I used to read a lot of Star Trek novels, but about four years ago they stopped appealing to me, and I decided to spend my money on other things. But I'm still in touch with people who do read them, and I've never really lost track of what's going on in the Trek novel "universe." So it was probably inevitable that something would pull me back in. The something has turned out to be an event miniseries where the first two books were written by my two favorite Trek novelists back in the day: David R. George III and Una McCormack. I should note that McCormack, author of the book under review here, is an Internet acquaintance of mine: we follow each other on Twitter and occasionally make unfunny jokes about geeky things. But I was a fan of McCormack's work before I ever "met" her, so I don't think it's the personal-knowledge factor that made THE CRIMSON SHADOW such a fast, fun, thoughtful read.
It was, though, probably personal knowledge that got me to read it before the previous book in the series, REVELATION AND DUST, which I own but hadn't gotten around to when THE CRIMSON SHADOW was delivered. I don't know whether I would recommend that course to most readers. There's a biggish plot development in REVELATION AND DUST that also influences events in THE CRIMSON SHADOW; I had already been inadvertently spoiled, but if you're going to read REVELATION AND DUST at all, you might want to do so before starting THE CRIMSON SHADOW.
But enough preliminaries. What is THE CRIMSON SHADOW actually about? In a word: Cardassians. There are smallish supporting roles for some TNG regulars, particularly Picard, but this is basically a book about Cardassia. Nearly ten years have passed within the Star Trek universe since the DS9 finale, and the Federation is preparing to withdraw its occupation and humanitarian forces from Cardassia Prime. Federation President Nan Bacco and Cardassian Ambassador to the Federation Elim Garak have worked out on the final agreement, and all that needs to happen now is a signing to seal the deal. But the end of the occupation means a new order, and not even a tailor like Garak can guarantee that it will be a movement toward freedom and democracy rather than a return to authoritarian xenophobia. When unexpected events on Cardassia Prime and elsewhere threaten to unleash chaos, extraordinary steps may prove necessary to prevent the worst. But will those steps bring about the very moral decline they're meant to avert?
The interesting thing about this novel is that it manages at once to be a fast-paced quick read (I only needed a few hours) and a resonant examination of a society in transition. McCormack has always been good with Cardassians (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: The Never Ending Sacrifice was the last Trek book I read four years ago, and I definitely left on a high note), and here she focuses on how the Cardassians as defeated aggressors can come to terms with their past and shape a decent future. While there's one obvious demagogue, most characters are honestly trying to do the best thing in a difficult situation, at least according to their own frames of references. But since those frames of reference were shaped by a society that was poisonous and eventually poisoned itself, there's plenty of room for conflict. Almost everyone has something to be guilty about, must struggle with the line between acceptable bending of the rules for the greater good and abuse of power. After a light-hearted Part One, events take a darker turn in Part Two, and the sense of tragedy is, by Star Trek standards, surprisingly potent, as former allies turn on each other and battle lines are drawn.
But, as I've suggested, this isn't a slog through dark territory. Garak being Garak, there's plenty of humor, and McCormack doesn't feel the need to drive her thematic points home with lugubrious language-- a few mentions of the extent of the wartime devastation and of the inherently inhospitable climate on Cardassia Prime prove sufficient. Intrigues piled on intrigues keep the plot moving at a steady clip without becoming over-complicated. And, as in other books, McCormack occasionally plays with omniscient, slightly obtrusive narration, rather than the straight third-person limited of most Trek fiction. I'd like to have seen more of this, actually; it makes a nice change, and compensates for occasional infelicities in the rest of the prose and in the dialogue. Garak aside, the characters aren't terribly complex, but that has its own benefits: they're ordinary people making their way as best they can in a destroyed world. Overall, THE CRIMSON SHADOW is a fine novel, not enormously substantial but more than complex enough for its own purposes, and comes highly recommended to fans of DS9, Garak, or Cardassians generally, and to readers interested in science fiction about the aftermath of tyranny. If you don't want to commit to the full miniseries, it works by itself, but the intersections between it and REVELATION AND DUST (which I've now started) suggest an intriguing approach to the overall structure of THE FALL, one that has me happy, for the moment, to have given Star Trek fiction another shot.