This week, the Enterprise picks up yet another blowhard ambassador to mediate a religious dispute involving a sacred animal, but Spock opts out to tinker with a cool laser on a terraforming colony. But the Klingons, up to their usual cloak-and-dagger shenanigans, descend on the colony to steal the beam in hopes of weaponizing it. Will Kirk and the ambassador figure out how to relocate the animals? Can Spock successfully collaborate with a bunch of tweens? And how much does it suck when annoying people are right? All this and more in Faces of Fire, the book that will make you openly yearn for the death of a child.
The Enterprise is en route to Alpha Maluria VI to help settle a civil dispute, and to assist them, they’re taking with them Marlin Farquhar, the sort of smarmy, know-it-all diplomat the Federation has in seemingly infinite supply. But first, they have to stop over at Beta Canzandia III to check on the health of the scientists and get an update on the progress of their terraforming research—a detour Farquhad is quick to register his impatience with.
Among the residents of the Beta Canzandia colony are a young boy named David and his mother Carol, who should ring a bell—the latter especially, considering we last saw her a mere two books ago. Yes, it’s that David and Carol—Marcus, that is. Although Kirk and Carol have their usual strained back-and-forth and agonize as always over what might have been, David actually gets the lion’s share of the character development this time around. David hangs out with the other scientists’ children, but is mercilessly bullied by the oldest, Timmy Riordan. Only one other kid, Keena Medford, shows him. any sort of sympathy or kindness.
The plants grown by the G7 beam (no relation) aren’t producing the correct amount of oxygen, so Spock volunteers to stay on Beta Canzandia and help them figure out what’s wrong with it. Of course, no sooner does the Enterprise depart for Alpha Maluria than the Klingons arrive, laying waste to the research domes and setting their sights on the G7. David assumes a leadership role among the children, taking them out to a valley dotted with caves that will lower their chances of being found and killed. Spock joins them shortly thereafter, and together they set traps to outwit the Klingon invaders as they make their way back to the sundered settlement.
Focusing as much as this book does on kids can be a sticky wicket. It certainly fills me with trepidation, in any event. “Rascals”, for example, is one of my very least favorite TNG episodes. Lest you worry that Faces of Fire will evoke memories of that episodes, or perhaps of something like, say, “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement”, let me assure you your fears are unfounded. The kids in Faces of Fire actually carry themselves with a lot of maturity and poise, given how scary their situation is. David in particular experiences a lot of major personal growth as he comes into his own as a leader to his friends and begins looking to Spock (in a rather amusing touch of irony) as a father figure.
I acutely felt David’s pain in his struggle with fatherlessness. David understands intellectually that having a father isn’t a requirement for becoming a respectable man, but nevertheless he wants one more than anything else. I see this exact thing every day in my own life. My wife and I raise our nephew, and while we’ve provided him with all his needs, most of his wants, and a pair of hopefully adequate adult role models, for him it’ll never be the same as it would be if it was his biological mom and/or dad giving him those things. He’s openly expressed as much. And while that hurts, I understand and accept it. So I really get where David is coming from here.
So then for me, it’s all the more frustrating when all that wonderful character development David Marcus gets is forced to crash into a brick wall of canon. After he’s emerged safely on the other side of a harrowing experience and earned the respect of his peers and done a lot of good maturing and growing up, he sees Kirk show up for the cleanup at the end, and without warning he projects the maelstrom of all his bottled-up anger onto him. A lot of solid reflective growth goes right out the window so that the canon can assert itself. It makes the entire story that came before it feel like a total waste of time.
I know I spent a lot of energy on what is nominally the B-plot,1 but I swear other things happened in this book too. Kirk and Farquhar’s business on Alpha Maluria involves having to somehow redirect the meanderings of a sacred animal without blaspheming and instigating a giant crusade. By the time they finally arrive, the situation has escalated to rioting and bloodshed, which annoyingly validates Farquhar’s insistence that they should have gotten there sooner. Kirk further annoys Farquhar when the councilmen show a clear preference for his direct no-nonsense approach over Farquhar’s cloying obsequiousness. Kirk, Bones, and Scotty soon realize they’ll have to go behind Farquhar’s back if they want to make any real progress, which results in some moderately fun espionage.
The most boring part by far is everything involving the Klingons. Supposedly, some Klingons are tapped by none other than the emperor himself to put the kibosh on those aligned with an especially war-hungry faction from the southern continent of the homeworld, but this goes nowhere. I rarely enjoy sorting through all the backstabbings and double-crossings of Klingon political intrigue, especially when all it results in is a plan crumbling due to everyone trying to step over everyone else to get their hands on their own personal pie in the sky. The major reveal is that the second officer of the Kad’nra is none other than Kruge. He eventually takes command of the Kad’nra through the deaths of everyone above him, but the picture of how he got from there to a captaincy in Search for Spock remains incomplete and unsatisfying.
After the execrable Reunion, Faces of Fire represents a return to form of sorts for Michael Jan Friedman, which is to say a return to his usual inoffensive mediocrity. It’s surely mostly a coincidence that it features an issue that strikes such a personal chord with me, but it does nevertheless go a short way in improving it slightly in my estimation. It’s just too bad all of the wonderful personal growth of David Marcus goes straight in the trash can before the book’s even over. I’m well used to the events of the novels not being canon, but that doesn’t make it any less jarring when you’re so forcefully reminded of it so soon after they happen.
MVP & LVP
- This week I’m giving MVP to Dr. McCoy, because he does something in this book that I consider an underrated and underutilized skill. McCoy pegs Ambassador Farquhar pretty much from the very start. He gets shushed a lot and asked to give him the benefit of the doubt, but you know what? He ends up being totally right about him! This skill doesn’t get enough credit. One of the most annoying aspects of life is that we’re constantly told not to judge books by their covers, and yet it is always being done to us every day on some level, usually in the context of interviews and job performance. If you have sufficient personal experience and analytical practice under your belt, there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t operate off of first impressions of people, situations, works of media, etc. I have enough confidence in my own knowledge of myself to be able to determine with just a few basic facts at hand how I’m ultimately going to feel about something or someone, and while I’m always open to being pleasantly surprised and/or proven wrong, I’ll gladly admit it’s saved me enough disappointment and heartache to have been worth it on the whole. Of course, Farquhar mellows out and eventually realizes his folly, as those of his ilk are wont to do, but that doesn’t make McCoy’s initial impressions any less valid.
- Some weeks I really struggle to pick an MVP and an LVP. Not this week! This week the LVP is without question Timmy Riordan. Timmy is a no-brainer for induction into a rarefied echelon of fictional children: the kind you immediately wish was dead and you don’t even feel bad about it. The first person he reminded me of was that cheeky little fartknocker in Jurassic Park that Sam Neill scares straight with a raptor claw, which is the absolute worst company imaginable in my mind. Timmy’s awfulness is established in the first scene where all the scientists’ kids hang out together, in which he coerces David Marcus into running and jumping over a fairly wide chasm. David does it out of peer pressure, and then Timmy does one of those douchebag hypocrite 180s and chastises him for agreeing to such an obviously dangerous and stupid dare. We have all known at least one kid like this, and if we’d had the proper presence of mind back then, we’d have pulled their underwear over their heads and kicked them into oncoming traffic. Of course, Timmy’s true colors eventually shine through and he gets well and truly embarrassed, as he should. I would read a Star Trek story where David ruthlessly reminds Timmy every day what a coward he was until Timmy starts sobbing and pees his pants, and I would give it 5 out of 5 stars. Punks like Timmy deserve no quarter, full stop.
Nuggets & Other Stray Bits
- Mental Central Casting: Largely because of the similarity of the surname Farquhar to another character played by him, I pictured the ambassador as John Lithgow while reading. It worked, because John Lithgow would make an absolutely amazing blowhard ambassador type.
- MJF Apostrophe Update: It’s gotten so bad they can’t keep them straight from one page to the next now. (The Klingon vessel is called the Kadn’ra on page 42 and the Kad’nra on page 43.) Also appearing in sufficient abundance to form a snarky drinking game around them: instances of grunting and licking lips.
I give Faces of Fire 2.5 out of 5 Klingon fireblossoms. While the business with Kirk and the ambassador isn’t bad, it also isn’t terribly exciting. There’s some really good stuff with David Marcus in the B-plot that I connected with on a deeply personal level, but it all gets shoved off the table at the end so that he can immediately become the tightly coiled ball of anger we meet at the beginning of Star Trek II. All that plus a bunch of boring Klingon junk equals yet another MJF novel that fails to add up to anything truly satisfying.
NEXT TIME: Prepare your anus for Probe