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Star Trek Excelsior: Forged in Fire

Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels have, together, written some of my very favorite Star Trek novels (such as Taking Wing, the excellent attempt to pick up the narrative pieces left by the train-wrech that was Star Trek Nemesis that also launched the Titan series of novels, chronicling William T. Riker’s first command) and some of my least favorite (such as The Red King, their follow-up to Taking Wing, and the Kobayashi Maru/Romulan War series of novels that began with such promise but ultimately disappointed).  But one of their very best novels –if not THE best — was their 2008 novel Star Trek Excelsior: Forged in Fire.

Set mostly in the year 2289/2290, several years before the events of Star Trek VI, Forged in Fire tells the story behind the events of the Deep Space Nine episode “Blood Oath.”  That awesome episode brought together, for the first time, the three most well-known Klingon characters from the Original Series, amazingly played by the three original actors: Kang (Michael Ansara), Kor (John Colicos), and Koloth (William Campbell).  That episode revealed that the three Klingon warriors, along with Jadzia Dax’s forebearer, Curzon Dax, had decades ago sworn a blood oath to avenge the deaths of the three Klingons’ first-born sons (one of whom was Dax’s god-son) at the hands of a brigand known as the Albino.  Forged in Fire fills in the backstory behind that event.  In this book we see how the Klingons first crossed swords with the Albino, and how it came to be that a young Federation diplomat became so close to a group of Klingons that one of them eventually named him godfather to his first-born son.

Why did I decide to re-read Forged in Fire now?  Actually, I wanted to re-read it ever since re-reading the first The Lost Era novel, The Sundered, which also featured Captain Sulu and the USS Excelsior, and was also written by Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels.  But life got in the way, and I hadn’t gotten to it until now.  But what a delight it was to re-read this terrific book!

Forged in Fire is gloriously drenched in Star Trek continuity.  I love how cleverly the authors fleshed out the vague hints of back-story    given in “Blood Oath” into an enormous tapestry, an epic asventure spanning many years (the dense novel cleverly hops all about in time) that turns out to depict a critical event in the history of the Federation’s relationship with the Klingon Empire, setting the stage for the rapprochement that would arrive following the events of Star Trek VI.

I love getting to spend time with Kor, Kang, and Koloth.  When we see them in “Blood Oath” (the only time the the characters were ever on-screen together), they were already old men.  But here in Forged in Fire, we get to see the three Klingon warriors in their prime, and to explore their friendship.  I also love the depiction of a young Curzon Dax.  Again, the only times we saw Curzon (very briefly) in DS9, he was an old man, and indeed any times Sisko told stories of his friend Curzon (“the old man”), they were of Curzon the veteran diplomat/carouser.  But the Curzon we meet in this story is a young man, an inexperienced diplomat in the coterie of Ambassador Sarek.  In Forged in Fire we get to see how young Curzon made his bones, and his bold actions — actions which the venerable Sarek would never have taken — that so impressed the three Klingon Warriors, and we learn of the great adventure the four men shared and the unlikely friendship they developed.  I absolutely adore this aspect of the story.

But wait, isn’t this book subtitled Excelsior?  Indeed it is.  And while that subtitle might be a slight misnomer, as in my mind the main story-line of the book is clearly that of the Klingons and Dax, the book also focuses on Sulu, and tells the story of how he earned the captaincy of the USS Excelsior.  When we first meet Sulu in this book, he is the newly-assigned first officer on the USS Excelsior, having difficulty working with Captain Styles (seen in Star Trek III), who blames anyone associated with Captain Kirk for the Excelsior’s humiliating failure to stop the Enterprise back in Star Trek III.  I was delighted to see this novel acknowledge the (possibly non-canonical) material in Vonda N. McIntyre’s superlative adaptations of Star Trek II and Star Trek III, which suggested that, before going on the “little training cruise” with Kirk & co. in Star Trek II, Sulu was scheduled to be given the captaincy of the Excelsior, a promotion which was denied him as penalty for the Enterprise crew’s violating orders and stealing the Enterprise in Star Trek III.  We know that Sulu did eventually become the captain of the Excelsior by the time of Star Trek VI.  Forged in Fire postulates that before earning the captain’s seat, Sulu was assigned to Excelsior — but as the first officer to Captain Styles.  I think this is a very clever bit of backstory, and I love the way the authors wove together various different bits of Star Trek history to make this work.

I love this depiction of Sulu, and I love the way his story was connected to the Klingons & Dax’s story.  I enjoyed getting to know the Excelsior crew.  After the work Mr. Martin and Mr. Mangels did in their previous Sulu and the Excelsior adventure in The Lost Era Book One: The Sundered, I suspect that they, and Pocket Books, might have hoped that this book would be the launch of a new Excelsior series of novels, hence the Excelsior sub-title.  I am not sure why that never happened, because this book is not only a terrific stand-alone adventure, but I could definitely have seen the work done in this book to develop the crew of the Excelsior having lead into a series of novels focusing on their adventures (similar to the series that Mr. Martin and Mr. Mangels WERE able to successfully start a few years later, depicting the crew of the Titan under the command of Captain Riker).  Speaking of developing the crew of the Excelsior, by the way, extra props to Mr. Martin and Mr. Mangels for fleshing out the character of Captain Styles, redeeming the buffoonish, one-note character from Star Trek III (while still presenting him as the same man and not a totally different personality).

Forged in Fire is a lengthy novel, a real epic.  As I mentioned above, the book jumps all over in time, and is drenched in Star Trek lore (while still presenting a relentlessly compelling adventure that doesn’t get overwhelmed by lots of little winking references.). The story connects cleverly to the events of the Enterprise two-parter “Affliction” and “Divergence,” that provided an onscreen explanation for why the Klingons of the Original Series had smooth foreheads, rather than the elaborate crests of the movie-era and TNG-era Klingons.  (One of the most striking aspects of Forged in Fire is the novel’s robust depiction of Klingon culture, which the authors took pains to keep consistent with various bits and details from many previous Trek novels, and to ingeniously connect the events of The Original Series with the depictions of the Klingons in the later Trek movies and TV shows.)  The story references the Enterprise B’s captain John Harriman and Sulu’s daughter, Demora, introduced in Star Trek: Generations.  The Original Series’ Janice Rand appears on board the Excelsior (where we saw her in Star Trek VI).  Digging deeper into Star Trek lore, we even get a terrific, quick explanation for why the Trill we saw in the TNG episode “The Host” (the episode that introduced the joined species) looked different from all the Trill we saw in DS9.

I love this novel.  It is the very best kind of Star Trek book — one that is deeply connected to the details of the Trek films & TV shows, one that blends together the characters and histories from the different Trek series, one that is very respectful of and consistent with Star Trek’s rich continuity, but that is also on its own a rip-roaring sci-fi adventure tale.  Forged in Fire is all of that and more, one of the real highlights of the Star Trek novel universe.

Previous Star Trek novel reviews:

Star Trek – Unspoken Truth , Troublesome MindsCast No Shadow

Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Sky’s The LimitDestiny trilogyA Singular Destiny, Losing the Peace,Immortal CoilCold Equations Book 1: The Persistence of MemoryCold Equations Book 2: Silent Weapons, Cold Equations Book 3: The Body Electric

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – DS9 relaunch overviewThe Soul KeyThe Never-Ending SacrificePlagues of Night and Raise the Dawn

Star Trek: Voyager – Full Circle

Star Trek: Enterprise — Kobayashi Maru, The Romulan War: Beneath the Raptor’s WingThe Romulan War: To Brave the Storm

Star Trek: Titan – Book 1: Taking Wing, Book 2: The Red KingBook 3: Orion’s HoundsBook 4: Sword of DamoclesBook 5: Under a Torrent SeaBook 6: Synthesis

Star Trek: Typhon Pact – Book 1: Zero-Sum GameBook 2: Seize the FireBook 3: Rough Beasts of EmpireBook 4: Paths of DisharmonyPlagues of Night and Raise the DawnBrinkmanship

Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations – Watching the ClockForgotten History

Star Trek: The Lost Era – Book 1: The Sundered (2298),

Star Trek: Mirror Universe (Books 1 & 2) – Star Trek: Mirror Universe: Shards & Shadows – Star Trek: Mirror Universe: The Sorrows of Empire — Star Trek: Mirror Universe: Rise Like Lions –  Star Trek: Myriad Universes (Books 1 & 2) – Star Trek: Myriad Universes: Shattered Light

Beyond the Final Frontier — Josh’s favorite Star Trek novels

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