Pocket Books has launched a new series of Star Trek books, set during the early period of Kirk's time. The series is Star Trek: Vanguard, and the first book, Harbinger is an excellent start. Written by David Mack, one of the premier authors of the line, it carries an interesting concept, some rather unique (at least for Star Trek) characters, and some wonderful plotting. It definitely leaves me waiting impatiently for the next book.
Starbase 47, also known as Vanguard, is a station way out beyond Federation space, in a zone sandwiched between the Klingon Empire and Tholian space. Built very quickly, it also has a secret purpose, one which only a few members of Starfleet's hierarchy know. Captain Kirk is bringing the Enterprise back from the edge of the galaxy, after the events of the television episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before." The ship is battered, his friend is dead at his own hand, and Kirk just wants to get home and refit. He discovers that the Vanguard station is along their way home, and is much closer than limping back to Federation space, so he takes the Enterprise there. When he gets there, his suspicions are aroused by the reluctance of Commodore Reyes to answer his questions about why the station is out there, and he becomes determined to get to the bottom of what's going on.
Let me start right away by saying that, while a lot of the description of the above was about Kirk, this is *not* his book. Kirk and the Enterprise are only in this book to do a "hand-off" to the crew and characters of Vanguard, much like the appearance of Picard in Deep Space Nine's pilot. This is the raw rookie Kirk, not yet the legend, and people don't kowtow to him (though he isn't above bullying his way in anyway). Reyes shoots him down quite quickly when Kirk begins demanding answers. I quite liked Reyes' character, as he has quite a few flaws, but he is loyal to his crew and to Starfleet, as well as harboring a secret or two of his own. I loved the scenes between Kirk and him, where Mack illustrates the differences between the two commanders.
Mack handles the other characters brilliantly too, introducing them all in scenes that don't sink to "info-dump" level, instead having their initial scenes flow from the characters themselves. Pennington, the Federation News Service reporter, is having an affair with one of the officers on the Bombay (a ship assigned to Vanguard), whose husband happens to be a crewmember on the Enterprise. He's a reporter with a keen eye for a story, and a willingness to dig very deep if necessary. Throughout the book, Pennington's life goes from a great high at the beginning of the book to a deep low as events happen. By the time the inevitable happens and he begins to think his life can't get any worse, the reader has grown to care about him a great deal. He is probably one of the best new characters in the book, but he is not the only one.
This crew is not your typical Star Trek crew. This is a time where the utopia of the Next Generation series hasn't happened yet, and the Federation is still in danger of falling to an outside threat if they're not careful. The characters are not perfect, and some have really deep flaws. Not only that, but Mack doesn't present us with the normal "captain, first officer, chief engineer, etc" crew. Reyes is the commander, we briefly see the first officer, but he's not a main character. Instead, we have a reporter, a merchant/smuggler (for those of you familiar with the old Trek series, think Cyrano Jones), an Orion crime lord, a Federation diplomat and his assistant (the assistant also being a Klingon spy) and a Starfleet Intelligence agent, among others. This eclectic mix just adds to the story possibilities.
As for the plot, Starfleet has discovered something mysterious and potentially valuable in the Taurus Reach (the area of space where Vanguard is), and it must be kept secret from the Klingons and Tholians. They desperately want to know what it is. This storyline will continue through the series, so we're not given too much information about this find, other than it appears to be a massive amount of raw data. The way Mack has written this first book, the ideas for where this story can go are endless, and they don't all have to revolve around this overarching plot. That's the sign of a good series, and I hope it continues.
In typical Mack fashion, Harbinger has quite a lot of death and destruction, but uncharacteristically, this only takes place in one scene. The rest of the book is quite character-based, introducing all of them and showing us how they are related. Mack writes these scenes almost flawlessly, with each one building strongly on the ones before it. He switches effortlessly between the numerous character threads, having them interact occasionally, and parceling out their secrets like he's awarding treats to the reader. It's quite effective in making you keep going, and I finished this book much more quickly than I usually do, as I couldn't put it down.
Harbinger makes a wonderful beginning to the Vanguard saga, and as Kirk and company head off back to Earth, I'm quite confident that the crew and residents of Starbase 47 can stand on their own numerous feet. David Mack's given them a good start, and the stars are the limit for where they can go. This is one of the best Trek books of the year.