“The Conscience of the King” has long been a fan favourite episode, one that revealed a dark chapter in Star Trek's future history. Back in the first season of Star Trek, when the characters and setting were still being developed, it wasn't so incongruous. A famine followed by a massacre, on a colony planet, witnessed by a young James Kirk, stands out more now as a bizarre and unimaginable event in Federation history.
After Desperate Hours, a second Discovery novel exploring familiar elements of the Trek universe is an unsurprising move. This book, though, explores a major, known event in future history, rather than dropping the Enterprise crew into a prequel adventure. Desperate Hours takes place in 2246, before even the events on the Shenzou seen in the flashback scenes in Discovery. Philippa Georgiou is serving as first officer on the support vessel the USS Narbonne, while Lt. Cmdr Gabriel Lorca is stationed on Tarsus IV itself.
The setting of the series allows to us explore this event through the eyes of now familiar characters. Interestingly, Kodos's massacre occurs early in the book, in a sequence that is chilling for just how matter-of-fact its telling is. Georgiou only hears about events second-hand, the Narbonne already en route to Tarsus, the very ship that makes the massacre entirely unnecessary. Lorca, however, is in the thick of it. He is in a relationship with a colonist, deeply involved with life on the planet, and witnesses the broadcast of the terrible “solution.” While Georgiou's horror is humanitarian, Lorca's is personal, and this affects how they deal with the aftermath of the incident.
Nonetheless, focusing on Lorca is potentially a mistake. After all, this is not the character we've been following on Discovery, for that was the Lorca of the Mirror Universe. This is the “Prime” Lorca, therefore a character new to us, and the exploration into his character is less significant because of that. For what it's worth, Lorca seems to be an aggressive hothead in this universe too, so his Mirror counterpart can't have had too much difficulty taking his place. (It's also very much a Discovery novel in that there's a lot more swearing than we're used to from Trek lit.)
The more interesting scenes are those involving Kodos (who, to maintain continuity, keeps to the shadows throughout and is not seen by any of the major characters. He also has his records thoroughly wiped). Initially troubled by self doubt, his resolve that he made the right decision only grows stronger as he and his followers go into hiding. He's a fascinating character, and his position, at least to begin with, is purely logical. This isn't the first Trek novel to delve into the background of the Tarsus IV Massacre, but it goes into a depth not really seen before. It's easy to see Kodos here become the tired old man of the original episode. Satisfyingly, there are clear causes for the famine, something that should be unthinkable in the Federation; a chain of events leading to catastrophe.
There are some interesting supporting characters, including the governor of Tarsus, Gisella Ribeiro, who is briefly usurped by the more charismatic Kodos, and Captain Korrapati, a dignified older Indian gent (well, Martian-Indian), who commands the Narbonne. Naturally, there are familiar characters as well, including Thomas Leighton, and inevitably, a spunky young man named James Tiberius Kirk. Less expected is an appearance towards the end of the book of the first captain of the Enterprise, Robert April. Appropriately, this is a very human-centred book, in a way Star Trek has rarely been since the first season of TOS, with very few alien characters.
Dayton Ward's prose is as easy to read as ever, but the story sadly failed to carry me along this time. By featuring the massacre early on and focusing on its aftermath, it peaks to early, and what remains is an awful lot of running around, fighting and sabotage, as Lorca and Starfleet attempt to track down Kodos, a mission we know is domed to failure. The action sequences are perfectly competent, but they're just not as interesting as the psychological and historical elements of the book. Still, this is a worthwhile exploration of a critical moment in Star Trek's mythology.
This review is also available at Ex Astris Scientia