Friday, 4 April 2014

The Fall: The Poisoned Chalice is a Cup of Excellence

Damn you James Swallow. Damn you all the way to the Archanis system.

It took a while for The Poisoned Chalice to arrive and after the ups and downs of the first three novels in The Fall quintology I was expecting something of a loss of power here, a hiccup, the stumble, the filler.

Well I'm sorry but that just ain't the case but be warned, we might have some SPOILERS ahead so just watch out.

So why am I all Damn You James Swallow? Because I couldn't put this book down. Now unless +Carl Thomson can say otherwise with Peaceable Kingdoms which I myself have yet to read, this is the jewel in the crown as far as I'm concerned. While we've been adding question upon question through the preceding novels it seems as though we're finally getting payoff here.

Split into three clear narratives around the continuing story concerning the assassination of the UFP President Naniette Bacco and the troubles of Andoria, it could be construed that this would put a strain on the novel as a whole. Instead it only enhances the story. Riker, now promoted for a whole bunch of secret hush hush reasons to Admiral tackles the conspiracies on Earth which harks back to The Next Generation's Conspiracy and perhaps moreso Deep Space Nine's Homefront and Paradise Lost. Then there's Commander Vale heading off on her own little adventure on the Nova Class USS Lionheart and a third strand that's taking Tuvok and Nog off on another tangent. Talk about packing out a story, this has it all.

Swallow has mastered all of the characters from the off. Riker is perfected and shows the resilience that we saw back in The Best of Both Worlds when realising it's down to him to sort out this god awful mess on Earth as well as start to unravel the mystery as to just who is pulling the strings and what all the fragments mean when they come together. Having Riker finally captaining his own ship was one thing but taking the step up to a desk job is another - and the question that hangs is whether or not it'll be as short as Kirk's stint. He does seem capable in this new role if not 100% at home to begin with and his interactions with Deanna, just as they were in that career conversation in The Best of Both Worlds are quite telling about his thoughts on the change in rank.

Swallow does well to maintain the interest in this line of the story and it could have become quite plodding but by dropping little asides and constantly questioning both Riker's and those around him in their actions there's always something to think about. Of the three strands this is probably the most important but not the most interesting as the stories off-world have much more of a punch. Riker in some ways is the chessmaster here. moving his pieces into play against a devious enemy. Of course a big difference in Riker now besides the rank is that he has both a wife and daughter (Deanna and Natasha) who make appearances. We see perhaps a little wisening in the admiral as it's not just about him anymore, the safety of his family is also at stake as he investigates the assassination.

Vale's story on the medical USS Lionheart has some brilliantly realised characters especially her first officer, Commander Atia and the chief medical officer who is less than human - or bipedal for that matter. While they are a good group of Guest Starrings it's the destination that proves the intrigue and when that's revealed we get to see a different aspect to the arc that's been driving this story forward. For a character I'm not very familiar with I understood her very quickly and there are certainly shades of Riker dripped into her personality as she investigates some less than reputable goings on. Anyone else who read this think they could get a few novels out of the crew of the Lionheart?

As we've discussed, so far in The Fall we've had beginnings and middles and here it seems the crew of the Titan are intergalactic caretakers sweeping up all the rubbish from across the quadrant. At times the story dives into secrecy, espionage and off-the-record meetings where those in question are in danger just from being in the same place through to all-action special operations territory that I would more imagine between the cover of a Tom Clancy novel. 

That Tuvok/Nog thread which also brings back the much underused Tom Riker (why no third episode huh?!) and is fairly key in understanding what has been happening while Admiral Riker is seeking the why aspect. The one directive they have grows and morphs as events unfold increasingly making you more unsettled as things turn out to be less than straightforward or legal. Placing such upstanding characters as Nog and Tuvok in this situation is a great move as both are men of very high standards and morals. As their story expands we can see how there are choices that have to be made and we can see to which side of the line they fall. Admittedly it's a fairly thick line  that could probably be seen from the International Space Station.

Associating with a group of mercenaries the scenes on board their suped-up transport ship are something akin to Aliens or Predator with lots of macho bonding and suggestions of ruthless, cutthroat individuals of a less than admirable past. It is a bit cliched but then in such instances these days it's very hard not to be.

Each of the threads is not what it appears at first hand and where this novel starts is a big jump from it's somewhat foreboding conclusion. Swallow has had a lot to work with here, bringing in pieces from all three of the previous novels so that those reading out of sequence can still dive in and enjoy.

I would question once again the logic of choosing to do that and have found reading the earlier books to be key in totally understanding the narrative arc. It can be done as a one-off but I wouldn't recommend it. Reading The Poisoned Chalice before reading A Ceremony of Losses would guarantee you would be handed the outcomes to a number of surprises from the book and make going back to it irrelevant. However, perhaps it's not about seeing the "answers" if you will if you don't truly understand the question and that might be the beauty of The Fall series. Throwaway references to the other titles do make you sit up and ask what have you missed especially in regards to The Crimson Shadow which I reviewed earlier this year. There's much more to the whole Cardassian/Andorian/Tzenkethi issues than we've been told before. Not bad to still be punching out some new shockers in the closing stages of a well-formulated saga.

At the time that seemed to be the weakest link but having pounded through The Poisoned Chalice that second novel looks like it is the cornerstone of the quintology, giving much more than you expected. The way in which James Swallow funnels the three stories together means that Dayton Ward has something of a big job ahead to ensure finality to The Fall. It's a well-realised novel which focuses heavily on the characters and their motivations. All are asked to work outside what would be their usual framework - their box - and come up with on-their-feet solutions on more than one occasions. Effectively their paths are marked out when they complete their own threads but this is a journey in each case that it is necessary to understand before they make their final, decisive moves in Peacable Kingdoms.

I'm sure there are bits from David R George III, Una McCormack and David Mack's efforts that I've forgotten and will play a part in the conclusion of this superb storyline. Now the threads are passed onto the fifth author and we'll be discussing the no doubt epic and explosive novel very soon.

The Poisoned Chalice is available now from Simon and Schuster priced £6.99 ISBN 9781476722221

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