Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Lifting the Dark Veil: Picard in Print from James Swallow

Romulans, Jean-Luc, the USS Titan and something of a mystery. Warning...spoilers potentially ahead!!!

The latest Star Trek hardback, the second Picard novel, flies us into the ‘lost years’ between Nemesis and the end of the 24th century. Focusing most of the time on Captain Riker and the Titan, The Dark Veil manages to do more than just tell a new Star Trek story.

With the Mars tragedy in the recent past, aid to the Romulans has stopped leaving the Empire to the mercy of the imminent supernova that will consume the homeworld. Starfleet has retreated but a few captains are still offering under-the-counter aid.

The Titan itself has been tasked with assisting the Jazari, a reclusive race who have decided to trade it all in and head out into the distant special yonder to live out their days.

Circumstances mean that their society ends up a little more scrutinised than they ever intended and forces an alliance between the Titan and the crew of a Romulan Warbird. 

But lo and behold there's more to it than that and The Dark Veil goes above and beyond to not just begin to fill in the intervening years between Nemesis and Picard but also dovetail the various media strands into one cohesive story.

Several elements from the Picard series materialise here, the Zhat Vash being the most prominent. The narrative from the show in which they are dedicated to the eradication of synthetic life is kept alive as well as their deference to the Tal Sh'iar and the Romulan military. Swallow also manages to weave in references to the Picard prequel comic book series (four issues) that ran at the end of 2019. 

To call this a Picard novel is a little unfair since Jean-Luc makes only two fairly superficial appearances in the book and the bulk of The Dark Veil is told from the standpoint of the Riker family. The unseen and sadly deceased Thaddeus (in Picard) receives a good deal of attention from the start with his life on the Titan examined showing both his intellect and also his alienation from other children due to his parents' position on the ship.

His part in the book is core to driving a lot of the narrative where Deanna is concerned for the most part since they are paired for the back half of the story. Swallow revives Thaddeus' love of languages mentioned in Nepenthe and the benefit of him being an only child here serves perfectly to round out the missing link in the Riker family. Character-wise both Will Riker and Deanna have seasoned and their parental responsibilities are openly on display and certainly there is a mental shift from the 100% focused duty officers of TNG into more rounded individuals where their personal lives have taken hold more than ever before and definitely affect more than a couple of decisions within the text. 

Seeing Riker at his commanding prime and with a family is new experience even within the literary arm of the Star Trek universe before and James Swallow does a masterful job of retaining enough of the TNG Riker thst he's still familiar but has learnt from life, experience, marriage - and a child.

Will Riker does find himself off the bridge of the damaged Titan more than usual here but this provides the chance for him to physically interact not only with the emigrating Jazari but also the Romulan commander. With the political climate as it is following Starfleet's withdrawal from aiding the doomed Romulus, Medaka is a much more approachable and less aloof captain than we have seen before and definitely less over dramatic and demanding than readers will be used to. He's almost - well - human.

Yet the machinations that are happening behind the scenes are what drives the real heart of the novel and once the action kicks in, this book truly picks up a pace that I found very difficult to put down. That's probably about a third of the way in once the pieces are slotted in and moving. 

Helek, the Zhat Vash operative is the best player in The Dark Veil and her inclusion adds a really bleak element of foreshadowing. Indeed, some of the elements of the Zhat Vash themselves were much easier to comprehend through Swallow's novel than they were in the TV series. Her interplay with the Romulan Medaka are a highlight even if the warbird commander has very little room to manoeuvre.

Watch out two for a couple of appearances of some of Star Trek's more diverse races such as the Remans and also a Kelpien plus one Macha Hernandez which will raise a smile to anyone familiar with the development of TNG. But do keep on reading beyond that because there's so much more involved.

The Dark Veil is a tense, well paced and actually, pretty straight-forward novel that helps develop the sandbox that is Picard as a series. James Swallow's characters have aged but are very much recognisable and there's a notable overuse of nods to the past in here with more relevant references to the recent past and associated events that make sense in the context of the book. There is a twist too which is, I'm happy to say, again in keeping with the ethos of the franchise particularly around this period of future history.

It's been a total pleasure to read this one during lockdown and a great road into expanding the new TV frontiers of Star Trek and I do think there's much more of a "feel" of '90's Trek within these pages than we see in the shows at the moment - and that's a good thing when it comes to how our favourite characters are being cared for and portrayed on the page.

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I read 'The Last Best Hope' and had some difficulty with it. It felt more like Picard of 2383 recounting snippets of his past to the reader, and the character interactions that we would "see in flashback" in an episode or in most books feels 'abbreviated' here. It's more like "Picard said 'Raffi said this, I said that'."
    Is 'The Dark Veil' like that, or more like the majority of Trek fiction that put you right in the action?

    1. Picard is barely in it as I noted above so it's more Star Trek: Titan than anything else. It's not a recounted story rather you're there as events unfold. I guess I need to have a read of Last Best Hope to appreciate the difference!

      This is a fairly run of the mill story but does breadcrumb a lot of the things we know from Picard and also seems to be trying to tie all the different media elements together in one place. Whether it's better than LBH I can't comment but I enjoyed it as a light read.

      Thanks for commenting and I hope to hear from you again!