Star Trek: The Poisoned Chalice by James Swallow (Book Review)

Star Trek: The Fall has proven to be a most enjoyable event series from all that I’ve read. My interest was piqued because of the cover to Una McCormack’s Crimson Shadow, and diving into the four-part series with David R. George III’s Revelation and Dust proved to be a good place to get back into the status quo of Star Trek tie-in novel fiction. The nature of these books, taking a look at several major characters and crew and locations of this wonderful universe has been the major attraction for sure, and I really applaud the creators and the publisher for going this route.

The Poisoned Chalice is meant to be the cap-stone to this wonderful series, and it does fulfill that promise. James Swallow has been one of my favourite writers for a number of years, ever since 2006 when I started reading his Warhammer 40,000 novels. He has never really disappointed after an initial hurdle and his output in recent years has been top-notch. The Poisoned Chalice clearly is among his best works to date and it brings this series to a close in a spectacular fashion, with all that’s best about the Star Trek universe and none of the drawbacks.

The last two novels in the series, Una’s Crimson Shadow and David Mack’s A Ceremony of Losses were extremely fast-paced and enjoyable reads and The Poisoned Chalice is the same. There are lots of different viewpoints to this novel, more than the ones before except for Revelation and Dust I’d dare say, but Jim navigates all of them really well.

Taking place after the events of the previous novel in which Doctor Julian Bashir of DS9 finally solved the Andorian Fertility Crisis, though not without a lot of help, we see that the consequences have hit him and his direct conspirators really hard. He is now held at a blacksite Federation prison facility and his friend, former lover and now a Captain of her own ship, Ezri Dax, is also in the stockade for helping him. Julian did the morally right thing for the right reasons but he broke several Federation and Starfleet laws and now much of the action in The Poisoned Chalice is about fully exposing what he did and breaking him out.

The thing is that the effects of Federation President Nanietta Bacco’s murder in Revelation and Dust are still being felt. It has only been a few weeks since the tragedy but a lot has happened in the meantime, not the least of which is that the Federation is slowly being split apart between the President pro tem Ishan Anjar’s followers and those in Starfleet who are determined to get at the bottom of events. We’ve seen some of the truth about Bacco’s killers emerge, but the truth is being deliberately obfuscated to serve a higher agenda that seeks to subvert the pro-peace policies of the Federation to something much more aggressive and militaristic.

And given the task of navigating this ever-complexifying web is the crew of the USS Titan, one of Starfleet’s best and latest vessels, commanded by none other than USS Enterprise veteran William Riker. I’ll admit that after seeing the Enterprise crew as led by Jean-Luc Picard in The Crimson Shadow I was in a really good place where I loved seeing old faces like Picard, Doctor Beverly Crusher and Worf. With the Titan, I got to see Voyager veteran Tuvok, Enterprise veterans Will and Deanna, and DS9 veteran Nog. Sure, Nog isn’t a member of the Titan‘s crew, but he does form an important part of the overall narrative along with Tuvok and Will’s “brother” Thomas Riker as they get sent on a clandestine black ops mission to hunt down Bacco’s killers and bring them to the Federation for justice.

Of course, as it always happens with such cases, nothing is as it seems, and it is quite surprising that when we know Bacco’s killers were part of the Cardassian terrorist group True Way, then why the blame is being laid at the feet of the powerful and manipulative Tzenkethi, who are one of the members of the Typhon Pact, a political power that is antagonistic towards the Federation. There are no easy answers in Star Trek, there never have been, and part of Jim’s writing is evidence of how true that is. All the leading characters get drawn in a mystery that makes little sense and which often sends them on a wild-goose chase, and part of the fun of the novel is watching it all unfold. All the twists and turns in this novel mean that Jim really throws the reader for a loop (in a good way) and then shows how it all does make sense in the end, when all is revealed, and you are left wondering at the brilliance of it all.

The Fall has proven to be quite a complex event, and I love the fact that it has gotten me to reconnect with so many characters I remember from the second generation Star Trek shows, The Next Generation, Voyager and Deep Space Nine. And in the process I’ve discovered lots of new characters as well and the way has really opened for me to take a few steps back into this fascinating world of hard-edged space opera, one of the core reasons why I fell in love with space opera all those years ago.

There aren’t any oh-my-god moments in The Poisoned Chalice, not in the same way as A Ceremony of Losses where we got to see some cool space battles, but Jim doesn’t stint on the wonder and the mystery and the action. This novel is much more character-centric this time, that’s the only difference, for the characters on their own get into a lot of physical action in their own way. And with the mix of species here, it gets really electrifying towards the end since you expect things to happen a certain way and then they do. Klingons will be Klingons for example, and Cardassians will be Cardassians.

Most of all, what I loved about this novel was that it was a perfect commentary on the Federation that I’ve seen portrayed in the entire series. It is a slightly different Federation than what I remember, and many a thing has changed, but somethings haven’t and therein lies the key to this novel. For a man like Will Riker, who came to command under the captainship of a man like Jean-Luc Picard, for a man like Tuvok who did the same under a Captain like Katherine Janeway or even Nog under the leadership of Captain Benjamin Sisko, these aren’t the times that they’ve come to expect. Much has changed around them and they either need to adapt to these circumstances or they can very well just go extinct, so to speak.

With all the different personalities and egos and cultures and what not on display, often times it can feel as if the novel is getting overwhelming, but it is nothing of the sort. In fact, the progression is quite straightforward indeed and I loved how well Jim paced the whole thing. There wasn’t a single boring moment in the novel, not with Jim’s tight-focused prose, and his characters felt real and alive in every page and every chapter. The final scenes with Will Riker and Ishan Anjar are a capstone to the novel the same way that the novel is the capstone to this 4-part series and Jim ends things on a perfect note, one that is sure to launch several new books as the characters begin to deal with the new status quo around them.

All good fun indeed!

Rating: 10/10

More Star Trek: (The Fall) Revelation and Dust, The Crimson Shadow, A Ceremony of Losses; Cast No Shadow.


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