Cast No Shadow by James Swallow – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the tie-in sequel novel to the superhit Star Trek film The Undiscovered Country, the sixth in the Star Trek filmsverse.
“A very satisfying continuation to what was already a great film. A near-perfect sequel guest-starring some of the TOS crew.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
Over the years, I’ve read quite a few novels set within the Star Trek universe, whether these be books featuring the crews of the Enterprise-A or the Enterprise-D or even prequels set years earlier within both Earth and Vulcan history. For the most part I’ve always enjoyed these books and they’ve been the source of much excitement and wonder for me. Joining them all is Cast No Shadow by James Swallow. It is set almost seven years after the events of The Undiscovered Country, in which we saw the Klingon Empire open negotiations with the Federation following the destruction of their moon Praxis and the resultant pollution of their homeworld. The peace process was sabotaged repeatedly by discontent Klingon and Starfleet military officers but ultimately Kirk and his crew won the day, establishing a new age of peace in the galaxy.
However, not all is well and given the weakness of the Klingon Empire, those they’ve… enslaved over the years are finally rising up and the people who were involved in derailing the peace process are making their presence felt once more. Caught in between, we finally get to learn why Lieutenant Valeris betrayed Spock and Starfleet, why she joined Cartwright’s conspiracy, and just why she hates the Klingons so damn much. It was something that was tellingly absent in the film and Cast No Shadow gives James Swallow an excellent opportunity to rectify that necessary oversight.
As always with Jim’s novels, his characterisation is always spot-on. The novel has two main protagonists. The first is Valeris herself, and the second is a Starfleet Intelligence’s desk-bound analyst, Lieutenant Vaughn. Given their loyalties and beliefs, as we know them from the early pages, the dynamic between the two makes for some great drama and these scenes got me really excited and kept me turning the pages to find out more.
It was great to see Valeris return for an extended outing like this one. James Swallow takes a minor villain from The Undiscovered Country and he gives her a really good personality and he really takes apart her character, breaking her down into her motivations and beliefs and views. It makes for a really good exploration of her character and made me think that the movie could so easily have used some of this material, had it been developed back then. It would have added in so much more context to the events as they went down. I actually watched the movie yesterday in prep for this review, so I’d be current on both things, together. But perhaps that is the biggest draw of tie-in books like these. They add so much more context and they really get the characters to come alive.
However, while the author did a great job of expanding on her character, her motivations do ultimately strike a little false. I was left wondering whether it was due to her nature, being a Vulcan, that I didn’t feel convinced by her reasons for betraying the Federation, or whether it was that the motivations just weren’t convincing to begin with, irrespective of which alien race she belongs to. It is an interesting conundrum, and I don’t really have an answer to that, unfortunately, because I just can’t.
And yet, her being a Vulcan adds a great deal to the rest of the book. She contrasts so well with the emotional Vaughn, and so well with Spock himself, with whom she has some great extended scenes. This goes back to the dynamic I mentioned earlier. Vaughn has trouble coming to terms with the fact that Starfleet Intelligence is willing to associate itself with Valeris and that the traitor is a key part of Starfleet’s end of the investigation into the destruction of several Klingon and Federation ships around the Klingon world Da’Kel. He doesn’t trust Valeris at all because Vaughn is stuck in a world where things are either black or white. He hasn’t yet learned that there are ample shades of grey in between.
Where Spock is concerned, his relationship with Valeris is explored in depth. Their relationship, the way it ended in the movie, ends up causing ripples for Valeris’ future in a way that she is put in his situation and has to make a terrible choice, the same choice that Spock ended up making, and she has to come to terms with that choice. Standout moment. One of many.
Vaughn’s naivete was rather refreshing to read, as far as the Star Trek universe is concerned. He is contrasted with Darius Miller, a senior SI agent who is leading the investigation alongside Captain Hikaru Sulu and the crew of the USS Excelsior. Miller is a seasoned operative and he is the one who can make the hard and necessary decisions that Vaughn balks at. He also brings a stability to the dynamic between Valeris and Vaughn, balancing the two of them and takes centerstage while Sulu understandably takes backstage. Through Miller, we see how the idealism of someone like Vaughn can be dangerous, perhaps extremely dangerous, in the kind of situation facing the Federation right now. In the wake of the Khitomer Accords, tensions between the Klingons and the Federation still exist and the entire investigation into Da’Kel is like a spark waiting to turn into a raging inferno.
The potential for Vaughn’s character to grow was quite enormous, and the author certainly makes that happen. It was handled nicely, with lots of personal intimate moments that focused on him and his beliefs and his sense of duty to Starfleet and the Federation.
The villains in the novel are dealt with decently enough. There are some tropes at work, but they are not tropes that make you groan or shake your head. James Swallow uses them as expected early on, but he keeps some twists and turns in store for the second half of the novel, when things really kick off and its a race to the finish to see whether the bad guys will win or the good guys will.
The plot structure is quite methodical and always on point. There are ample flashbacks to Valeris’ past, scenes that explain her deep-seated resentment towards the Klingons and her association with Admiral Cartwright, whom she has known for a long, long time. But these scenes serve to add to expand on the main narrative, rather than stealing away the limelight. They are a part of it, rather than in contention. Which was good. Too often I see that an author focuses so much on the flashbacks that they take on a greater prominence than the main story being told and thus serve as nothing but painful and irritating distractions.
James Swallow has, for the most part, always impresses with his clever writing, and Cast No Shadow is no exception to that. I think it is certainly one of his best novels to date. As ever with him, this novel had some compelling characters of all kinds and it had a really action-adventure feel to all of it, fused with an exciting “behind-enemy-lines spy story” vibe. Certainly good stuff!