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Sho March 3 2012 11:09 AM

VAN: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)

And here it finally is, the first formal installment of the "retro review thread" project we discussed a little while ago. I promised to post this a little earlier already (having finished Harbinger around mid-February), but got caught up with some other things - sorry about that!

Vanguard: Harbinger is a very special novel, acting as the first installment of an entirely new Star Trek series chronologically set alongside the events depicted in TOS. The series was conceived together by editor Marco Palmieri and author David Mack, with the latter penning this first book. Its principal setting is Vanguard station, a brand new Federation starbase located in a mostly-unexplored region of space called the Taurus Reach. Bordered by the Tholian and Klingon empires and home to an ancient mystery, struggles both political and personal await a new cast of heroes and not so heroic characters.

That was my own babbling. Here's the official blurb from the Simon & Schuster website:


Returning from its historic first voyage to the edge of the galaxy, the damaged U.S.S. Enterprise™ journeys through the Taurus Reach, a vast and little-known region of space in which a new starbase has been unexpectedly established. Puzzled by the Federation's interest in an area so far from its borders and so near the xenophobic Tholian Assembly, Captain James T. Kirk orders the Enterprise to put in for repairs at the new space station: Starbase 47, also known as Vanguard.

As Kirk ponders the mystery of the enormous base, he begins to suspect that there is much more to Vanguard than meets the eye. It's a suspicion shared by the Tholians, the Orions, and the Klingon Empire, each of whom believes that there are less than benign motives behind the Federation's sudden and unexplained desire to explore and colonize the Taurus Reach.

But when a calamity deep within the Reach threatens to compromise Starfleet's continued presence in the region, Kirk, Spock, and several key specialists from the Enterprise must assist Vanguard's crew in investigating the cause of the disaster and containing the damage. In the process, they learn the true purpose behind the creation of Vanguard, and what the outcome of its mission may mean for life throughout that part of the galaxy.
You can also read an excerpt here:

Finally, a note about spoiler policy: This review thread is for a book that, at the time of posting, is several years old and which has several sequels. While discussing the book's events and merits in hindsight of those sequels is expected to be part of the appeal of the thread, please be mindful of readers who are reading the series for the first time (such as myself :)). Refer to facts from later installments obliquely if you can, and consider to surround critical information with spoiler tags. But don't strain yourself too much all the same - beware ye who enter here, of possible spoilers!

Sho March 3 2012 11:11 AM

Re: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)
Overall notes

As mentioned recently in another thread (check it out for great responses by author David Mack), going in I had my doubts whether I was going to like Vanguard. I had repeatedly heard it described as "Star Trek's answer to BSG 2003", a series I didn't enjoy very much due to its pervasive darkness and cynicism. I'm pleased to say that having read Harbinger now, that fear didn't come true in the end - Harbinger isn't dark as much as it is more willing to show the aftermath and consequences of events and actions than Trek tends to be on average, which I actually found very satisfying. Things like a reporter probing into the Gary Mitchell situation, or especially the inquiry following the destruction of the USS Bombay made the universe feel more grounded in reality without actually skewing significantly darker.

In terms of plot structure and pacing, I was surprised to find Harbinger less driven than series pilots usually are. The first big action sequence (a very well written battle between a Federation ship and several Tholian adversaries) does occur fairly early in the book, but it ends on a note of gruesome finality, and instead of leading into a cascade of ever-mounting action most of the remainder of the book is spent dealing quietly with the follow-up of that single event as characters' lives and fortunes pivot around it. I was very happy with that approach - it made for the perfect backdrop to flesh out the characters in a way that allowed the reader to be a living witness rather than being treated to after-the-fact exposition. Further, the battle served believably as a catalyst causing plotlines to intertwine and converge. Overall it made the book a tight package without requiring a break-neck pace.

I did have one big problem: The setup for what looks to be the series' central mystery left me very, very cold. Information encoded in DNS, waking up an ancient super-race - it felt tired and done-before. I hope to be proven wrong by later books; hopefully the authors will take things far beyond the initial premise and into directions I don't expect. But for now, what will make me come back for more are the characters, not the meta-genome ...


First of all: I love that Harbinger/Vanguard is willing to take on a really large ensemble cast for once. Whereas the shows had to shuffle around the same small set of characters even where it defied believability (e.g. the Defiant serving as a really large shuttlecraft for DS9's command staff most of the time), here we appropriately get Vanguard station and several starships both Federation and not, all populated with their own crews and/or residents. And Mr. Mack proves himself more than capable at handling this large number of characters, with even brief glimpses of minor ones already making me look forward to seeing them again in future installments.

And it's a very good mix all in all, especially with the inclusion of a legal officer, a journalist and a political official as main characters. The book itself acts as a good advertisement for the broader story possibilities afforded by going beyond the Federation military for characters already, and I think one of the main draws of the series going forward is going to be to see stories take unexpected turns and see new takes on familiar situations due to the different kinds of players involved.

I also really like how old a significant portion of the main cast skews. Reyes, Desai, Jetanien, Quinn - these are all people who have arrived in some form or another (in Quinn's case that would be "survived this long", I guess), who know who they are and have long careers to look back on, yet must find that the challenges they face today have only grown. On paper, the same was true of some of the characters in the shows, but I never felt about them this way - aside from perhaps the captains, Trek characters tend to engage the universe in a sort of unfinished condition and in soul-searching mode. While I'm sure future books hold many revelations for the Vanguard characters that will yet shake them up, the starting point for some of them makes for a refreshingly different tone. A key scene here is Reyes' "You think I'm just some paper-pusher, don't you, Kirk?" challenge to Kirk.

My favorite character so far is probably Tim Pennington, though, mostly because I can't yet peg him and really can't make my mind up whether I like him or not. He's very mercurial - his moods range from genuinely passionate to petulant, and though professionally he seeks to serve the truth (or so he tells himself), his private life is a shambles of lies. He's been around long enough to turn a natural talent for engaging with people into a professional asset, but whatever his experience level, so far it doesn't preclude him from glossing over the consequences of his actions with youthful naïvité. Of all the characters in the mix, he feels the most unstable and unpredictable to me - I really wonder where events will take him in the end.

Another character I ultimately came to enjoy a lot was Jetanien, though I was initially pretty blasé about him - after that first scene in Reyes' office I was certain his function was to serve as an antagonist of sorts on home soil for the Starfleet characters, and to provide comic relief. That would have been in keeping with Star Trek tradition, where characters outside the Starfleet crew "on the ground" are all too often depicted as incompetent or self-serving. It was interesting and satisfying to see Harbinger break with that and have Jetanien emerge as a decisively pragmatic thinker, as a leader of people and perhaps as a friend to Reyes. Consider me intrigued.

Who didn't work for me: T'Prynn. She's just a little too larger than life, that super-woman who's haunted by the cliché dark secret in her past. In sharp contrast to the rest of the ensemble I found her really hard to engage with or care for, despite her tremendous plight. Then again, she is an alien, so maybe that's alright. I'll keep an open mind.

And I'm really looking forward to seeing the quirky cast of characters aboard the Sagittarius again.

Favorite lines


"You're cute when you're ethical."
^ Reyes to Desai, upon the latter cancelling their dinner plans over the ongoing Bombay inquiry Desai is presiding over.


"Your insolent japes won’t save you when Broon’s men come calling."
- "No, but they’ll make my death eminently quotable."
^ Quinn, always a witty one. Unless he's in a drunken stupor. Then, not so much.


I'm down, but I'm not done.
^ Pennington's pledge to himself after facing professional and personal ruin.

In Summary

The challenge of launching an entirely new series is special, and I'd be remiss to take the book's overall success in orchestrating a compelling start-up scenario for granted. But while a mostly intriguing cast of characters and adept plotting make this a very enjoyable book, certain flaws - the failure to make me excited about the central mystery that's being tossed around the entire time, and a tonal character misfit in T'Prynn - ultimately knock it down a notch below greatness. Thus, I voted Above Average.

Defcon March 3 2012 01:32 PM

Re: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)
I haven't reread it since I originally read it in 2005, so I think the wisest move for me is to just post my review from way back then (I gave it 82 %, which translates to an above average in this poll):


Me in 2005 wrote:
A good pilot for the Vanguard series.

It produces some interesting starting points for story arcs and has mostly interesting characters. There are two characters which don’t really work for me, though. These two people are Quinn and Pennington, both don’t really make me want to read more about them separately, I think a mix of both in one character would have worked better for me. My problem with Quinn is that he’s somehow hard to grasp, he isn’t really believable, be it as a "bad guy", "good guy" or "lonesome Wolfe" and I don’t think he was intended to be so faceless. Pennington on the other side is somewhat inconsistent, on the one hand he seems to be really hit by the loss of his lover, on the other hand he just deposes everything belonging to her, as if he was just making his spring clean up. Maybe they’ll work better for me now that they are teaming up.

One other problem of the novel is that it’s lacking a real stand alone part. Granted you could count the destruction of the Bombay and the post and the following inquiries as a stand alone part, but I see it more as a part of a larger story arc.

One thing I found intriguing to see was that here the Starfleet personnel (at least not all of them) isn’t really the good force, on closer look you see there isn’t really anyone important with a white vest on Vanguard. I like that, I never was a fan of the perfect utopia Roddenberry tried to create. I like my characters with flaws and dark sides, and T’Prynn seems to be a character with great potential. And I don’t see any problems with Vaughn and T’Prynn coming so close that he names his daughter after her, he isn’t such a perfect person either. If you think about it, all T’Prynn did was respecting the mantra "The good of the many outweighs the good of the few". She destroyed the life of one person (Pennington) and blackmailed another (Quinn) in favor of the greater good, or at least what she perceives as the greater good.

Overall a good start, but in the end the following books will show how good it really was. If the started story arcs aren’t adequately followed up on, this book will be hurt, too, because it is full of potential stories, but with very few stuff which can life on it’s own.

Sho March 3 2012 02:43 PM

Re: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)
Interesting how we differ on some of the characters. Pennington's behavior in that situation didn't strike me as inconsistent so much as vivid commentary on his state of mind and the kind of double-life he had been leading up to that point - mad with grief and yet scared shitless of being found out. And being a reporter, his mind probably reflexively went into a "what's the evidence for this?" pattern, except this time to bury rather than gather it.

Emotionally he's almost child-like in a way, what's with his internal hissy-fits at Oriana's cooler treatment of their relationship.

Regarding Quinn I don't entirely disagree ... I enjoyed reading his parts, they were good, solid fun, but so far the character didn't go much beyond the thief with a heart of gold template. I hope he'll be fleshed out a bit more in the next books.

Therin of Andor March 4 2012 12:16 AM

Re: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)

Sho wrote: (Post 5930539)
My favorite character so far is probably Tim Pennington, though, mostly because I can't yet peg him and really can't make my mind up whether I like him or not.

Most definitely agree. I do like him, find it hard to feel sympathy for some of the mess he finds himself in, but he certainly comes across as very real person.

I'm also a bit biased because my New Zealand friend, Lana Pennington-Brown, is the namesake of DS9's canonical Pennington School, so when Tim was realized as a ST character, I was instantly intrigued.

JD March 4 2012 04:14 AM

Re: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)
I've read this one a couple times, and in terms of the Vanguard books, I'd put it right behind book 3, Reap the Whirlwind, as my second favorite. I'd have to go with Outstanding.

Judith Sisko March 4 2012 01:45 PM

Re: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)
Excellent choice, Sho.

I'm going to be very general and very vague because I want to be sure not to give anything away from the upcoming novels.

This is a book I enjoy as much on each re-read that I did when I read it for the first time. The cast of characters, while not the traditional formula in most Trek adventures, show depth, growth... and flaws. The integration of the Enterprise crew (includng M'Benga) into the story was masterful, even to the detail of the uniform changes.

I didn't see T'Prynn as larger than life so much in this first novel. I did like her scenes with Spock: two Starfleet Vulcans trying to come to terms with their pasts.

I went hot and cold on Pennington as the story progressed (again, speaking only about the first novel.)

The story of the Bombay moved me to tears. I think this event, more than any other (even the meta-genome), provided the springboard for most of the character growth we'll see as the story progresses.

I loved it.

Patrick O'Brien March 4 2012 01:50 PM

Re: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)
^ I concur, this book was Outstanding:bolian:

I mainly read ST books set in the time period after Nemisis movie/Destiny books. Now I cannot get enough of this TOS inspired series. If you have not read it already, you should. It is well written and the follow up books do not disappoint. It's David Mack at his best.

JD March 5 2012 01:11 AM

Re: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)
And Ward and Dilmore, they've played a pretty big role in the development of the series too.

Patrick O'Brien March 6 2012 11:12 AM

Re: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)
^ Yes, they have JD. I apologize for the omission. I should have mentioned them all. They have all done an outstanding job with this series:bolian:

Therin of Andor March 6 2012 01:45 PM

Re: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)

Judith Sisko wrote: (Post 5935903)
I went hot and cold on Pennington as the story progressed

As the author intended, I presume. :bolian:

Sho March 6 2012 02:48 PM

Re: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)

Therin of Andor wrote: (Post 5933209)
I'm also a bit biased because my New Zealand friend, Lana Pennington-Brown, is the namesake of DS9's canonical Pennington School, so when Tim was realized as a ST character, I was instantly intrigued.

Interesting! How did she come to be the namesake?


JD wrote: (Post 5938714)
And Ward and Dilmore, they've played a pretty big role in the development of the series too.

Ward and Dilmore were actually my first exposure to Vanguard, too, because I read through SCE in and around 2009-2010 and installment #64 features the Vanguard prequel Distant Early Warning.

Patrick O'Brien March 6 2012 04:15 PM

Re: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)
I read Distant Early Warning, and it is an decent prequel to Harbinger. I read it in the S.C.E. book What's Past, which came out in Aug of 2010. Though I think the original story was penned in 2006, after Harbinger was released?

Sho March 6 2012 05:00 PM

Re: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)
Yep, Distant Early Warning came out after Harbinger, and one month before Summon the Thunder was released. But since I only read Harbinger now, DEW was my first exposure. Since it's a prequel that worked out fine though :).

Patrick O'Brien March 6 2012 09:23 PM

Re: Vanguard: Harbinger by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)
^That worked out well for you Sho. I wish I had read them in that order. I'd finished five Vanguard books by the time I stumbled upon, Distant Early Warning.

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