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Old March 3 2012, 12:11 PM   #2
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Location: Berlin, Germany
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.

Last edited by Sho; March 3 2012 at 01:44 PM.
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