This was actually my third time reading this book - but the first time I actually felt like writing a review...
Harbinger is the first part of a books-only Trek-series.
It's set on the huge space station Vanguard in the Taurus Reach, a region of space remote from the rest of Federation territory and neighbouring Klingon and Tholian space. Because of its remote location it's unusual for Starfleet to construct a station of Vanguard's calibre but the recent finding of a mysterious set of genome and artifacts that point to an advanced civilization warranted its existence. But Starfleet's keeping its investigations a secret and strictly need-to-know basis, and uses legitimate colonization projects as its cover. The Klingons are intrigued by Starfleet's advance and follow them into the Taurus Reach curious about what's out there, the Tholians dismayed because this region of space harbors a secret to their existence. And so, Vanguard's also used as a meeting-place for diplomatic envoys for all 3 powers.
The main protagonists:
* Commodore Diego Reyes is the commander of Vanguard - of both its legitimate and its secret operation. He's the former captain of the USS Dauntless, his then first officer Hallie Gannon is now the captain of the Bombay, his oldest friend, Dr Fisher, is still serving with him on Vanguard. But he's not at liberty to read them in on Vanguard's mission. He's originally from Luna, divorced (his wife was a telepath) and is struggling with the knowledge that his mother's dying of a debilitating disease but he's too far from home to reach her in time. He's also involved with Rana Desai who also doesn't know about Operation Vanguard.
* Lt Commander T'Prynn is Vanguard's liaison officer to Starfleet Intelligence. She's a Vulcan, cooly logical but also deeply passionate. Unknown to anyone she's struggling with her late fiancé's katra which he deposited within her during his dying moments in the ritual combat during pon farr. But even before she found the dichotomy of Vulcan customs - advocating peace but learning martial arts, teaching independence but bonding at a young age, denying emotions - hard to live by. She's involved with Anna Sandesjo, a Klingon spy among the Federation diplomatic envoy who she uses for her purposes, and she coopts Cervantes Quinn into her services. The mission is above everything - and she's willing to go to any lengths to preserve its secrecy.
* Lt. Ming Xiong is an archaeology and anthropology officer who specialised in the findings in the Taurus Reach and hopes to uncover their secrets.
* Ambassador Jetanien is the fourth person on the station to know about Operation Vanguard. He's the head of the Federation diplomatic envoy.
* Cervantes Quinn is a mercenary, more often than not drunk and broke, indebted to the Orion merchantman Ganz. His failed mission to steal a sensor screen on Ravanar set events in motion which led to the destruction of the USS Bombay. No one knows of his involvement, save for T'Prynn who uses her knowledge to secure Quinn's services.
* Tim Pennington is a reporter with the Federation News Service. He's also involved with the pilot of the Bombay, Oriana D'Amato. After her death he stumbles upon a conversation between T'Prynn and Quinn and begins to investigate the true reasons for the Bombay's destruction.
* Captain Rana Desai is the head of Vanguard's JAG division, she's not been read in on Operation Vanguard but starts an official inquiry into Reyes' actions after the Bombay's destruction.
Every new Trek-series has been sent off by an existing crew - that's why the Enterprise makes port at Vanguard for repairs after their disastrous mission to the Galactic Barrier ("Where No Man Has Gone Before") and is then subsequently coopted to investigate the destruction of the USS Bombay on a supply run to an outpost at Ravanar after its sensor screen was destroyed. The senior officers are then read in, and even discover a probable planet that could also house Shedai artifacts and traces of the meta-genome with Erilon.
As said before, this was my third run through this book - and this time I enjoyed it immensely. Perhaps it's knowing what will happen, perhaps it's knowing that some actions taken here have consequences and justice indeed has a very long memory, whatever it is, I appreciated the little details as much as the broader strokes of the background story. The only thing I could have done without was Enterprise, or in this case Scotty, discovering that the artifact on Ravanar was a subspace array... and he didn't even have all the facts but only scans of the array mostly destroyed after the Tholian attack. Good to know that many of Starfleet's "finest" (even Xiong in this case) are idiots. And the other thing is Ganz/the Orions. Their presence lends a bit of a DS9-atmosphere if you will - and of course Ganz's ship will have its uses later on, but, I don't know, they don't really serve a purpose right now save to intimidate Quinn and give him a hand at going to places where he could be of use to T'Prynn. They are just ordinary thugs and as such take too much space in the story (even in a later book when Ganz's ship becomes a major location).
Knowing what will happen definitely put another spin on reading those first glimpses into Reyes and T'Prynn. I didn't remember Reyes being portrayed in such... well... human way. He's flawed, impatient, desperate and isolated, but also driven and dedicated. He loses 2 people of personal importance to him in this book, not to forget a whole ship under his command. His actions are under investigation, and he starts to question himself as a leader and a human-being. He starts to wonder what he's going to leave behind. I think what I remembered most of my 2 previous read-throughts were his impatience, his unwillingness to read people in, and, of course, his condoning Pennington's ruin. But did he actually have a real choice in all of this? Of course, he could have set the facts straight and confirmed Pennington's version... but it was an impossible choice to make, faced with war against the Tholians. I really liked his speech at the memorial service as this is the one moment in this book where Reyes has to face all the people under his command - and all those who rely on him to make the right decisions. And he is right - not only will the deaths of the Bombay's crew be judged by what the survivors make of that sacrifice, so will his actions be judged by history.
Call it selective memory, but I was really astonished by the insights into T'Prynn's character in particular but also into Vulcan society as a whole. As logical as they claim to be, suppressing a part of yourself is deeply illogical. Granted it might have led to peace on Vulcan, but how can "a life in emotional atrophy" be satisfying for a species? And shouldn't it be logical for Vulcans to find a way to live with their emotions? T'Prynn, denied any other release by upbringing, education and tragedy, finds ways to cope - music and her lover Anna Sandesjo. But I wonder if her inner struggle didn't damage her moral compass as well. Was there no other way to contain the situation but to ruin Pennington? Spock's wondering the same thing and in very effective scene questions T'Prynn.
Cervantes Quinn's sad existence leads directly to the Bombay's destruction and to Pennington's ruin. Now he's a puppet of 2 masters, and he's on the way to redemption for at least one of his bad deeds. And Pennington doesn't even know yet why Quinn offered him a place on the Rocinante...
Overall, Harbinger is one hell of a pilot to this new series. It shows a Starfleet that is willing to cross lines in T'Prynn, but also in keeping its operations and findings secret in order to be able to one-up their neighbours, it offers an enemy that's awakened due to the actions of curious scientists, and it shows that actions, however innocently taken, have consequences - on a small scale but also on a broad scale. Quite a colorful and nuanced picture Mack is painting here, perhaps a bit darker than what Star Trek has shown up until now. 9/10