Foreword: Although I've read a number of Trek novels, I haven't read one in quite some time—since long before I began posting my reviews on the Internet. After reading "Saratoga," a recent DS9 novel, I decided, hey, it's Trek, after all. Why not go ahead and review it?
This review contains some minor spoilers about the novel; mainly overview type of information. However, I promise I won't give away any of the key revelations in the story.
Nutshell: Some shining moments, but an overall letdown considering its potential. Uneven story structure and not very involving.
Saratoga was a book I thought I would thoroughly enjoy. It seemed to show the promise of dealing with an episode from Sisko's past, centering around issues that defined Sisko as we know him on the series today: a man whose life began anew after the death of his wife at the hands of the Borg.
Unfortunately, Saratoga could have, and should have, been so much more than it was. Author Michael Jan Friedman shows he knows the DS9 characters and their thought patterns pretty well at times, and he finds some relevant things to say about Sisko in this novel, but, unfortunately, there's simply not enough meat here. Instead, there's far too much in terms of pedestrian plotting and ho-hum storytelling events.
The story takes place between seasons three and four of the television run, as Sisko and a number of survivors from the USS Saratoga—the ship on which they all served and on which Sisko, as first officer, lost his wife during the Borg attack at Wolf 359—assemble at DS9 to go to the christening ceremony for the new Saratoga. Sisko is friends with many of these officers and knows them well, and emotions are destined to run high for all of them as they reopen old wounds and remember the tragedy that forever changed the courses of their lives. The group takes transport aboard the Defiant to travel to the Utopia Planitia Yards at Mars where the christening will soon take place.
En route to Utopia Planitia, there's a terrible malfunction, and the Defiant crew finds itself trapped in some sort of stellar nexus that will tear the ship apart if it doesn't escape in time. Meanwhile, there's a subplot here: Kira must enlist Quark to get her some cheap power coils for a friend back on Bajor, who will have to evacuate a city due to possible flooding if he can't immediately get the parts to repair some water pumps. Quark suddenly comes down with an illness and can't meet his contact to negotiate with. Because of circumstances I'm not even going to begin describing, Odo must use his shapeshifting skills to impersonate Quark and meet with the other negotiator in order to strike a deal—taking along Rom's as a negotiating advisor, of course.
There are a number of frustrating things about the way Saratoga unfolds. For starters, it spends over 100 of 275 pages on what I would label the story's "set-up" and on introducing the "guest" characters. That's just too long. Sure, the way that Friedman introduces the unfamiliar characters—Zar, Thorn, Barnes, Graal, Lopez, and so forth—is whimsically entertaining at times, especially how he uses some fresh perspectives by introducing them as they interact with other unknown characters who end up having nothing to do with the plot. There's also a subtly amusing and on-target character scene where O'Brien and Bashir decide to play darts with Lopez—who makes the game "interesting" by constantly upping the ante on a wager. But 100 pages is over a third of the book, and by about page 120 I began wondering when something substantial was going to happen.
Another problem with the novel is the choppy A/B-story structuring. This is a problem that often plagues the series because the producers want to give all the actors something worth doing. But in a book, an author has more freedom with the structure, and Friedman just doesn't seem willing to exercise it. Instead he gives us a main plot that is constantly interrupted by the subplot of Odo trying to negotiate to get some power coils. This subplot is lightweight at best, and when it does little but halt the development of a more dramatically urgent main story, that's decidedly not good.
I'm not saying I didn't like the subplot. Friedman seems to get Odo's demeanors—as well as Quark's and Rom's—just right. And there are some amusing moments concerning Odo's "bargaining" tactics with the Retizian trader. But the lack of flow resulting from one plot alternating with the other hurts—especially when one is supposed to be urgent and the other is supposed to be light.
The biggest problem with Saratoga, however, is that it's underwhelming from a character standpoint. A story about Sisko and his reliving of his wife's death, as well as the other characters and their thoughts about the past, is a story that demands emotional resonance. And once the Defiant is sabotaged, there should be an involving look at why one of the Saratoga survivors would rig the ship to be slowly destroyed. Unfortunately, there is little emotion in these events. Friedman spends too much time on the mechanical aspects of the plot, focusing on a series of "clever" tricks that O'Brien and Graal concoct in order to attempt escape. These events are hardly moving and not even very clever or interesting in the technical plotting sense. Much of it reads like a slow, by-the-numbers disaster movie, with the characters trying to outsmart an unimaginative problem. This story would've been so much better if it had actually stopped to closely scrutinize how these characters would react to one of their close friends turning on them, or by scrutinizing why the traitor does what he does.
The best passages involve those between Sisko and Counselor Barnes. Those harbor some emotion, and Barnes' slow decent into insanity—marked by her mental hallucinations and walking nightmares—are among the novel's most compelling images. Best of all, Barnes' has a dark secret and a fountain of repressed guilt that relates directly to Sisko and their serving together on the Saratoga that dreadful day the Borg attacked. I won't reveal what that is, but I will say that it provides a powerful, tragic character realization.
Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. Saratoga's plot wraps with a gratuitous battle sequence that is confusing and not very exciting. The discovery of the traitor (no, I won't reveal who it is) comes out of a number of deceptively written conveniences that strain credulity. Worse yet, the traitor's motives are not at all personal, emotional, or compelling, but based on something that has nothing to do with the past—not good for character analysis or reflection. It's a terrible shame to take such a plethora of potentially interesting characters from Sisko's past and do little with them beyond plugging them into a standard jeopardy plot.
It's too bad Friedman doesn't know what to do with all this storytelling potential. He sometimes shows a flair for knowing what it's like to confront one's own unstable sense of inner-peace. (The sense of closure, for instance, evident in the final-passage christening of the new Saratoga is nicely realized.) But the author just doesn't push enough emotional buttons that this premise is worthy of, and his plotting is too lacking in inspiration to make this novel live up to what it obviously could've been.