So, this is it. The end of the books-only Trek series Vanguard. Is it a worthy ending to this very ambitious project?
"Storming Heaven" suffers a bit from its many plotthreads which distract from the station and the Shedai - which is unfortunate, given the premise of the series. But let's again take it plotthread by plotthread and work our way through to the end.
After the failed experiment of collaboration on Nimbus III (none of the delegations were really capable of letting go of old customs, spying on each other and not comitting to the cause), Jetanien officially left the diplomatic circles and retired to Nimbus III - unofficially to continue his backdoor diplomacy with the Klingons and Romulans, albeit now in secret.
The Klingons and the Romulans have forged an alliance - Romulan stealth technology against free passage for Romulan ships. But some forces want more - Duras, a member of the High Council, allies himself more closely, wanting more power to eventually overthrow the Chancellor and his allies, amongst them Gorkon, which in turn would enable the Romulans to gain more influence. Gorkon asks for support in uncovering this conspiracy, Jetanien, enlisting Pennington's help comes to his aid.
While this thread might have the most impact on the Star Trek we know - Gorkon's rise to power, his attempt at forging peace, the Klingon/Romulan alliance, Duras' reach for the Empire -, it still sits very apart from the rest of the events in this novel. And frankly, in the final part of a series, I don't want too many different plotthreads unless they come together at the end. Which this one unfortunately doesn't.
* the Shedai, the Tholians and Starfleet
The end of the Shedai is a bit anticlimactic. Instead of the huge final battle, the threat of the Shedai is virtually ended by capturing them all in more of those Tkon-devices that the Sagittarius collects in a covert mission, using the navigational data Reyes got from the Orion ship.
This part felt rushed, honestly. It builds upon the mission where Bridy Mac was killed and the Apostate showed her and Quinn the building map for a weapons array against the Shedai. The array houses lots of those Myrdoniae-devices, 2 of which were already used within the series... Constructed correctly, the array can help discover Shedai, Shedai conduits and, due to the energy build up when all the devices are occupied by Shedai it can also be used to destroy planets.
But first of all, the Sagittarius only gets about half the devices that were on that Eremar statite (a remnant of a Dyson sphere) - but it says nowhere how that influences the array. Secondly, there's no way to predict the consequences of actually using the array. All experiments were done on 2 devices - one of which they managed to destroy -, but not on over 5000 linked together. And still, they just use it. And thirdly, why should a self-destruct work on the Shedai who can move beyond what we can perceive? And we are meant to believe that all Shedai just stand there and let themselves be hit by that explosion - not even one had the presence of mind to just shift away? It's one thing for them to converge on Xiong and take their revenge, it's quite another for them not to react.
And then there's the Tholians who very conveniently get wind of the Tkon-devices themselves just before the Orion ship blows up. Also, that first attack by the Tholians on Eremar only seemed to be aimed at raising the danger level of the mission - did anyone really believe the Sagittarius would fail at delivering the devices to Vanguard?!? But then again, I guess, the book had to be stretched to its usual 350 pages, and certain plotparts needed an extra helping of suspense. In my opinion it would have made more sense if they had caught wind telepathically of the situation when the array was used to capture the Shedai - then they could have assembled at their borders and, as was shown, launched their attack when the array was used again.
What's most disturbing, but unfortunately quite consistent with the rest of this series, are Starfleet Command's orders. They don't care about consequences, ethical questions... their whole focus is on getting the edge over everyone else, no matter the cost. This is quite a different Starfleet than the one we are used to, especially from the TV-series where questionable decisions are rather the exception and not the rule.On the other hand, this is the Starfleet Command that eventually plays an important role in the demise of a foreign leader...
But it's not even so much the orders themselves, it's that even the people involved get so carried away that they don't question them. Chain of Command is good and well - and perhaps it's due to the fact that I never was part of a military organization that I have problems with this -, but does being part of a chain of command preclude you from thinking for yourself? From determining what's right and what's wrong? Granted, there are innumerable shades of gray but experimenting on the Shedai, a living species? Keeping them prisoner and using them for your own gain up to and including hurting the Tholians in the process?
Reyes reached his end of the line with issuing General Order 24, killing innocent and ignorant civilians kept in the dark about the danger because of orders, back in Reap the Whirlwind, Desai wasn't much behind in Declassified... how much further was Nogura willing to take it if not even the idea of using the Shedai prompted him to stand up for his beliefs? Of course he has a point. Had he granted Xiong's complaint, Starfleet Command would just have dismissed them and installed other officers more willing to cross the lines. And of course, he was in an impossible situation. On the other hand, given the time it took for *him* to come aboard after Reyes' imprisonment, how long would it have taken here for a replacement to arrive at the station? Granted, given that Starfleet Command has circumvented the chain of command on the station before (see the botched attempt at Reyes' extraction from the Orion ship), who knows what they would have ordered the station's security to do in this case... But I guess I just wanted Nogura to stand up for what he knew what was right. In fact, he argued Xiong's point to his superiors and was told that they were in fact at war - just to turn around and refute Xiong's argument that at war prisoners have certain rights because, officially, war had never been declared...
However, it doesn't just stop with Nogura. What about Xiong himself? He was so keen on revealing the Shedai's secrets and he couldn't wait to experiment on things he couldn't possibly understand, and later on he was so single-minded on revenge because of Bridy Mac's death (though it would have made more sense to me if he had reacted like that to his real mistake in letting the Wanderer escape - this one and its consequences have really been on him...) that he was willing to let himself be used to further Starfleet Command's ideas. Only later - too late - did his good conscience reassert itself.
It can be argued that destroying any trace of the Shedai is just as much a crime as exploiting them for military purposes. Of course, in this instance Xiong didn't have much choice... but had there been no attack, and Nogura and Xiong been forced to, as they called it, pull the plug on the whole project, who determines that everything has to be destroyed, and consequently the whole universe deprived of a chance of peaceful exploration? Granted, the Klingons and Romulans (and all the other potentially adverserial races) would have quite certainly explored military uses as well, but maybe there truely is a race out there that would have investigated the Shedai for historic purpose, out of scientific curiosity and not for some personal gain. One can only hope that at some point we all grow beyond those petty interests and just seek knowledge for knowledge's sake.
I think it is difficult to draw the line. Many scientific breakthroughs have been made because of military advancement, many inventions have been used to hurt others, and often it's hard for ethics to keep up with science. Should anything be done just because it's possible? Or is there a higher standard we should adhere to? Or let's take this the other way around: Should scientific advances be forbidden because they might be used in the wrong way in the future? Star Trek's strength has always been to put a mirror in front of its audience. And as uncomfortable as reading of this militaristic and aggressive Starfleet is, it also reflects modern society - just think of those flimsy reasons to wage war in the Middle East back in the 2000s, or the pursuit of an arms-race to put fear into your opponents.
Another topic worth discussing is the distinction between Federation and Starfleet law. Civilians on Vanguard don't fall under Federation law - because Vanguard is not on Federation territory. Therefore it's okay to commandeer civilian freighter ships for military operations or replace civilians in key positions and even dismiss them from the station entirely - as done with Carol Marcus and her team who are shipped off to remote Regula 1. It's definitely small wonder that she's not keen on any kind of Starfleet interference in Star Trek II. Any way, it's definitely a very fine and extremely gray line Starfleet is toeing here.
Interestingly, the one reason for Operation Vanguard, the exploration of the meta-genome was pretty much abandoned - again, of course, we know that Marcus continues with her work (if only Starfleet had known what military advantages the metagenome could have back at Vanguard, the torpedo would have been invented quite a bit earlier, I guess), but aside from the Shedai themselves it was this scientific issue that attracted me most to Vanguard, aside from the characters.
As with the first part of the finale, Storming Heaven's frame story takes place 2 years later with Pennington at Reyes' doorstep on some remote island on Caldos II. In What Judgments Come Reyes told his story, this one here is Pennington's. And Reyes does get his happy ending since Pennington didn't find out about his whereabouts just for his own reasons. I absolutely enjoyed this part (in both books) because it lends closure - and the epilogue had some beautiful imagery with events and protagonists fading into the mist of time.
Dr Fisher was the last of the Reyes confidants on the station, and he spent the whole book resigning and getting transport off the station... This seemed awfully contrived (and longwinded), especially the ending with his abandoning medical procedures in catastrophic events (triage etc) with predictable results.
Vanguard always kept track of Enterprise's missions, tying it into the bigger picture. And while Enterprise's appearance in Harbinger was welcome to send Vanguard off, I didn't appreciate it here, especially as Kirk once again swoops in and saves the day - by driving off the Klingons, helping with the first Tholian attack and then again in the final battle. I think to have Enterprise intervene diminishes the characters and ships that were so painstakingly established here - as if they can't accomplish their mission without help by their famous (if in universe still only in their first 5-year mission) colleagues. I did like Spock helping T'Prynn recover the music within herself - though, again, it should have occurred to her on her own that without Sten's katra, of course, she's a different person, reflected in her approach to music and the kind of music she chooses to play...
Speaking of T'Prynn, she continues on her road of redemption. This time Quinn, who has absolutely hit rock-bottom, benefits from her abilites in a mindmeld - and in letting people disappear without a trace.
I've heard Vanguard being called the Battlestar Galactica of Star Trek - I don't agree. I rather liken it to Babylon 5... awakening ancient forces, experimenting with them, trying to use them. Sounds a bit familiar, doesn't it?
I like to read while listening to music - and somehow the random-setting on my stereo always seems to find just the right score for what I'm reading. Like the soundtrack to "Into Darkness" during the Shedai capture, or "LotR: Two Towers" during the siege of Vanguard. "Game of Thrones" works just as well as soundtrack to this book-series.
This has become quite a long review because of the vast amount of plotthreads that come together here - some could have been shortened or even dropped to the benefit of the bigger picture perhaps. And that's perhaps my main point of criticism here and the reason why I'm not 100% thrilled with it.