27 September 2012

Book Review | The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling

J K Rowling took a lot of readers by surprise when she announced that her first full-length novel post-Harry Potter would be a black comedy aimed squarely at adults and focusing on a purportedly-quaint local election in the provinces - but not me. Whilst I revelled in the magic, mystery and mythology of the Harry Potter series, for me what set it apart from the rest of its well-trodden genre was the author’s wry sense of humour, peerless world-building and capacity for surprise - three qualities that, I’m pleased to report, her latest offering boasts in spades. This book’s Muggles may be curtain-twitchers and its Death Eaters may be racists, but the standard of the storytelling remains every bit as high.

Of course, many will take umbrage with the author’s recurrent use of colourful language and dialect, which at times reads like an English Irvine Welsh, Rowling matching him obscenity for obscenity throughout. However, this is every bit as appropriate in a world of leg-ups, back-scratches, split lips and cigarettes as the magical lexicon that pervades every Harry Potter title. Winterdown Comprehensive is every bit as vibrant and real as Hogwarts, and Pagford Parish Council every bit as cancerous as the Ministry – the difference here is that this story’s darkness is borne of human lust and folly as opposed to literary evil.

Rowling’s prose is as evocative as ever, and here is sharpened by a cruel edge that has, until now, had to be dulled a little for her target readership. Characters with onomatopoeic surnames are described as looking like Frankenstein’s monster; images of the obese are conjured through musings about how they could possibly wash their nether regions. The pace is a little slow, admittedly – we’re a third of way through before the eponymous casual vacancy is cemented through Fairbrother’s burial – but ultimately this is a novel about character, not incident.

Whether you’re a fan or Rowling, Potter, or just literature in general, The Casual Vacancy is sure to come as a welcome breath of fresh air. It may be teeming with easy sex, methadone and characters encapsulated by their mantra that life is, “Trying to get a fuck, and trying not to die,” but it sets itself apart from the torrent of tantalising ‘mummy porn’ bestsellers such as Fifty Shades of Grey through its cutting commentary on class, bigotry and greed. Rowling’s first book for grown-ups takes us through the magician’s pocket to a cheerless and edgy world abounding with painful possibilities that, personally, I find almost as alluring as the one teeming with wands, witches and wizards.

26 September 2012

Book Review | Star Trek: Titan - Synthesis by James Swallow

It’s nice to see a Brit penning a Titan novel, particularly one with the credentials of James Swallow. A prolific contributor to the literary worlds of Star Trek, Doctor Who and even Stargate, Swallow boldly went where no Englishman had gone before when he penned his first television script for a Star Trek series. His contribution to the ongoing Titan saga, Synthesis, is every bit as innovative as his ambitious Voyager episodes were, fusing his customary hard-science concepts with beautiful characterisation and even a little bit of welcome fan service.

Described by its author as a “first contact story with a twist”, Synthesis sees Titan drawn into a war between a race of artificial intelligences and a nebulous entity, which inadvertently sparks an event on board Titan that forces its crew to reassess their attitudes towards artificial life. Swallow expertly weaves Riker’s fond memories of Data with his growing concern for the safety of his crew, and in doing so subtly subverts readers’ impressions of post-Measure of a Man attitudes towards artificial life forms. The result is by turns thrilling and thought-provoking, and even takes in a surprising little bit of Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1 homage, as evidenced by the book’s stirring cover art.

What I found most remarkable about Synthesis though was that in just one book, Swallow was able to get me to invest in several different artificial characters, whereas some earlier Titan authors struggled to enthuse me about the ship’s own multicultural crew. The artificial lifeform’s world is beautifully-drawn, and each of its inhabitants is unique both in form and personality. I’ve read a lot a science fiction over the years, but it’s hard to point to a more compelling portrait of a mechanical society.

Overall then, Synthesis is another success for Swallow, and another success for Titan. Like this spin-off’s finest offerings, it harks back to the pioneering spirit of the original series, while offering its readers something new and cutting-edge.

13 September 2012

Star Wars LEGO Review | I Want That Ship and Not Excuses... (Part 1)

As a child, I put as many hours into LEGO as most adults do full-time jobs. My collection encompassed pirates, ‘Forestmen’ (an anonymous Robin Hood and his thinly-veiled merry men), spacemen and the police, and my projects ranged from meticulous assembly of the sets as sold to vast, sprawling cities strewn with anachronistic longbows, treasure chests and ray guns. Inevitably though, teenage angst soon took its hold of me and all but one of my LEGO sets were handed down to nephews, while I turned to drink and debauchery for my entertainment.

LEGO made an unexpected return to my life in late 2010 (by which time my age had doubled), when a lads’ weekend of all things took me to the LEGOLAND Discovery Centre in Manchester. “This’ll be a laugh,” we jovially mused, but once inside, having survived the embarrassment of being the only grown-ups not accompanied by children in Professor Brick’s factory demo, we all took our building very seriously indeed. As we exited the centre by way of the LEGO store, I couldn’t help but notice piles of Venator-class Republic attack cruisers and AT-ATs in the corner of my eye.

On Christmas Day, my many hints to the missus bore fruit as I opened up a Star Wars LEGO landspeeder and fell in love with its miniature droids and Obi-Wan Kenobi. I was less enamoured with the set’s Luke – his hair was not only the wrong colour, but far too long – but I was hooked nonetheless. “I know what I want for my birthday,” I said, lasciviously drooling over the image of a Republic attack cruiser on Amazon.

Since January 2011, I’ve collected thousands of pounds’ worth of Star Wars LEGO, which – together with a flood of one-off minifigures and planets procured through eBay – now comes close to representing the saga’s key characters, classic vehicles and even, in a few instances, memorable set pieces. The nature of LEGO is such that popular Star Wars sets are regularly being reinvented, and more than often than not improved upon, and as many of the sets reviewed below are the latest available, they’re probably the best that have ever been released (save for any long-since discontinued ultimate collector’s editions, of course). And so if you’re in the market for a new hobby, and have more money than sense, here’s a rundown of how you can quickly build yourself an empire.

#7961 - Darth Maul’s Sith Infiltrator
Some LEGO sets you buy for the models; others you buy for the minifigures. Darth Maul’s Sith Infiltrator clearly falls into the latter category. Whilst I’m not overly fond of The Phantom Menace, I’ve always liked Darth Maul, and to date this is the only set released to feature him with his trademark Zabrak horns. The set’s flesh-tone Qui-Gon Jinn was almost as rare at the time of release, and it had been a decade since a LEGO Padmé had appeared in any shape or form. Captain Panaka also made his first appearance here, though I doubt that he’s going to be that high up on anyone’s hit lists.

The five hundred piece model is by no means a let-down though; at 38cm long and 22cm wide it’s an imposing size, and far more reminiscent of the ship featured in the movie than either of its previous LEGO incarnations (even if it does come with a probe droid fewer). Young builders are sure to be enchanted by its many features – the ship boasts folding wings, a working landing gear and the customary LEGO launchable missiles. Best of all though, the bowels of the ship house Maul’s Sith speeder bike.

#7929 - The Battle of Naboo
Another minifigures set, The Battle of Naboo is one of the best value Star Wars LEGO sets that I’ve come across. I picked up my set online for around £15.99, and for that I got a functioning, two-hundred plus piece battle droid carrier, together with no fewer than twelve minifigures. Granted, ten of those twelve are battle droids, but – as with clones and stormtroopers – you never seem to have enough of ’em. Furthermore, the two detailed minifigures that round off the set are very detailed indeed – Jar Jar Binks and his fellow Gungan each boast detailed printing on their torsos and legs, and uniquely-moulded heads that finally eschewed the long-standing LEGO practice of sticking aberrantly drab monotone headpieces on Gungan bodies. You wouldn’t even begin to imagine the fun that there is to be head removing Jar Jar’s convincing head from his realistic body time and time again.


#7143 - Obi-Wan’s Jedi Starfighter
I decided to track down this 2002 set as I didn’t fancy the more recent, oversized ultimate collector’s edition of Obi-Wan’s Attack of the Clones ship because it isn’t scaled for minifigures.

The ship is inevitably disappointing when compared to more recently-released Delta-7s. Its wings are nearly flat, making it seem two-dimensional, and it doesn’t accommodate an astromech droid - LEGO simply elected to stick R4-P17’s head on the left wing and hope for the best. The cockpit doesn’t even open - if you want to take out the set’s Obi-Wan minifigure, you have to pull the cockpit piece off the model. How hard would it have been to add hinges?

The Kenobi minifigure also serves as a reminder as to how far Star Wars minifigures have come on in the last decade. Not only does the Jedi Knight look worryingly jaundice, but his eyes are no more than two black holes, and his hair’s been nicked from a generic LEGO woman.

#7752 - Count Dooku’s Solar Sailer
Ever since I first saw it in Attack of the Clones, I’ve been in love with Count Dooku’s baroque sailing ship in space. Trust the pompous, moneyed count to pilot one of the most beautifully-flamboyant craft in the Star Wars galaxy.

With fewer than four hundred pieces, this pricey limited edition model is smaller than I’d expected it to be, measuring only 27cm long and a few centimetres wide with its nacelles docked. However, the four nacelles do fold out in a surprisingly successful attempt to emulate the delicate sails seen on screen. The complete model may not be one of my favourites, but it is by far the most distinctive.

The minifigures are duly impressive, particularly the focal Sith. As strictly speaking this is a Star Wars: The Clone Wars set, this set’s Dooku is cartoonishly detailed, putting his supposedly more sober, yellow-skinned predecessors to shame. His flanking MagnaGuards are equally distinctive, though there is very little to his pilot, who is basically just a blanched battle droid less a proper head – but, to be fair, that’s all there is to his pilot on screen.

#8039 - Venator-Class Republic Attack Cruiser
As there was no full-scale star destroyer readily available at the time of my LEGO reawakening, the next best thing was a Venator-class Republic attack cruiser – a burgundy-striped, slightly more streamlined version of the wedge-shaped craft that would eventually symbolise Emperor Palpatine’s Imperial fleet.

Despite all the thousand piece plus sets that I’ve acquired since, many of which I’d consider to be ‘classic’ Star Wars vehicles, this remains one of my firm favourites. Firstly, from an aesthetic point of view, I prefer Republic vehicles to Imperial ones. Republic craft are all resplendent in their colourful liveries and insignia, whereas Imperial vessels are supposed to look jaded and drab; they’re the results of twenty-odd years’ attrition. Secondly, the half-metre attack cruiser boasts all manner of fantastic finesse touches – if you lift up the ship’s front section, for instance, you’ll find a fairly faithful reproduction of Chancellor Palpatine’s Coruscant office, desk and all. Obviously it isn’t supposed to be that office, but a sort of ‘ready room’ for him whilst aboard his personal flagship, however it’s pleasing nonetheless. Turning to function, not a square inch is wasted here as the ship’s rear houses rotatable turrets, hidden cannons and droppable bombs; its upper deck yet another gunner; and its fore section a small, mysterious box housing plans for a certain battle station...

This set is also a great one for minifigures, boasting not only LEGO’s first take on pre-Empire Day Palpatine, but his Senate bodyguards too. The extraordinary assemblage is then completed with the two clones – a pilot and a gunner, respectively – needed to see the ship’s armaments fully-manned.

# 7669 - Anakin’s Jedi Starfighter
The first Star Wars LEGO set to draw upon the 2008 animated movie, The Clone Wars, and the stunning series that would follow it, Anakin’s Jedi Starfighter saw the range eschew its customary sobriety and embrace a more colourful and - so far as toys go, at least - more convincing cartoon galaxy.

This set’s Anakin minifigure is a case in point. Earlier minifigures had been inspired by the character as played by Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen in the movies, but didn’t look much like either of them. Revenge of the Sith’s Anakin figures had bland, albeit slightly cross, black-pupilled faces that sat beneath a standard LEGO female long hair piece. This set’s, which is inspired by the CG character, has an expressive face with piercing blue eyes and a visible scar. Its hair hasn’t been stolen from a girl in a LEGO pet shop, but cast to look just like the ‘real’ Anakin’s. Even with its Republic military garb never seen in live action Star Wars, this set’s Anakin looks a damned sight more like the Christensen version than any earlier iterations. Even R2-D2 boasts more colour and detail than earlier versions, again making him more reminiscent of his silver screen self.

The ship is almost as impressive, taking the basic size and shape of Obi-Wan’s striking Attack of the Clones fighter and painting it in the colours of Anakin’s ‘Battle of Coruscant’ interceptor. The design is much more pleasing than the LEGO incarnations of either of those ships though - it’s a lot sturdier, for one thing (save for its weak landing gear), and has space for R-2 just in front of the cockpit (from which he can be violently ejected, no doubt to the amusement of younger builders).

#8095 General Greivous’s Starfighter
When it comes to Star Wars LEGO, bottom of my list of priorities is the Separatist war machine. There is one infuriating exception to this rule, however, and it is the minifigure of the commander of the Separatists’ droid army – General Grievous.

I had originally planned to buy the 2010 incarnation of the minifigure on its own on eBay, but its price was such that I reasoned I might as well pay a tenner more and also get hold of his 30cm, four-hundred piece ship; his A4-D medical droid; and the young Mon Calamari Jedi, Nahdar Vebb, who viewers of Star Wars: The Clone Wars will know met his end inside the fiendish droid general’s lair.

The redesigned Grievous figure is nothing short of stunning, particularly when compared to its monotone predecessors. Just like in the movie and animated series, Grievous’s neck extends horizontally from his body, which is now a much more credible two-tone. He now also bears the correct number of limbs, which wield his four lightsabers (two green, two blue), and, best of all, those harrowing eyes that for me typify the character’s menace. The Vebb figure is also impressive, and has the added bonus of wearing the highly sought-after Admiral Ackbar’s head. Stick the headpiece on a white-tunic torso piece and you’ve got yourself a poor man’s Ackbar. The droid I was less taken with; largely because he’s so prone to falling apart if touched even lightly, and the stickers – a constant bane of LEGO – are a bugger to get stuck on straight. I am a fan of his character though – the only droid who gets away with cheeking Grievous, as he holds the general’s health in his hands – and so it’s nice to have him included, and his rotating-chair medical repair centre too.

The ship itself is a fairly nice piece of kit, buoyed by a couple of nice features such as its opening cockpit and hidden firing missiles. What lets it down is its failure to accommodate its supposed pilot, who has two too many limbs to squeeze into the cockpit. This is easily solved by unfastening his two offending arms, but it’s hardly ideal. I certainly wouldn’t have looked at buying this set simply to get my hands on the starfighter.

#7957 - Sith Nightspeeder
Relatively few LEGO builders will have seen the episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars from which this speeder hails, and even those that have may still struggle to place it - I know that I did. However, the daunting visages of the Zabrak monster Savage Opress and erstwhile Sith assassin Asajj Ventress are not so easily-forgotten. I’m sure that I’m not alone in purchasing this set simply to get my hands on their alluring minifigures, together with another subtly-different iteration of their Jedi scourge, Anakin Skywalker (this one belonging to the latter half of the Clone Wars).

Opress is a particularly outstanding minifig as he’s not only offered daunting bulk by his armour, but he’s crowned by a unique headpiece that shows off his distinctive yellow Zabrak horns. Ventress is impressive too, but I’d have preferred to see her in a skirt again, as opposed to easy-option leggings.

The model itself is nice for the price, boasting quite a wide array of features that are sure to appeal to younger builders. The detachable “bikes” are a particular boon.

# 7256 - Jedi Starfighter and Vulture Droid
The explosive battle over Coruscant at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith is the most spectacular space battle of the prequel trilogy, and I’ve always loved how Anakin and Obi-Wan’s interceptors seemed to foreshadow the look of the TIE fighters that would become synonymous with the Empire. As such, I felt that I had to get my hands on this old release.

This set, released the very month that Revenge of the Sith was theatrically released, paired Anakin’s dirty yellow starfighter with one of the colourful vulture droids that it would be pitted against on screen. The Jedi’s ship is a lovely bit of kit, boasting a distinctive cockpit and opening wings, and the adjustable droid is a welcome bonus. The models are only let down by the starfighter’s failure to accommodate R2-D2 - as with most sets from this era, the poor astromech’s head is just hopefully placed on the ship’s left wing.

Similarly, when compared to recent minifigures, the set’s Anakin’s is very basic, though I must concede that for 2005, he was cutting edge. The figure’s revolutionary flesh-tone face shows the Jedi’s distinctive battle scars, and his mechanical arm is emphasised by the black glove that he wears over it.

#9494 - Anakin’s Jedi Interceptor
Brick for brick, Anakin’s Jedi Interceptor is not only the most enjoyable Star Wars LEGO set that I’ve built, but the one that offers the most value for money. Rather than just present an iconic movie vehicle along with a couple of minifigures, here LEGO offer us the flavour of a whole scene.

Whilst it’s without retractable landing gears (which I find annoying anyway, prone as they are to collapse), Anakin’s TIE fighter-like ship is a great little model. Unlike its earlier incarnations, this model has room for the R2-D2 minifigure, boasting an astromech-friendly left wing. Its darker hue is also more pleasing to the eye than the mustard of its sister ship seen in the movie’s opening battle, not to mention more befitting the epic duel about to ignite amidst Mustafar’s volcanic flames.

This brings me to the set’s combatants: brand-new versions of the pre-suit Darth Vader and his former master, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Both are far more redolent of their silver screen alter egos than any earlier iterations, their respective hairpieces far more appropriate and their rotatable, double-faced heads vesting the scene that they inhabit with real emotion. They are accompanied in the set by the lava droid that Vader stands upon at the apex of the duel; an apparently arbitrary battle droid; and an evocative rendition of Separatist leader Nute Gunray, who, happily, is easily decapitated or cut in half (you chose). Noticeably, and indeed disappointingly, absent though is Padmé. It seems that LEGO engineering can stretch to x-wings and star destroyers, but not to pregnant tums.  

#8096 - Emperor Palpatine’s Shuttle
Another of my favourite sets is Emperor Palpatine’s Shuttle, as seen on screen in the final, harrowing moments of Revenge of the Sith.

The ship itself is reminiscent of the better-known Imperial shuttles seen in Return of the Jedi, only curvaceous and grey, as opposed to angular and white. Pleasingly two of its three distinctive fins are fully-functional, allowing it to rest on the shelf with them pointing skyward.

Where LEGO have really excelled themselves with this set though is in how they’ve themed it around Darth Vader’s immolation and subsequent rebirth as a half-mechanical monstrosity. It’s grisly subject matter for a toy aimed at 9 to 14s, that’s to be sure, but inspiring nonetheless. The ship’s interior houses an operable operating table on which the set’s unique ‘crispy’ Vader minifigure can lie to have his famed black mask and helmet lowered onto his head before being theatrically raised to standing as in the movie. Purists may quibble that the Vader minifigure still has limbs, and that the operating table should belong on Coruscant, not in the surprisingly well-prepared Palpatine’s shuttle, but I applaud LEGO’s initiative.

The shuttle also comes with a rare pilot minifigure; an ill-fated medical droid; and, of course, the newly-crowned Emperor himself, who’s difficult to acquire in this incarnation if you’re not in the market for a £274.99 battle station. Here he appears without his trademark Death Star lightening, but with his bloodshine lightsaber in its place, which can be discretely secreted inside the shuttle’s chamber along with that of his roasted apprentice.


06 September 2012

Book Review | Star Trek: Titan - Over a Torrent Sea by Christopher L Bennett

Over a Torrent Sea is a book charged with a very difficult mission. With the Federation in ruins following the cataclysmic Borg invasion depicted in David Mack’s Destiny series, author Christopher L Bennett had to contrive a way to have Starfleet send one of its few surviving ships off to explore the unknown again – and then he had to make readers care about its comparatively quiet voyages.

To his credit though, Bennett has turned these difficulties into windfalls. Over a Torrent Sea echoes the very first Titan novel in its harking back to the ideals of the original series, telling a colourful little morality tale in an exotic locale that champions character over spectacle - and doing so plausibly, too. Now, more than ever, Starfleet needs a ship to carry the flag forwards. It needs a hero like Captain William T Riker to inspire the Federation’s careworn citizens, even when he’d rather be helping to protect and rebuild the union of planets that he’s sworn allegiance to.

Bennett’s science fiction plot is slow to unfold, and, even when it does, seasoned Trekkers won’t find anything new in how the Titan’s crew’s desire to learn more about a beautiful ocean world and its inhabitants inadvertently puts those inhabitants at risk, raising a whole host of ‘Prime Directive’ questions into the bargain. Ultimately this story’s drama isn’t borne of what happens on Droplet, but what happens in the hearts and minds of the story’s showcased crew members.

Above all else, Over a Torrent Sea belongs to Titan’s Selkie navigator, Aili Lavena, whose naked form proudly adorns its front cover. Earlier Titan novels had referenced the aquatic ensign’s brazen promiscuity, and specifically her one-time liaison with her captain back in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first season, and some had even hinted at the shame she felt in exploiting most beings’ misapprehensions about her species in order to lead a wantonly hedonistic lifestyle. However, Bennett is the first author to really sell the character; to really get inside her head and explore her motivation for enlisting in Starfleet, her feelings towards her Titan crewmates, and now, crucially, towards Droplet’s squales too. Despite the sympathy that he engenders for Lavena, Bennett imbues her with a real sense of danger; a reckless, flighty quality that keeps the reader guessing as to where her loyalties will lie, and how tightly she’ll cling to her newfound ethics when she finds herself imprisoned in the nude alongside her now-married captain – perhaps forever.

But despite the novel’s tight focus on Lavena, Bennett also delves into two of Titan’s most remarkable characters who, like Lavena, don’t quite conform to the lofty expectations of their races. The ship’s Vulcan tactician, Tuvok, is at his most fascinating here as the walls that hold his primal emotions in check are now paper-thin following the death of his son at the hands of the Borg.  Vulcan philosophy allows for, and indeed even encourages, the grieving process, but despite the ministrations of both his resident wife and the ship’s Betazoid counsellor, there is now a fury within the USS Voyager alumnus that he can’t even recognise, let alone hope to suppress. Meanwhile, the ship’s Pahkwa-thanha chief medical officer is also forced to face up to his own shortcomings in the eyes of his race when Riker and Troi’s baby seems set on an early arrival, triggering terrifying, unrequited paternal instincts that might well see him court-martialled.

Over a Torrent Tea is thus a welcome change of pace from the blockbuster novels that it follows. It sees the Titan series return to its mandate of exploring strange new worlds, be they out there in the cosmos or resting somewhere within its cosmopolitan crew’s tortured souls.

Book Review | Star Trek: Voyager - Children of the Storm by Kirsten Beyer

Children of the Storm is the third title in what is fast becoming Kirsten Beyer’s very own Voyager spin-off. Following the USS Voyager’s dramatic return to the Solar System in the final moments of the television series, Christie Golden sated widespread fan appetites with her fascinating novels that explored what became of the ship and those who remained on board it afterwards, while Peter David dealt with its captain. It didn’t take long, though, for someone to realise that Voyager’s home isn’t actually Earth or the Alpha Quadrant – it’s out there in Delta Quadrant, pushing the boundaries. And so with the help of some Borg-harvested quantum slipstream technology, Beyer brought Voyager full circle.

However, things have changed. Voyager isn’t on her own any more, but part of a small task force now led by Captain Afsarah Eden. The refitted Intrepid-class starship is now captained by its erstwhile first officer, Chakotay, who has retained the services of Delta Quadrant veterans Seven of Nine, Harry Kim and Tom Paris and his wife, B’Elanna Torres. The ship’s former chief medical officer, the holographic Doctor, now serves aboard another of the fleet’s ships, though fortunately for him it isn’t one of the three that has vanished trying to make contact with the Children of the Storm – the race that effortlessly put paid to the recent Borg invasion of the Federation.

Of all the Star Trek novelists that I’ve stumbled upon thus far, Beyer is probably my favourite as not only does she come up with bold, mesmeric narratives that I don’t think we could ever have expected to see on television, but she applies the same principles to her characterisation too. Her handle on Voyager’s television characters is second-to-none, and complemented magnificently by some of her new characters, particularly Captain Eden and Counsellor Cambridge. The former is a formidable woman out of her depth; wounded in love and tormented by the idea that maybe she’s a little more than human. The latter is, as Seven succinctly puts it, “an ass” – but he’s an ass who seems able to melt an icy heart that many apparently better men could not. It’s true, of course, that the flood of new faces causes many of them to merge into a great unfathomable mass (the fact that the book carries a number of appendices, crew manifests amongst them, speaks volumes), but then the same was true of Titan at first, and now I feel as if I know that crew as well as I do any of their televised counterparts.

Of the old guard, Chakotay is generally afforded great depth by Beyer, but particularly so in this novel. Captain Janeway’s former XO is still grieving for one commanding officer when he’s suddenly presented with another who mirrors her in so many ways, yet is so markedly different in others. Meanwhile Tom and Harry find themselves fighting to recapture the friendship that the former’s recent cruel but necessary deception almost extinguished, and B’Elanna struggles to weigh her responsibilities as a mother against her duties as the fleet’s chief engineer. Admittedly it’s all a lot more involved, perhaps even a lot soapier, than the television series ever was, but I find that Voyager’s all the more compelling for it – particularly when it rests upon a plot as riveting as the one that Beyer presents here.

The Children of the Storm are great Star Trek antagonists – utterly alien and utterly ruthless with it, yet light years away from being the polarised evil that one so often encounters in science fiction (and particularly in mass-market television tie-ins). The conceit that they are so ancient and so powerful, yet so frighteningly immature, is a fascinating and terrifying one that’s borne out with real finesse in the text. At times though, Children of the Storm can be a little overpowering. Beyer’s multifarious narrative constantly segues between the fleet’s various ships and different stardates, which could easily leave some readers lost. At times I found myself flicking back a few pages, or making use of the book’s hefty appendices, simply to keep my head above water. This is certainly not a book for those angling for an easy read.

Children of the Storm thus stands as a monument to the perils of miscommunication, be it between species; shipmates; or even, at times, author and reader. Beyer fuses insightful and progressive characterisation with spectacular science fiction ideas that are quintessentially Trek, but at times you have to work unduly hard to appreciate them. But for its inordinate intricacy, Children of the Storm would probably be the best Beyer Star Trek novel to date, but as it stands, it’s not quite worthy of that mantle.