30 May 2012

Book Review | Star Wars: Dark Lord - The Rise of Darth Vader by James Luceno

Having been rapt by James Luceno’s staggering lead-in to Revenge of the Sith, Labyrinth of Evil, and Matthew Stover’s even better novelisation of the movie itself, I awaited the release of this loose-fitting trilogy’s final chapter with bated breath. At last, we would be given a telling glimpse beneath the mask of Darth Vader. At last, we would pay witness to the notorious ‘Jedi Purge’ that followed the dawn of Palpatine’s Galactic Empire. At last, the gulf between the two Star Wars trilogies would be bridged with Dark Lord - The Rise of Darth Vader, a title that promised more than the total sum of Star Wars spin-off literature that preceded it.

My first reaction to this book was one of passionate frustration. The eponymous Sith Lord is absent from the narrative for great swathes of the action, Luceno instead focusing on his surviving troupe of Jedi: Bol Chatak, padawan Olee Starstone and her master, the book’s real protagonist, Roan Shryne. There is little more to the plot than watching these Jedi learn of their fellows’ fate, struggle to come to terms with it, and then seek to avoid the same for themselves, while in the background Vader struggles to accept the limitations imposed on him by his recent injuries.

Pleasingly though, when Luceno does delve into Vader’s thoughts and feelings, he does so incisively. Sparse though they are, the passages of this book that deal with Vader’s struggle to free himself of Anakin Skywalker and harness the power of the shadows that shroud him are masterfully written. Luceno devotes considerable chunks of prose to Vader’s gradual acceptance of his mechanical limbs and life support suit; he even delves into the Dark Lord’s built-in colostomy bags and details the daily, painful skin-scrapings that he must endure. There is an agonising moment when Vader looks up at the deformed remnants of his new master and asks, “Are these the faces of victory?”, bringing the trappings of the dark side into sharp focus.

The novel also makes good on its promise to depict Vader’s rise. When we are first reunited with Vader around fifty pages in, he is still the lumbering, self-recriminating half-mechanical monster that woke up on Palpatine’s operating table. Barely able to walk on his new legs without calling upon the Force for support, this Vader isn’t even a shadow of the dominant force that we remember from the original trilogy. By the book’s end, though, Vader has truly mastered the dark side of the Force; it has become “his bride”, his new fixation. When he finally duels with Shryne on Kashyyyk, he appears invincible.

Devotees of the saga will also find it hard not to take pleasure in some of Luceno’s shamelessly fan-pleasing vignettes. The author offers illicit glimpses into the Empire’s early days, subtly noting the inception of the grand moffs, the enlistment of storm troopers to replace the increasingly unreliable clones, and even the transformation of the Loyalist Committee into the Rebellion. I found Vader’s dealings with Bail Organa particularly enlightening as Luceno shares both men’s reflections on them, and for many the book’s closing Ben Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn cameo will vindicate the purchase in of itself.

Of course, none of this makes up for the dearth of plot, which is ultimately where Dark Lord - The Rise of Darth Vader falls down. With a shift of emphasis and a more regimented storyline, this one could have been up amongst the greatest Star Wars novels ever written – instead, I’m afraid that it ranks amongst the most maddening.

Book Review | I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan by Alan Partridge

Remarkably few people know who Alan Gordon Partridge is these days. Probably more famous for his on screen slaying of interviewee Forbes McAllister than he is for the calamitous BBC 2 chat show that housed it, Partridge was, for a time in the early 1990s, one of Norfolk’s best known stars. I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan is the third book by the former Knowing Me, Knowing You host, following the often-overlooked whimsical offering Something Funny Happened to Alan Partridge on the Way to the Stadium and his long-since pulped self-help manual, Bouncing Back, but it is the first to explore his life story with anything approaching real candour.

Much like the ill-fated Bouncing Back, this vaingloriously-titled tome is so replete with vacuous egotism that it reads more like comical fiction than it does a supposedly serious autobiography. When I purchased it, having been won over by the author’s enthusiastic plugging of it on ITV’s Jonathan Ross Show, I’d hoped that Partridge’s ghost writers, Steve Coogan (to whom Partridge bears an uncanny resemblance); Armando Iannucci; Rob Gibbons; and Neil Gibbons would temper his self-indulgent tendencies and help to get at the truth behind his scandalous behaviour on screen. If anything though, their input seems to have only encouraged such traits; indeed, I, Partridge is far from being the “stoic” downplaying of allegedly harrowing events that Partridge has the gall to claim within the text. The book’s early chapters see him pile half-truths on top of hyperbole as he hangs his parents out to dry, painting them as ogres torn from the pages of some misery lit nightmare. From there he moves on to shamelessly harangue his erstwhile playground tormentors, with washed-up former bully Stephen McCoombs repaid in full for his “Smelly Alan Fartridge” name-calling. What really irked me though were Partridge’s frequent ‘dramatic’ cutaways - sporadically he shifts from conventional past tense first person narration to third person present tense. Overwrought and narcissistic, Partridge’s prose is so sickening it’s hilarious.

Matters don’t improve as Partridge talks us through his university days – an institution now rendered redundant thanks to Wikipedia, he blithely opines – and moves onto his early work in radio. Only my shock at the bald-faced arrogance of the man kept me reading as he exaggerated the importance of his hospital radio work (“the last voice many of them heard was mine…”) before moving on to put his throwaway Radio Norwich shows such as Traffic Buster and Scoutabout on level pegging with prime time television. As Partridge recalls his progression into the BBC, working as a sports correspondent on On the Hour and The Day Today, his writing becomes even more self-aggrandising and the swipes at former colleagues and acquaintances even more frequent. I’m glad that I kept reading though, because by the time that I’d got as far as Partridge’s run as executive producer and host of Knowing Me, Knowing You, the hitherto tastelessness of the text was made to look positively discerning in comparison. His comments about the late Tony Hayers, former chief of programming at the BBC, are nothing short of hateful, and despite opening the chapter entitled “Forbes McAllister” with an avowal not to make excuses for shooting the man dead on live television, he goes on to put forward a series of spurious defences that I can’t believe saw him avoid prosecution. He even has the nerve to imply that he might have spared McAllister the more protracted painful death that his weight problem would have inevitably caused.

Partridge’s personal life, incredibly, is handled with same lack of grace. The former Mrs Partridge, Carol, is not only vilified by the author’s spiteful foray into the minutiae of her affair, but also by what he claims is a passage written by her reflecting on how very wrong she’d been to behave as she did. It’s revolting. Subsequent paramour Sonja, who has been relegated to Partridge’s cleaner since she was last seen in the “post-documentary” television series I’m Alan Partridge, doesn’t fare much better, despite Partridge’s favourable (but misogynistic) comments about her physique. Meanwhile his long-suffering personal assistant, Lynn Benfield, isn’t referred to once by name despite appearing more often than anyone else in the text save for the eponymous AGP. Most hurtfully of all though, after wearing out his thesaurus producing the most sesquipedalian and saccharine account of his son Fernando’s birth, Partridge blithely notes that his daughter’s birth evoked broadly similar feelings, and leaves it at that.

However, if you’re able to build up a resistance to the author’s oppressive and vindictive style, I, Partridge does illuminate certain key events in his life that weren’t covered in I’m Alan Partridge, as well as expounding on some of those that were. Partridge examines the roots of his infamous battle with obesity (which prompted two “clinically fed up” years and a barefoot drive to Dundee in a Vectra), blaming Pepsi or Shirley from Pepsi and Shirley (he can’t remember which) for getting him hooked on Toblerone, and talks frankly about his years of being sued by and counter-suing his former house band conductor, Glen Ponder, with whom he now regularly dines at Nando’s.

Some things really surprised me, such as Partridge’s reluctance to sue the BBC following its reneging on his contract to produce a further series of Knowing Me, Knowing You. Such aversion seems completely out character for Partridge; almost suspiciously so. Other things, such as the author using his book as a medium to pitch his idea for Norwich-based detective series Swallow to readers didn’t surprise me at all. If you’re interested in buying the rights to a television series based around the exploits of a seven-fingered bulimic maverick, feel free to contact Partridge through his publisher, HarperCollins.

The latter sections of the book focus on Partridge’s time spent presenting Norfolk Nights, which he describes with curious pride as being “the third best gig on Radio Norwich”, before going on to chart the station’s sale to a huge company whose owners saw fit to consign the former Skirmish presenter to a daytime slot on their newly-rebranded North Norfolk Digital station: Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge. Desperate to meet his word count, the author wastes more words describing how digital radio works than he does his tenuous relationship with his moonlighting sidekick, Simon Denton, but in some ways that’s a blessing as at least his Wikipedia-pinched technical ramblings are devoid of his inimitable self-centredness, if not his proclivity for product placement.

Yet I enjoyed every single page of I, Partridge. Whether its author was sharing his trenchant views on female armpit hair or vacillating wildly between love and disdain for the BBC, his shamelessly shallow musings are buoyed by a feckless charm that evokes comedy and pity in equal measure. In writing this book, TV Quick’s ‘Man of the Moment 1994’ hoped to cement his legacy as the finest ruddy presenter ever to come out of Norwich, but instead he’s unwittingly written one of the most genuinely funny books of all time. And make no mistake – we don’t laugh with Partridge; we laugh at him. If ever I’m feeling down on my luck, all I have to do is envisage the man whose only real friend in the world is Bill Oddie, and whose idea of luxury accommodation is a room in a travel tavern equidistant between London and Norwich. Partridge may have taken my £7.99 but, needless to say, I've had the last laugh.

29 May 2012

Book Review | Star Wars: Labyrinth of Evil by James Luceno

The first thing to strike me about this book was its pace; its energy. I didn’t actually feel like I was reading a novel at all. Labyrinth of Evil possesses a quality that’s inimitably Star Wars, author James Luceno somehow capturing the precise feel of the movies through his widescreen prose. Much of this feat can be attributed to his Lucasian plotting – just like a Star Wars movie, Luceno’s adventure is structured around a number of elating set pieces, with many of the story’s most introspective moments coming during the heat of a stellar dogfight or a frantic lightsaber duel.

The author’s storyline is perfectly in keeping with those of the Star Wars prequels as it focuses as much on mystery and manoeuvring as it does gung-ho adventuring. However, rather than constantly segueing between multifaceted political plotting and almost comically childlike capers as The Phantom Menace did to its peril, Labyrinth of Evil adopts and maintains a more adult tone. Even the book’s focal trailing of Sidious, which owes much to Obi-Wan’s detective work in Attack of the Clones, is much more gripping here as Luceno keeps Obi-Wan and Anakin together in their pursuit of the Sith Lord. When this book was first published, The Clone Wars animated series was still a few years away, and the Clone Wars microseries was far too vapid to be able to properly depict the shift from master and student to brothers in arms. But this was what I wanted from the first couple of prequels – Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker’s dad; wise-cracking heroes with no fear putting the galaxy the rights, blind to the horrors to come.

Despite the novel’s cinematic feel, Luceno still makes full use of the printed word to offer us insight into the protagonists’ thoughts and feelings. Anakin is particularly well-rounded, the author exploring the mounting anger that he feels towards the Jedi Council; his respect and admiration for Palpatine; his irrepressible love and concern for Padmé; and particularly the pain that he feels in having to keep their marriage hidden from Obi-Wan. More peripheral characters are also embellished marvellously – Bail Organa is a real force to be reckoned with here, and it’s intriguing to read about how he, Padmé and the rest of the Loyalist Committee strive in vain to make Palpatine reassess his increasingly aggressive and intolerant policies. Labyrinth of Evil even lifts the veil on the musings of those such as Count Dooku, whose evident (and uncharacteristic) lack of foresight on screen sees him beheaded by the nascent Darth Vader. Here the audience is privy to exactly how much Dooku knows about Sidious’s alter ego, his plans for Anakin, and how Dooku (believes that he) fits into them. Suddenly the plot holes are filled, and the sucker from Sereno is a sucker no more.

Some have criticised the novel’s use of thinly-veiled allegory, as Palpatine uses a few fashionable euphemisms to validate his ongoing accumulation of power and radical liberty-quashing constitutional amendments. However, I’ve always looked at Palpatine as a transparent embodiment of just about every 20th century tyrant that you could name; his stealthily-orchestrated rise to power and fervent, frenzy-prompting oratory reek of Adolf Hitler especially. That's the character’s allure. Borrowing a few stock phrases from George Dubya only adds to his believability.

All told then, Labyrinth of Evil is an unadulterated triumph. Don’t be put off by the Clone Wars microseries’ subsequent subtle warping of these events, or Obi-Wan’s on screen claim that “That business on Cato Neimoidia doesn’t count” – Labyrinth of Evil most certainly does count, and it may just be the closest that we’ll ever get to a Star Wars movie in print.

27 May 2012

Book Review | Reheated Cabbage: Tales of Chemical Degeneration by Irvine Welsh

Reheated Cabbage is the first tome from the master of Scotsploitation that I’ve braved in quite a few years now. Unbeknownst to me when I purchased it, this anthology brings together not a collection of new stories and novellas, á la If You Liked School…, but a medley of extraordinary ephemera. The result is an eclectic jamboree of old short stories that wouldn’t have been out of place in The Acid House and experimental efforts that bear many of the hallmarks of Welsh’s recent works.

The volume opens with a fierce piece on marital apathy. “A Fault on the Line” sees football fanatic Malky, desperate to get home in time for the match, haul his family over a railway line where – of course – a train collides with his stout spouse, slicing her chubby little legs clean off. What follows is a magnificently revolting exploration of Malky’s warped ethics as he hurriedly forces his young children gather up his moribund wife’s stray limbs before trying his damnedest to escape the ambulance, and later the hospital, just so that he may make it home in time for the game. It’s vintage Welsh.

Similarly mordant is “Catholic Guilt (You Know You Love It)” – a perverted tale that sees a Scots queer-basher die while on the job with his best mate’s twin sister, only to wake up and find that St Peter has reserved the most pungent form of purgatory for him – buggering his way back through just about every male friend, acquaintance or even sexual abuser that he’s ever encountered. Now this would have been grotesquely mirthful in of itself, but Welsh has a last-minute twist in his tale that takes the hitherto-inferred moral of the story and shoves it straight up its wily protagonist’s amenable arse.

I also enjoyed “Victor Spoils”, in which two young men who move in the same circles each lay claim to the affections of a shared sexual partner, Sarah McWilliams, who’s far more concerned with getting her cripplingly-painful wisdom teeth removed by a libidinous on-call dentist than she is with either one of them. The fists-then-reason plot encapsulates the young buck ‘trophy’ mentality flawlessly, while at the same time making it painfully plain that what they each seek to seize isn’t capable of possession at all.

Best of all though is “The Rosewell Incident”, a wonderfully wacky novella that dares to cross science fiction with the author’s own imitable genre. A young soccer casual is abducted from Midlothian by a race of highly-advanced extra-terrestrials, a number of whom take especial interest in the ways of their cigarette-smoking, barbaric abductee. Having been afforded a life of luxury – which included regularly being provided with female abductees of the Hollywood actress / model variety to copulate with – the casual resolves to stay with his alien captors, whom he intends to teach a thing or two about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. We pick up the tale many years later, as a splinter group of the aliens is on its way back to Earth, which they intend to silently conquer and put under the rule of this casual, whom they hope to marionette.

Initially, I thought that the author was just playing the incongruity of aliens loose in Leith for laughs – after all, the sheer mirth that’s vested in having an alien coming out with lines such as “Nae sa fuckin wide now, ya radge” to the President of the United States and the rest of the world leaders is mind-boggling - but as the plot unfurled I found that he’d actually put together a very clever and incisive indictment of our current world order, as well as that tested by the casuals here. Indeed, for me “The Rosewell Incident” was not only a highlight of Reheated Cabbage, but a highlight of Welsh’s works to date.

Of course, many readers will purchase this collection as it promises the return of not only the sociopathic Frank Begbie, star of both Trainspotting and its sequel Porno, but also the legendary ‘Juice’ Terry Lawson of Glue and Porno fame. Begbie’s story is an archive piece lifted from the pages of a now out-of-print publication which I found to be a little disappointing. The tale focuses on Franco’s first meeting with his sister’s new boyfriend over Christmas dinner, which as you might expect quickly turns into an affray. Whilst quite amusing, “Elspeth’s Boyfriend” doesn’t offer us anything new or particularly alluring; there’s just an all-pervading sense of inevitability as Franco’s ire slowly rises.

“I Am Miami”, by contrast, is incredibly refreshing. Purpose-penned for this collection, Welsh’s novella pits ‘Juice’ Terry and his now rich and famous Glue counterpart, DJ Carl ‘N-Sign’ Ewart, against the Scots schoolmaster who made their youths a living hell, Albert Black. Like many of Welsh’s recent works, this escapade sees him blend his trademark first person Scots dialect with more traditional English prose, with the former largely being reserved for the Glue boys and the latter for Mr Black. It’s a joy to read about the now much slimmer ‘Juice’ Terry still pursuing “the spice ay life” with such zest, particularly when it’s juxtaposed with Carl’s newfound maturity / monogamy. Where the piece really excels though is in lifting the veil on the old cruel Scottish schoolmaster archetype (if you’ve ever seen the Pink Floyd movie The Wall, you can readily picture this guy), Welsh exploring both the subtle and gross neuroses that sculpted the righteous-but-sadistic Mr Black with his habitual delicious deviance.

However, Reheated Cabbage does have its share of fillers. “Kissing and Making Up” stands out as being a particularly colourless piece, while “The State of the Party” – which was originally published in serialised form – seems to lack purpose and direction; unlike most short stories bearing Welsh’s name, it has no real sting.

Altogether, Reheated Cabbage is as sundry a collection as you’re likely to find by just a single author, and whilst I can see why one or two of its tales have never made mainstream appearances before, its others are right up there amongst Welsh’s most memorable. If, like me, you count the Scots scribe amongst your favourites, then I think you’ll take great pleasure in devouring this decades-spanning assortment, provided you remember that it isn’t supposed to be The Best of Irvine Welsh – it’s The Rest of Irvine Welsh; the granddaddy of all B-side compilations.

10 May 2012

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Book Review | Star Trek: Titan - Orion's Hounds by Christopher L Bennett

I was never all that enamoured with Deanna Troi as a character, though I must admit that she has really grown on me of late. This is largely down to the superlative handling of her by a few different ‘post-finale’ authors, most notably Christopher L Bennett, whose first contribution to the Star Trek: Titan series is an empathic slobberknocker that typifies the range’s ideals.

True to the Titan spirit, Bennett’s narrative is driven by non-humanoid species. This novel revisits the space-borne “star jellies” that we first met on the Enterprise-D’s maiden voyage and the colossal crystalline entities that laid waste to Data’s native colony, making these “Cosmozoans” part of a vast and delicate spatial ecosystem that is being stage-managed by a race of “whalers” – a state of affairs that Captain Riker cannot allow to stand. Turning to his half-Betazoid diplomatic officer / spouse for telepathic assistance, Titan’s bold captain takes it upon himself to completely reshape an entire region of space.

Bennett does a splendid job of balancing characterisation and plot, with each complementing the other beautifully. In sharing her mind and soul with the star jellies, Troi is forced to relive her recent telepathic rape at the hands of the Reman Viceroy in Nemesis, while at the same time trying to help Tuvok manage his own extrasensory demons. This is then counterpointed by Vale’s doubts about Riker’s judgement when it comes to his wife, and Riker’s realisation that his judgement is affected – though not necessarily for the worse. The synergy is delectable.

The remainder of the Titan crewmembers are also much better rounded here than they have been previously, with Bennett finally getting past the gimmicks of their respective species and to the heart of them. Here we read about the nanoprobe “infested” cyborg whose commanding officer is taking out his “Borg issues” on him; the Tellerite counsellor whose patients grow to respect his almost preposterously antagonistic style; the Pahkwa-thanh chief medical officer who will happily chew off an enemy’s forearm, only to diligently reattach it hours later. Even those we know well such as Tuvok are afforded new depth when, overwhelmed, he attacks the frail Melora - a development that forces both of them to take stock of their respective issues in a way that’s far from clichéd, but still quintessentially Trek.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Orion’s Hounds though is its lack of presumption. Bennett dares to challenge the unassailable notion that the Federation is beyond reproach, but not in an obvious Insurrection kind of way. The plot that unfurls here forces Titan’s captain to take a hard look at blind eyes that date back to Farpoint; perhaps even earlier.

Orion’s Hounds is a subtle and enthralling piece of work that takes the ideals of the first two Titan novels and builds a fascinating story around them, rather than on top of them. It rewards long-standing fans by weaving together threads from a number of fascinating, but all too exceptional, Next Generation stories, challenging preconceptions and beliefs all the while. A stunning book in every sense.

Book Review | Star Trek: Titan - The Red King by Andy Mangels and Michael A Martin

Andy Mangels and Michael A Martin’s follow-up to their first Star Trek: Titan novel, Taking Wing, does little to build upon the success of its predecessor. Whereas Taking Wing was a promising, if a little indulgent, offering that had Trek television pilot stamped right through it, The Red King tries to be innovative and intelligent science fiction – and sadly it falls flat.

The cliffhanger ending to Taking Wing saw both Titan and an entire fleet of Romulan Warbirds catapulted into the Small Magellanic Cloud, some 200,000 light years away from the Alpha Quadrant. Whilst the move reeked of The Next Generation episode Where No One Has Gone Before” and, of course, Star Trek: Voyager, it was nonetheless a tantalising one, and seemed to encapsulate the new series’ pioneering spirit. What’s more, it offered the authors the chance to revisit and expound upon the potentially fascinating culture of their Neyel – an offshoot of humanity once encountered by the Excelsior during Tuvok’s days on board. However, it only takes a few chapters for the momentum of Taking Wing to slow to a gentle gambol as we are drawn into a slow and derivative, science-heavy tale of proto-universes and macroscopic consciousnesses that seldom threatened to grab my attention.

Even Titan readers who prefer the harder stuff in terms of plot will be let down by aspects of the characterisation here. As the eponymous Red King is so abstract a conceit, the authors try to personify some peril in the hitherto-helpful Romulan Commander Donatra, neatly undoing much of their earlier good work with her character. Worse still, exciting newcomers such as Dr Ree are almost completely overlooked in favour of the likes of the comatose Commander Keru, whose prosaic exploits leave one in a broadly similar state. Of all Titan’s crew, only its captain and tactical officer are handled even reasonably well here, but in the case of both they’re left holding up the interesting end of their respective double acts.

Extremely ambitious, The Red King is a novel that might offer something to trekkers who invest more heavily in their science than they do their fiction, but for most of us I fear that it’s going to prove a major misstep – and not just 60,000 parsecs out of the Alpha Quadrant.

Book Review | Star Trek: Titan - Taking Wing by Michael A Martin and Andy Mangels

A lot of people didn’t want the saga of Star Trek: The Next Generation ever to end; me amongst them. As such I was delighted when I discovered Simon & Schuster’s absorbing series of post-Nemesis novels, and the various sister series and spin-offs that run parallel to them, including the brand new Star Trek: Titan.

Like the contemporaneous Next Generation novel Death in Winter, the first Titan adventure takes place shortly after the movie Star Trek: Nemesis and wallows in the political quagmires of the former Romulan Star Empire. The newly-promoted Captain William T Riker, the Enterprise’s erstwhile first officer, has been given command of a new Luna class starship manned by one of the most diverse crews in the history of Starfleet, and charged with a mission of peaceable deep space exploration worthy of Jim Kirk’s original Enterprise. Unfortunately for Riker though, the power vacuum left by Shinzon’s coup and his swift subsequent demise threatens to tear the battle-scarred Alpha Quadrant apart once more, and so before Titan can embark upon its bold new endeavour, its crew must mediate between four inscrutable Romulan factions.

At first I was a little confounded by Michael A Martin and Andy Mangels’ decision to ground their ‘pilot’ adventure not only in the Alpha Quadrant, but in the cumbersome continuity of Nemesis too. To my surprise though, the book’s setting is actually very effective as we are introduced to Titan’s wide-ranging crew safe within our comfort zone - and with Ambassador Spock to hold our hands too. Titan’s crew is so very diverse and so very alien that, had the authors propelled them straight into deep space and thrown fresh alien antagonists at us too, it would probably have been completely overwhelming. Indeed, I fear that even as it is, some readers will struggle to keep up with the litany of fantastic life forms and their unique life support, mobility and / or dietary requirements.

Of the crew, readers will automatically recognise and invest in the ship’s captain and his wife, Deanna Troi, who on Titan has supplemented her customary counselling with recognised diplomatic duties too. The authors do a magnificent job of probing Riker’s uncharacteristic doubts about his first command, many of which centre around his wife; his command decisions concerning her; and how these are perceived by his crew, and particularly his hand-picked but terribly insecure first officer, Christine Vale (one of the Enterprise-E’s many Worf stand-ins). The Enterprise contingent is completed by former Beverly Crusher protégé Alyssa Ogawa, who is fleshed out very well in Taking Wing, the authors painting a picture of a steely war widow and single mother – a far cry from the wide-eyed junior officer that we first met on television.

Tuvok of Voyager fame also features heavily in the book, which sees fit to impart yet even more pain suffering on the grizzled Delta Quadrant survivor. Given what he endures here, I suspect that the series is really going to challenge the Vulcan’s already slender dispassionate veneer. Followers of Deep Space Nine, meanwhile, are appeased by the inclusion of Lieutenant Melora Pazlar, one of Dr Bashir’s more exotic romantic interests – but one of the ship’s most maddening characters.

However, most of the Titan crew is comprised of brand new characters, and there’s not a human being in sight: we have Commander Ranul Keru, an unjoined, homosexual Trill whose partner was killed by Worf following his assimilation by the Borg; Bajoran Lieutenant Commander Jaza Najem, who seems to be an unrequited love interest for Vale; and a lascivious Efrosian engineer by the name of Xin Ra-Havreii. By far the standout new character is the Pahkwa-thanh chief medical officer, Dr Shenti Yisec Eres Ree. The ‘man’ is literally a seven foot sentient tyrannosaur, and he has no qualms about amusing himself by using his imposing appearance and ferocious culinary habits to intimidate his shipmates – and, I dare say, wryly challenge their prejudices into the bargain. Indeed, at its best Taking Wing is a sobering reminder that, for all its holier-than-thou doctrines, after nigh-on a decade of invasions and brutal conflicts many Federation citizens and even Starfleet officers are simply not as broad-minded as they should be. But then, nor was Leonard McCoy, and look how that turned out…

Heavy on politics and character but light on action, Taking Wing is one of the more interesting Star Trek pilots of recent years. Let down only by some occasionally awkward turns of phrase and its television-style curt rundown of its many characters, the Titan’s maiden voyage is one that promises much.