[Retro-Review] Star Trek: Vanguard: Harbinger (2005)

Reviewer’s Note: Funny what a difference a decade makes. When I originally read Harbinger, I was not really a fan of the Original Series in the sense that I had barely watched any episodes outside of the movies. Star Trek: Vanguard was crucial in me not only seeking out more Original Series novels to read but subsequently watching the series on Netflix. 

I’m not a fan of the Original Series. I know that must violate some cardinal rule of geekdom, but so be it. I loved Star Trek: The Next Generation, and my favorite Trek series remains Deep Space Nine. I know we owe these series to the Original, and while I don’t loathe it, I would never go out of my way to purchase any novels set in this era.

The reason for this is simple. You know how these characters turn out. You know none of the main characters will significantly change in any book. The Enterprise won’t blow up. Nothing of real consequence can happen. And that bores me. That is why I rarely, if ever, purchase books from any series set in between seasons or episodes. A lot of people will disagree with that, and that’s good for them. But this is how I feel.

The newest Star Trek novel series, Vanguard, caught my attention for a few reasons. Being a huge fan of DS9, I found the idea of a series set aboard a space station in the 23rd century interesting. As a fan of the other original book series, such as New Frontier and Titan, I have found the editors at Pocket Books more than capable of releasing quality Trek fiction with new and often fascinating characters. I know the author and editor have repeatedly said that Vanguard is not “DS9 in the 23rd century”, but after reading the first volume, Harbinger, I must say that there is one important aspect in which it does resemble Deep Space 9: quality. In the first outing, writer David Mack presents us with a sharply written tale that merges mature storytelling with a hard-edged view of life in the frontier of the 23rd century.

Harbinger starts off with Kirk and the Enterprise returning from the Galactic Barrier, and make their way to the closest point for repairs: that being Starbase 47, also known as Vanguard. Vanguard is located in the Taurus Reach, a vast and unexplored region of space, nuzzled in between Klingon and Tholian space. Kirk is surprised to find a starbase such as Vanguard operational so quickly and so far from Federation space. Kirk takes it upon himself to discover why this is the case. Soon, a disaster occurs that threatens war for the Federation, as well as the very purpose of Vanguard’s existence.

An air of mystery surrounds the events and characters of Vanguard. The crew is filled with people who have ambiguous agendas and complex personalities. Right and wrong here is often subject to various points of view, and it makes for stellar storytelling. Vanguard’s saga unfolds as we meet a number of new characters, such as station commander Commodore Diego Reyes, Intelligence officer T’Prynn, Ambassador Jetanien, journalist Tim Pennington, and “trader” Cervantes Quinn. There are a number of other characters- quite a few, actually, and though one may feel a little overwhelmed, I never found this to be the case. In meeting these characters, we are shown their mistakes, their passions, their sorrows, and what drives them. They displayed unique characteristics and back-stories that helped to make Vanguard a rich tapestry. David Mack is to be commended for the amount of detail he put into Harbinger. He makes ample use of the 360+ pages, taking his time in introducing us to the crew and setting the scene. Harbinger is very much a character drama as much as it is an action story, and in either case, it makes fascinating reading.

A nice touch here is that, while it is a standard Trek convention to kick off a new series with a few established characters in guest starring roles, the new characters are never pushed into the background or outshined. Kirk and the rest of the Enterprise crew have solid supporting roles, but they do not detract from Vanguard’s crew. In fact, it was interesting to see Reyes put Kirk in his place a few times throughout the story. I liked the angle of Kirk being viewed as young and untested, and the running gag about the Enterprise still being Pike’s ship was very funny. The interaction between Spock and T’Prynn was fun to reading, particularly the contrast displayed in their last scene together.

With so much Trek fiction available today, including a number of ongoing book series, the decision was made to set Vanguard apart by having the focus be on aspects not previously explored to great lengths in other Trek series. By having the central characters being a Commodore, and Intelligence officer, and an Ambassador, we get a higher-level view of Starfleet politics and how they affect the running of a starbase. In fact, I loved the subplot of the Starfleet Judge Advocate General investigating some of Commodore Reyes’ command decisions, and how the investigation could hinder the secret purpose for Vanguard’s existence. We also get the news media’s view, through Tim Pennington, and Cervantes Quinn provides use with a look at the darker aspects of Vanguard’s merchants and businesses. In fact, one could easily miss the fact that Reyes’ command staff, including his XO, are minor characters, barely seen throughout the book. This flies against convention, and works wonderfully. I certainly hope to see Vanguard keep this niche as the series progresses.

They went the extra step with the book itself. The overall package is fantastic, from the strong texture of the cover, beautiful artwork, and the included foldout schematics of the Vanguard station. This last one was a particularly nice touch, and added an extra special touch as being the first book in a new series.

I cannot find very much at fault with Harbinger. Some may be disappointed to find that not all of the answers are given in the book, which is understandable, considering that it is an ongoing series. Some may object that there was not enough of Kirk and Spock in the book, but considering they’re just the guest stars, it is to be expected (and in my opinion, preferable). Some may have their sense of morality tugged at in certain sections, but I find that to be part of the beauty of Harbinger. David Mack gives us situations that, while perhaps not considered “right” or appropriate, are honest and full of emotion and energy. He doesn’t dumb things down. This isn’t Star Trek for a child, and it shouldn’t be.

To conclude, Harbinger is a fantastic beginning to a series that is sure to please both current fans of the Star Trek book ranges and new ones. My only regret is that book two, Summon the Thunder, is not scheduled for release until July 2006. I certainly hope that Vanguard sells well enough to keep this series going in the long term. It is books like these that remind me how poorly Star Trek has been represented on television over the past eight or so years. If TV Trek had been written this good, perhaps it would still be on the air. I give Harbinger a 95% rating.

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