This week, Picard is tapped to help bring an end to two hundred years of civil war on Oriana, and instead of enlisting his best people, he brings Worf and Deanna. But when Picard is accused of murder and the peace talks go south, the episode turns out to be a rerun. Meanwhile, Geordi helps a bunch of squares fix their engines and ends up tasting the rainbow. Can the Klingon and the Betazoid root out the culprit before Picard is executed? Can they convince the Orianians to accept GMOs? And are they maybe getting a little bit cocky? All this and more in Nightshade, the book that’s elementary, my dear Betan-Ka.
Have you ever been to church when a guest speaker rolled through town, and they ended up talking about something the regular pastor covered, like, two weeks before? That’s Nightshade. Have you ever been to a concert and enjoyed the opening band more than the main act? That’s Nightshade. Have you ever watched someone make a terrible first impression, try to recover from it, and then against all odds almost but not quite make it? That’s Nightshade.
The Torlick and Venturi factions of the planet Oriana have been fighting for two hundred years, and with their planet now thoroughly poisoned and depleted, they’ve decided maybe peace is worth a shot. To that end, they’ve summoned Captain Picard to aid with negotiations. Picard and his party discover some horrifying conditions—the constant threat of assassination, an unbreathable atmosphere, a nursery full of thalidomide babies—but manage to make headway with a handful of sympathetic individuals. All of it gets dashed on the rocks, however, when the Venturi general is poisoned during a banquet and Picard stands accused of the deed. With Picard imprisoned and awaiting execution, Worf and Troi and left to find the real culprit and exonerate their captain.
If that last part sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve already had this exact character pairing on this same type of assignment—and it didn’t exactly make for crackling chemistry then, either.1 On a surface level I can see their appeal as an intriguing brains/brawn combo, but this time it’s made far worse by the particular version of Worf that shows up. Nightshade features my least favorite characterization of a guy I’m already not thrilled with: a paranoid goober with an itchy trigger finger and a mouth that somehow doesn’t have him skating on thin ice over a lake of insubordination charges. He cools down some as the story goes on, but his early behavior creates a staggering hurdle that the book is never able to cleanly clear.
My feelings on whodunits in Star Trek novels are well-documented at this point, and this one is no better, so I don’t feel the need to belabor them here. What I did find myself pleasantly surprised by, however, was the B-plot. Riker leaves Picard, Worf, and Deanna on Oriana to assist a race called the Milgians with engine trouble. The Milgians are the kind of extremely alien aliens that in those days literature was best equipped to bring to life, and which I wish I saw a lot more of in these books. They have large bodies made up of compartmentalized squares, and their ship is a flawless fusion of metal and organic components. Geordi and Dr. Crusher work together on the engine problem, and their interactions with each other and with the Milgians are ten times more entertaining than anything that happens on the Worf/Troi side of the book. It’s unfortunate that such a fertile idea plays second fiddle to far inferior material.
Nightshade also has the bizarre problem of getting a little too cozy with status quo. It’s of course never in any serious doubt that the Enterprise crew will succeed in any given mission, but here it’s like Worf and Troi completely take it for granted. Worf talks about “after we have rescued the captain, forged a lasting peace, and returned to the ship” like it’s a routine to-do list, and elsewhere the author points up the “not if, but when” distinction of certain statements the two make. It’s one thing to have faith in oneself and one’s peers, but another entirely to openly flaunt . (This in turn creates another point in favor of the B-plot: Geordi and Dr. Crusher have a far less confident but far more realistic grasp of their chances of success.)
Nightshade is Laurell Hamilton’s only Star Trek novel. In the years since, she’s become much better known as the author of the Anita Blake saga, a long-running series of increasingly erotic urban fantasy noir novels. Unlike a certain other sexy-vampire writer who once wrote for this franchise, she seems to have had a level head about it, accepting that she was playing in someone else’s sandbox and adjusting to expectations accordingly. I’m glad she had fun, but this book is a pretty giant mess. There are shades of great ideas here, but the parts of the book that are the most fun are the parts that sadly don’t get as much development or attention. There is a great story here—just not the one the author thought it was.
MVP & LVP
- My MVP this week is Picard, for his determination to build trust with the Orianians by setting a peaceful example. Among other admirable acts, he sends his security contingent back to the ship and faces the prospect of execution with the bravest of faces, trusting his people to do their jobs well. Representing the polar opposite end of the spectrum of character portrayals, this is Picard at or near his best: diplomatic, wise, lightly sardonic, endlessly patient. Runner-up to Geordi, who I was just thinking last week doesn’t get to have very much fun in these books, but his acid trip becoming one with the Milgian computer is just an absolute delight.
- LVP, naturally, if you’ve been paying attention, is Worf. He’s a smart dude—it’s just, I hate it when authors turn him into this stubborn, mouthy ninny who doesn’t trust anyone and is quick to ball up his fists or pull out a phaser. It simply doesn’t make for fun reading.
Nuggets & Other Stray Bits
- To be honest, I can’t even tell you why this book is called Nightshade. In the context of the events of the book, that title means less than nothing to me.
- This book has so many typos (mostly in the form of missing or spliced commas, but plenty of other gaffes as well) that it evokes the very earliest days of the Pocket Books run. I understand that proofreading may have been a little loosey-goosey since Hamilton dropped in to pick up a missed deadline, but it’s like it only got one pass, if even that.
- According to Worf, the Klingon equivalent of Sherlock Holmes is a detective named Betan-Ka. Worf finds Holmes “too cold”, and hails Betan-Ka as “a detective with spirit and emotion”. (p. 112)
- Got a kick out of this line: “Worf did not say it would be a hot day on Rura Penthe before he let Picard die to save this world.” (p. 119)
- Nightshade was reprinted in October 2010 to fill a gap in the Pocket Books publishing schedule. Of all the choices…
I give Nightshade 2 out of 5 Betan-Ka detective novels. Although there are several great subplots and character beats found in here, they are downplayed or featured less in favor of yet another boring murder mystery starring a character combo that’s already proven not to be terribly exciting. One of the most prominently featured characters is represented by his worst incarnation, and unfortunately, that’s the side of the book that gets the majority of the page load. Add in a slew of distracting typos and a sloppy climax, and you’ve got one for the ditch pile.
NEXT TIME: The Enterprise is caught in a dangerous Shell Game