that it makes one big leap that was never made in "Second Skin," a leap that stretches the suspension of disbelief for the reader. In "Second Skin," Kira is used as a pawn by the Obsidian Order because of her resemblance to Iliana Ghemor. Iliana had been surgically altered to appear like a Bajoran, just as Kira is surgically altered to appear like Iliana in the episode. The problem with Fearful Symmetry is that it operates on the premise that Iliana was surgically altered to appear like Kira Nerys. Given Kira's relative unimportance for most of the Occupation, this seems a big leap and it only works in the narrow terms of this plotline. In other words, if Ghemor had been altered to look like Kira, it would have given Tekeny and the agents searching for her something solid to look for, something that they did not have in the television series. In the case of this book, it is explained (rather horrifically and without a lot of respect for the character of Gul Dukat, who is taken from being the smarmy football captain who might date rape the drunken cheerleaders, obliviously believing that they wanted it to an outright serial rapist motivated by hate), but the answer stretches our suspension of disbelief and seems patently designed to fit the rather convoluted direction this book insists on going in.

And that direction is truncated because this is very much a middle act and the story is far from complete. Instead, this is a piece in a puzzle and the puzzle continues an obsession with the Mirror Universe that serves only to further convolute the Pocket Books version of Star Trek. After all, William Shatner gave his interpretation of the Mirror Universe in his mini-series that began with Spectre (reviewed here!). This might be a more complete and intetresting vision, but it is no better so far.

Ultimately, I'm giving Woods this one. Despite the typo on page 41 (Side One, hey, my first novel had several so I'm blaming the editors - who still seem to be rushing these books to press - here!), I'm giving Woods the benefit of the doubt, but if the book that follows this one doesn't pay off, I'm coming back for this one. The story of Iliana Ghemor is interesting enough - even if it is a bit obvious - to thrill Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fans with the concept, even if it will have no real appeal to a mass audience.

Then again, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine never did . . .

For other Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novels, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Twist Of Faith


For other book reviews, visit my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the books I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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