A CONTEST OF PRINCIPLES (STAR TREK) by Greg Cox

A Contest of Principles
(Star Trek: The Original Series)
By Greg Cox
Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster) — November 2020
ISBN: 9781982134709
— Paperback — 387 pp.


Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise are ordered to the planet Vok, where the government there is holding its first democratic elections after a long period of authoritarian military rule. The Federation has been invited to watch over the elections as non-aligned observers, and ensure that the computer-based voting system proceeds without controversy or tampering. The outcome of the election will have broad repercussions for nearby systems as well. Vok has territorial eyes set on the planet Braco, viewed as their ancestral home. But the nearby planet of Ozalor also contests Braco as their own, and generations of animosity has now built up between the worlds. Adding to the eggshells that the crew of the Enterprise must step among, Ozalor maintains a fiercely isolationist policy, maintaining no diplomatic ties to the Federation, and keeping memory of last encounters turned hostile and deadly.

While Kirk visits Vok with Federation representatives to oversee the election, news of contagious disease outbreak on Braco draws Dr. McCoy, Nurse Chapel and a security guard to that nearby world via shuttle. It’s a trap! (Oh, sorry, that’s Star Wars) Ambushed upon arrival, Dr. McCoy is secreted off Braco by a majordomo to the royal family of Ozalor. The Princess of that planet is afflicted by a mysterious disease and McCoy has been kidnapped to help treat her. Spock meets up with Nurse Chapel and the security officer on Braco to investigate the doctor’s disappearance, but faces resistance from the controlling government there, who is eager to blame a political dissident group on their planet for the kidnapping. On Ozalor, McCoy tries to help his VIP patient,, despite the circumstances of his enlistment, but discovers himself then plunged into the machinations of the royal court.

The older mass-market paperback Star Trek novels stuck to the episodic format of the television series, with one major plot line and setting, plus a lighter, B side-plot somehow worked in. The newer novels have felt more expansive in scope, and A Contest of Principles continues that trend, with Enterprise crew members dealing with situations on not just one alien world, or two, but three. Each setting with its own cast of supporting characters and cultures.

Vok feels akin to present-day Earth, the US more specifically given our own recent election turmoils and polarizing partisanship. Braco bears resemblance to many other alien worlds of Star Trek where political differences have created a break-off group labelled terrorist, and the ruling factions thus increased the militarism of their police and security in response. Braco seems headed down that path of authoritarianism from which Vok is just now trying to move on from. However, whereas Vok directed the militarism externally to their enemies on Ozalor, Braco is now directing its militarism internally upon a population caught in the middle of the Vok-Ozalor feud, and thereby divided. With politics of a feudal monarchy, Ozalor feels the most different, almost like a culture from a fantasy novel. The healer/advisor to the court who is able to treat the Princess’ agony through seeming magic augments this fantasy vibe.

These three settings and the interconnected plot threads of each do work perfectly when writing Star Trek: The Original Series, because of the trio of characters that lead it: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. This has become the standard to the detriment of what stories could be done with a larger batch of the crew, or a different subset other than that expected trio. For the TV show, the actors playing those characters were the top-billed, indeed the only ones mentioned in the opening credits. But too often the media-tie in creations of Star Trek have then chosen to also just focus on those three.

I do get it, the charisma between the three are a large part of what made The Original Series work, made it beloved. They make a perfect trio, balanced and complimentary to buffer against the harshness or weakness that any of those individuals have on their own. Writers keep returning to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, because it’s a classic team and it works. But for these newer Star Trek books, I still hope for broadening beyond that easy, familiar setup of the primary three.

A Contest of Principles does put a bit of a spin on the trio in the sense that it is not putting them together to work off one another, but rather separating them and forcing them to manage as their pure, unadulterated selves, each unguided and untempered by their two friends. So while I may wish to see one of the secondary characters featured more than those three, again, at least we can see them manage on their own. On the other hand, Cox did the same recently with The Antares Maelstrom, and it could get old fast.

Cox does a great job writing each of the three leads, effectively capturing their voice and mannerisms. They act exactly as one would expect them to during the period in which the novel is set, the final year of the Enterprise’s original five-year mission under Kirk. They each are given a challenge and setting that most ideally plays off in opposition to their character traits as well. Kirk is a man of action, but is now placed in a role where he is to observe, severely limited in how much action he can take. Spock, of course a Vulcan of logic, is left to deal with a corrupt and illogical security force, and forced to turn to the arts of diplomacy that (at this point in his life at least) lie with his father Sarek, not he the scientist. McCoy is put up against a magician whose powers he can’t quite explain, to cure a disease that is not responding as his medical knowledge suggests it should.

Though this all may not then be particularly original, Cox writes it engagingly well. McCoy and Spock’s chapters I particularly found entertaining. Spock makes acquaintance with an animal/pet that is humorous and endearing. And, who doesn’t enjoy curmudgeon, but gold-hearted, McCoy chew some scenery? I’m less of a Kirk fan, but those who are will surely find familiar joy with his third of the story.

Thankfully this does work for the novel, as other parts of it succeed less well. The new characters are as one-dimensional as primary characters are able to be in media-tie in novels. The stakes can’t really be high for a crew we all know are going to be fine. But, those created just for this could contain greater depth. There isn’t much nuance to those on Braco or Ozalor, and they behave rather stereotypically. The characters on Vok do have far more nuance, to create intrigues of scandal and conspiracies, and something beyond clear-cut heroes/villains in the election. However, that gain becomes hampered by dialogue that can come across as corny. That issue of dialogue also represents the one negative that crept into the otherwise well-written Enterprise characters, with Kirk. I know Kirk has used the term ‘mister’ in his lines on the show (e.g. “you better think twice about that, mister!”) but when written it looks extra silly; Cox employs it often. The start of the novel went slower for me due to the dialogue writing of those secondary characters, but once more of the action started up I was able to get into the story and enjoy this as a decent Trek novel after all.

Recent Star Trek novels have also upped, or expanded, things in the theme department. A Contest of Principles, which takes its title from a quote regarding politics, of course is all about the themes of politics, comparing them across three unique situations/worlds. When I first read the summary of this regarding the elections and a pandemic disease outbreak I wondered how Cox managed to get things so right! The pandemic outbreak angle of course ends up being a lure for McCoy only, but the similarities between the recent US elections that were going on as this book was published in November are likely not coincidence. Many of course saw the capital riots coming – given they were announced and long-stirred-up, of course. I feel as though the situation on Vok wrapped up a bit too easily and neatly for realism, but nonetheless the look into politics there vis-a-vis our reality is a useful endeavor, as are those ‘contests of principles’ explored on the other two planets.

A Contest of Principles is going to work well for any fans of Star Trek, but it’s probably not one I’d strongly recommend for general readers who don’t care about the series. But for the fans of these stories and this crew, let’s just get some more of the other characters, please?


THE DARK VEIL (STAR TREK — PICARD) by James Swallow

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.


THE FIFTH HOUSE OF THE HEART by Ben Tripp

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The Fifth House of the Heart
By Ben Tripp
Gallery Books – July 2015
ISBN 9781476782645 – 400 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


For fans of atmosphere and adventure stories with a paranormal twist, The Fifth House of the Heart is a marvelously fun summer read. This is one of those book equivalents to the summer blockbuster, and I could easily see it adapted as such for the screen. There is nothing particular intellectual to it, no grand social commentary, no character studies that pull at the heartstrings in explorations of the human psyche. What it does have is a well-told story that mixes horror with an international heist, using delightful characters and a dash of humor and gothic thrills.
Imagine that vampires have existed among us, for generations of human lives. Sure, it’s been done countless times before from Dracula to The Southern Vampire Mysteries. But what I haven’t seen is combining the immortality of vampires with inspiration from PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. If one could live for centuries, amass global fortunes, and horde goods like a dragon in your lair, just think what priceless antiques one could then collect through the ages to enjoy beside the coffin where you rest, decorating the castle where you lurk.
 –
Admired antiques dealer Asmodeus “Sax” Saxon-Tang has gained fortune and glory traveling all over the world acquiring some of the finest artifacts known, including items long lost to history. Sax’s ego and success have been built through a secret edge: he knows that vampires exist and he has hunted and killed them to steal their ancient treasures. Now, late in his life, Sax’s arrogance and greed has caught up to him. A powerful vampire from his past has set sights on Sax, putting his loved ones at risk. Together with a misfit team of thieves,  vampire hunters, and a secret order of the Catholic church, Sax journeys to destroy the monster and gain one last score, into what may be a deadly trap for all.
Part of what makes The Fifth House of the Heart work well is the point-of-view of Sax: one part crotchety old man, one part big softie. He has a great sense of humor, even within the deathly serious situations that face him. Filled with guilt over the luck of his past despite cowardice, he finds moments of bravery, bearing acceptance of his faults and pride for his strengths.
I found Tripp’s take on the vampire myth particularly fascinating though. The vampires of The Fifth House of the Heart only superficially resemble the ‘classic’ European creature. Ancient and strong, but not undead or easily killed by special weapons, they are monsters that begin to take on the characteristics of that which they consume. Those that feed on humans will appear human, according to the gender they favor as prey. Those that feed on other animals will take on that form. In a blend of vampire and shape-shifting myths, Tripp writes the vampires as something truly terrifying, creatures that shine in the horror and gore of some action scenes of the novel.
There are many best-selling novels out there that are written primarily for their entertaining story and likable characters. Those in series tend to quickly become formulaic. Others remain popular despite unintentionally poor writing or scenarios that I think may actually lower a reader’s intelligence. (cough, Dan Brown, cough) For all its fun, The Fifth House of the Heart remains smart. Like most of the books from another horror writer – a guy from Maine who everyone knows – Tripp’s novel doesn’t abandon the essential cores to the art of good writing, even though art is not its purpose at all.
Aside from the plot, (anti?)-hero, and monsters at the novel’s forefront, Tripp also nails so many of the background elements. The secondary characters, historical details, sensory descriptions, and general gothic atmosphere all combine contextually as a foundation for the entertaining story that towers above. This is a book that I look forward to rereading again soon.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Of Bone and Thunder, by Chris Evans

Of Bone and Thunder, by Chris Evans
Publisher: Gallery Books
ISBN: 1451679319
496 pages, hardcover
Published: 14th October 2014
Source: NetGalley

 Sometimes getting behind on reviews can have its benefits. For example, I’ve gotten to think about this novel for longer after finishing it than I expected. When about halfway through Chris Evans’ Of Bone and Thunder I was still finding it hard to get into, appreciate, or particularly enjoy. Upon finishing it I had a hard time figuring out what of substance I could even say about it.
Upon reflection I realized that my failure to be drawn into the novel stemmed largely from it just not being what I thought it would be, of being the novel I probably unreasonably wanted it to be. Perhaps you’ve read a book with the same mindset and results? Once accepting the novel for what it actually intends to be I find a deeper appreciation for it, and Evans’ “daring” to try something a little different. Though I’ve grown to appreciate several aspects of the novel, some problems still remain in my mind.
Unreasonable reader expectations began with the novel’s marketing description as “Apocalypse Now meets Lord of the Rings”. I’m always wary of such comparisons to authors or works, so this wasn’t a strong expectation for me at least. But it may be for other readers. Of Bone and Thunder is a fantasy novel with allegorical themes recalling the Vietnam War. So those titles only serve as overused proxies for highly recognized associations with ‘Vietnam’ and ‘Fantasy’. Evans’ novel has little to nothing in common with the plots or styles of Coppola’s film (or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) or Tolkien’s trilogy.
Of Bone and Thunder keeps sharp focus on a handful of characters who are soldiers waging war in the land of Luitox for a distant kingdom (The Kingdom). Their enigmatic enemy are the Slyts, a reclusive jungle-inhabiting people skilled at guerilla-style tactics. Beyond the conventional warfare of the common soldiers, the conflict hinges on the power of – and intelligence gathered by thaums (as in thaumaturge) on each side. Balancing their handicap of unfamiliar territory and foe, the Kingdom also has the advantage of flight, in the form of lethal, but volatile, dragons.
One thing Evans does very effectively is include a cast of characters who span the class spectrum of the Kingdom’s military: thaum, commander, dragon-tender, common soldier, covert op, etc. For most of the novel these characters are largely skewed to the male gender – as it would be if it were actually the Vietnam War, but gradually some female characters enter the novel, and thankfully in ways that don’t just involve romantic interest for the men – though that over-worn path is still traveled.
With a focus on individuals of the Kingdom, the novel captures a sense of their psychology and trauma, fighting what seems an almost pointless campaign against an enemy barely known for a distant ruling class that is barely familiar itself. These parallels to Vietnam are blatant, and rather familiar.
And here is where I really wanted Of Bone and Thunder to be something else. Glimpses of the Slyts kept making me want to see and know more about them – their reality and point of view on this war – and see less of the American proxies of the Kingdom. At first it seemed unclear if the Slyts really existed as the propaganda and rumors of the Kingdom said, or if they were even remotely threatening. Written truly different from the recognizably human members of the Kingdom, the Slyt society seemed less a direct version of the Vietnamese and therefore has great potential for deeper, unique development in what is a fantasy novel. But a novel from the point of view of the Slyts are not what this is.
Ultimately how much  a reader may enjoy Of Bone and Thunder may come down to whether it is read as a developed fantasy that recalls aspects of the Vietnam war, versus a novel of the Vietnam War where some elements are swapped out with some fantastic entity, like dragons. For me, some parts of the novel recalled the pulp style writing that science fiction magazines have consciously tried to avoid, like a scene from a Western where guns are simply replaced with lasers, cowboy is replaced with spaceman, etc.
I finished Of Bone and Thunder somewhat perplexed over why it was ever written as a fantasy, and not just as a mainstream novel of the Vietnam War. I was left with the thought that perhaps it’s because the themes and elements of the war are already well-tread. The fantasy aspect and exploration of using dragons or mage-combat in warfare is the draw for this. As long as you enter into the novel with a better sense of what to expect in terms of the story’s focus and find that intriguing – or simply enjoy well-written dialogue and characters in a fantasy setting such as this – the novel is one to check out.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Courting Greta, by Ramsey Hootman

Courting Greta, by Ramsey Hootman
Publisher: Gallery Books
ISBN: 1476711291
374 pages, paperback
Published June 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This novel was a pleasant surprise that I did enjoy despite its simplicity. Both the story and the writing are straight-forward, with no complex, artistic manipulations of the language and no surprise twists, making a quick read. Yet I enjoyed reading it the entire way, despite the predictability and its general positivity where things work out despite the travails of life.

It works because it is so straight-forward and simple. Hootman’s purpose here is not elaborate plot, exciting action, or rich, inspiring poetic prose. The novel is about characters, the protagonist and the woman he is courting, Greta. The majority consists of dialogue or the internal thoughts of the protagonist, little attention is given to the details of surroundings or the world apart from the one of the relationship between these two people. The story of their relationship, amid all of their eccentricities and metaphorical baggage is entertaining and enrapturing simply because Hootman is so exceptional at rendering the characters realistically.

I wish Hootman were able to achieve these strengths of characterization while still fulfilling other aspects of the novel, such as descriptions of the settings, or the personalities/histories of secondary characters who end up feeling terribly wooden compared to the fluidity of the novel’s stars. If you like touching and realistic stories of a developing romance then this is something you should without a doubt check out, but I’m not sure if a broader audience would appreciate it as much.

Three  Stars out of Five