The Dark Veil
By James Swallow
Gallery Books — January 2021
ISBN: 9781982154066 — Hardcover — 336 pp.
Good, mediocre, or even bad, I always enjoy reading media tie-in novels for properties I love. They are comfort reads, familiar and undemanding even after a long stressful day. I’ve lately been both (re)/reading the older Star Trek novels while as keeping up with the new releases. The newer ones definitely are more consistently higher in quality, but even among them The Dark Veil stands out as stellar. Among the best Trek novels I’ve read, it also makes a highly satisfying science fiction story on its own.
Branded as the second novel within the Star Trek: Picard series, The Dark Veil follows soon after the events in Una McCormack’s The Last Best Hope, and serves as a continued prequel to the CBS All-Access Picard series. Despite its appellation, The Dark Veil includes only two brief scenes with former Admiral Jean-Luc Picard. Instead, it focuses on Captain William Riker, counselor/diplomatic liaison Commander Deanna Troi, and their young son Thad, aboard the USS Titan. However, the novel chronicles an incident in their lives that impacts events seen in the television series, particularly the “Nepenthe” episode where Riker and Troi appear with daughter Kestra, still mourning the loss of their son Thad. Moreover, the plot and themes of The Dark Veil echo those brought to the fore of the Picard series: the Romulans and the eminent destruction of their homeworld star, the Zhat Vash, and the potential threat or fear of artificial life.
In its setting on the USS Titan and featuring that crew, The Dark Veil also represents a new novel in the Star Trek: Titan series, shifted now into the new ‘canon’. It remains to be seen how The Next Generation of series of novels could possibly be forced into the new canon timelines. I imagine that this now contains some retcons compared to what was in the original Titan series of books. Now, I haven’t yet read the Titan series, so I’m not sure how this compares or alters, but I believe The Dark Veil does use many of the characters first written from that series of novels.
Following the AI-led insurrection/destruction on Mars, the Federation has banned further research into, or development of, artificial sentient life. To the disappointment of hopeful idealists like Picard and Riker, they have withdrawn active support for the evacuation of Romulan citizens and turned insular. Among the instability and rising authoritarianism of multiple powers within the Alpha Quadrant, the unaligned and reclusively secret Jazari choose to convert their entire planet to a large vessel that will take them away from an area where they no longer feel safe or welcome. The handful of Jazari serving in Starfleet resign their commission and Starfleet (via the USS Titan) is chosen by the Jazari to transport the last remaining expats back to their now-converted home world to join the others for departure.
With the Jazari world near the Neutral Zone, the Titan notes a Romulan warbird maneuvering nearby, watching and making itself known. As the Jazari make their final preparations and the Titan is about to depart, a horrible accident occurs that threatens the Jazari and all of nearby space. While trying to save lives and avert disaster the USS Titan takes significant damage, and the Romulan ship arrives. To their surprise, the Romulan Commander offers assistance to the Titan and the Jazari.
Aboard the Romulan warbird, an agent of the Tal Shiar makes her displeasure for his act of altruism known to the Commander. Aboard the Jazari ship, the reptilian-appearing species debates what to do about the humans and Romulans who have now helped save them. Their Code demands offering support in return, but an important secret they hold also demands the continued limited contact of their reclusiveness from the humans and Romulans alike.
“Doing the right thing” exists as the central concept of the The Dark Veil. Characters from all sides repeatedly espouse this as a guiding principle. The Jazari take each step with the morally ‘right’ thing in mind for the safety of their species, but also taking into account the welfare of others. Similarly, the crew of the Titan – and the Federation as a whole, debate what the ‘right’ amount of engagement should be with a culture that asks to keep to itself and seems intent on abandoning their home, and another that is just as secretive, but also more of a threat, whose home is about to be taken from them. Now that the Federation has turned their back on the Romulans, what is the right thing for Riker and his crew to do? The Romulan Tal Shiar agent will do the right thing for what the spy organization envisions the Empire to require, but as a fanatical member of the Zhat Vash, that ‘right’ course of action for the Empire may, or may not, align with what she sees as best for all of organic life, faced a perceived AI-driven extinction. For the Romulan Commander, he will do his duty to what is right for Romulan Empire, but also sees a responsibility to help any and all life. For all the divisions between Romulans and the species of the Federation, he also sees commonality and like Riker, hope.
Amid all the action and intrigue born of these competing viewpoints and hidden secrets, brilliant and precocious young Thad becomes gravelly injured. His only hope of survival might come from the advanced technology of the Jazari, that they remain hesitant to share. Moreover, their treatment is not without risks, forcing the Jazari, Troi, and Riker to face difficult decisions of what is right for saving Thad. These scenes with Thad are bittersweet, knowing from the Picard TV series what ultimately happens to the boy, and the events here help explain some of what the show only vaguely mentioned.
Swallow does a fantastic job of balancing all of the elements of The Dark Veil together into an entertaining and even profound Star Trek adventure. I had high expectations for this novel based on how much I enjoyed the other Star Trek novel by Swallow that I’ve read: Day of the Vipers, the first in the Terok Nor trilogy. There too he writes excellent characterization combined with deeper themes and entertaining action. Even with those expectations, I remained impressed here. Swallow writes points of view from each of the three sides that seem realistic, that readers can empathize with. Even with the crazed fanaticism of the novel’s villain. Further, he nails the voices of Riker and Troi alike, using them both to the best they’ve ever been.
The novel is bookended with a Romulan tribunal questioning Riker, the Romulan Commander, and the Tal Shiar/Zhat Vash member. At first I wasn’t sure about this structure, but the end made it worthwhile, with a surprise guest appearance that worked very well tying in events of Star Trek movies with the TV series and novels.
And that reminds me of another aspect of this that I had wanted to bring up. I am in the camp that thinks that most of the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies are pretty awful. Insurrection was largely forgettable, and I wish I could forget Nemesis. Likewise, the first season of Picard was disappointing overall. While it had some highlights, most of it went in directions I found both overused and too dystopia-ridden. The ending was awful and contrived. Somehow, Swallow took elements from, and references to, these things that I didn’t really like much, and did take them in interesting ways, rather than making them worse. He maintains a dark ‘edge’ here that the newer Trek has gone toward, but kept it more consistent with the optimism of the past.
The Dark Veil succeeds in all aspects more than The Last Best Hope, which was already a very good novel. If you are a fan of Picard already and read media tie-ins, I imagine this is already on your radar. But if you are not either of those things, but like Star Trek, I still recommend this. If by some miracle you are reading this, but are an utter stranger to Picard – or even Start Trek, I would still say this is worth reading for a SF fan. Familiarity with the universe and characters is certainly a bonus, but it wouldn’t be essential. It may even work as an entry.
I won’t be reviewing the older Trek I re/read, but look here for reviews of future new novels out from Gallery Books – all but Discovery for now, as I still haven’t watched that.