Progress: A Prologue set in the Alternate Universe (AU; also, I’ll be using “m-” to denote the mirror version of a character) aboard Terok Nor recaps the basic conflict between the Terran Rebellion and the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance. We’re shown m-Eddington, m-O’Brien, m-Ezri, m-Keiko, and m-Sloan receiving the inter-dimensional call from our Bashir, Sisko, Ro, Quark, Kira, Dax and m-Iliana, as depicted in Fearful Symmetry from our side. Terok Nor is then attacked by Klingons.
Meanwhile, on Bajor, m-Opaka Sulan, along with her friend m-Winn Adami, administrates the “labor camp” at Vekobet. Kira and Vaughn show up there, having crossed over at the end of the previous novel. Vekobet, Kira and Vaughn learn, is a religious sanctuary and secret training facility for Bajoran rebels. m-Jaro Essa helps run affairs along with m-Sulan and m-Adami. This group makes a plan to infiltrate Terok Nor should it be taken over by the Alliance—and m-Prynn shows up at the camp, which certainly elicits a strong reaction from Vaughn.
As the story proper kicks off, we rewind to 2376 and snap back to Harkoum. The next three chapters proceed to fill in the gaps in Iliana Ghemor’s story. Looking like Kira, she confronts the death of everyone she knew, hatches her plan to go after the real Kira, and starts her manipulation of Taran’atar (which is actually the idea of her right-hand person, Shing-kur). As the months go by, we learn of Iliana’s discovery of alternate Kiras, as well as of Ke-Hovath’s possession of the Orb fragment that might open the doors between universes. Eventually Iliana acquires said Paghvaram. She can’t quite get the eponymous “Soul Key” to work, however, and eventually she kills Ke. She also devises a new plan, this time to eliminate the Intendant (that is, m-Kira) and take her place. An orb vision reveals to Iliana that m-Iliana is coming for her, so she orders a bounty placed on her head, thus meshing up with the events of Warpath.
The next three chapters return us to DS9, where m-Iliana questions Sisko about the look he exchanged with Vaughn that prompted Vaughn to go with Kira to the AU, instead of m-Iliana herself. Ro studies prophecies and uses a powered exoframe to assist with her long recovery from the brutal back injuries she suffered at Taran’atar’s hands. Prynn tries to figure out how the Rio Grande originally ended up in the AU. Dax admits that she’s thinking about putting in for a transfer. A passing comment by Quark helps Prynn realize that it may have been the wormhole conditions, rather than anything special about the Rio Grande itself, that allowed that initial passage. If the conditions are constant, Prynn reasons, a similar malfunction on another ship should yield the same result. Time to put this theory to the test. Dax tells m-Iliana, who is somewhat dejected after another pointless conversation with the captive Shing-kur, about the crew’s plan to try and use the Defiant to cross over. m-Iliana, in turn, has an important idea, but we as readers are not told what it is (sigh—see my review of Fearful Symmetry for my thoughts on how this technique is being abused in these books).
The next six chapters, back in the AU, close the gap with the story’s present. We find out that the Vulcan under Iliana, L’Haan, knows her true identity, and is having trouble using the Soul Key. Corbin Entek meets with Iliana and tells her that the Regent (m-Martok) has summoned her—she was careless in looking up info on m-Ataan Rhukal (she once loved Ataan). Iliana, leveraging the threat of Taran’atar, uses a forced confession from Corbin Entek to implicate him in the incarceration of Ataan Rhukal instead. Regent Martok actually sees what she is up to, but lets her get away with it anyway because it serves his purpose at the moment. She recommits to fighting the rebels on Terek Nor, and also vows to locate the wormhole (undiscovered in the AU) and find the rest of the Jem’Hadar. L’Haan tries to break through Taran’atar’s conditioning, but it doesn’t go so well for him, as Taran’atar ends up killing him. Oops.
Iliana meets up with m-Ataan and tries to establish trust with him. As her vessels approach Terok Nor, they deploy the scattering field that causes cross-universe interference. Amidst mounting tensions, she calls O’Brien’s bluff and destroys a Bajoran city (Ashalla; population two million) to gain the Rebellion’s capitulation of Terok Nor. Iliana then discovers that m-Ataan has a wife; she also learns that our characters have crossed over to her side, and orders a Klingon capture force to bring them in—alive.
m-Opaka reveals to Vaughn that m-Sisko is actually dead, calling his entire plan into question. Vaughn has a moving conversation with m-Vaughn, who in the AU is old and dying. Iliana’s six Klingon assault ships arrive; Vaughn helps save m-Opaka and the Shards of the Prophets, by using an underground tunnel to another enclave. He also mercy kills m-Vaughn, who has requested it. Kira and Vaughn fight off the attackers and talk about having to possibly kill Taran’atar, but then Taran’atar ends up saving them from the Klingons, who would have gladly disobeyed Iliana’s orders and killed them.
Taran’atar explains to Iliana that he had to take out some Klingons because they were going to violate her specific instructions. His reasoning is droll. If there’s such a thing as Jem’Hadar humor, this scene is it. Iliana questions Ataan’s wife about how they fell in love. Kira, Vaughn, m-Jaro and m-Winn are held captive. m-Miles, m-Keiko, m-Ezri and m-Sloan are imprisoned along with them. The former group learns that it wasn’t m-Miles who destroyed the Bajoran city, as they were led to believe, but rather Iliana, which helps relieve some hostile feelings but does nothing for the dead. Iliana and Kira have a heart-to-heart, in which Iliana reveals her plan to open the Temple Gates and become the m-Emissary.
Ezri and Prynn, on our Defiant, charge through the wormhole and come out in the AU (apparently the experiment worked) with guns blazing on Terok Nor and the Alliance. Iliana kills her chief Klingon in command, Kurn, because he gets fed up with her craziness. Taran’atar frees Vaughn (we learn through yet another flashback that he had made a promise to help him) and the other prisoners. Iliana frees Ataan and Vaas and lets them go—so sentimental.
m-Iliana, who has now been altered to look like Kira by our Bashir (keep count—three Kira lookalikes), makes it to Terok Nor (she crossed over on the Defiant). Taran’atar, free from his control signal, joins up with the liberated Kira. The wormhole opens, and Iliana blows herself, Kira, and m-Iliana out of an airlock.
Iliana’s encounter with the Prophets doesn’t exactly go as planned, though. Rather than give her the Emissary mantle, they realize she is deeply conflicted and decide to pick at the shards of her past in a worryingly detached way. The Prophets state that the three Kira lookalikes represent the Hand, the Voice, and the Fire—which will prove important. First, Iliana disappears from the Prophet realm, and then m-Iliana does too. She is the Voice, and since Iliana is going to be revealed as the Fire, Kira must, by elimination, be the Hand.
m-Leeta and m-Shar make a surprise appearance on the m-Defiant, having enlisted the help of the Talarians. After contact with the Prophets, Kira materializes on the Defiant, while m-Iliana, her appearance restored back to her natural Cardassian self, appears aboard Terok Nor. Our crew sets a course for the wormhole to return to our universe.
Back on the station, Kira sets Taran’atar free. Vaughn punches Sisko for having been manipulated, and tells him he’s through playing games. Taran’atar leaves a note of apology for Ro and departs the station. As he approaches Dominion space, he intercepts a distress call from the Even Odds, and decides to investigate it.
An Epilogue reveals that Iliana, aka The Fire, makes an appearance to the Ascendants, presumably to join forces with these nasties.
Behind the lines: Expect a lot of continuity with the last two novels. Definitely not a place to jump into the relaunch series for the first time. There are also some nice references to other bits of lore, like the Tzenkethi and the Talarians. Woods certainly can’t be faulted for lack of attention to detail, whether through continuity nuggets or accurate-sounding tech jargon, which helps with our suspension of disbelief (which needs as much assistance as it can get).
I was derailed by several plot turns. I mean, would Entek have really folded so fast and produced such a lengthy fake confession? I feel like the Obsidian Order isn’t what it used to be (or maybe it’s just an AU Obsidian Order thing). More importantly, would Iliana keep making the kinds of blunders she does, like openly talking about what Taran’atar did to our Kira, even though she was claiming she found him in the AU? She is clearly mentally unstable, which elicits our compassion and pity, but she is also supposed to be threatening because of her single-minded determination and her cunning strategies (remember how she took out all those bounty hunters in Warpath, and is playing the loooooong game to become the m-Emissary)? The more we believe in the one, the harder it becomes to prop up the other.
Engagement with this novel was inconsistent for me. Eight out of its twenty-five chapters are set in the past, either filling in backstory we need to move forward, or showing past events with which we’re already familiar from a different perspective. That means that essentially one third of this book consists of flashbacks. Too much. Add to this the fact that seventeen of the twenty-five chapters unfold in the AU. Again, that’s a lot. How invested are we supposed to become in the fates of characters like m-Martok, m-Dukat, etc.? They feel intrinsically disposable, which is perhaps not a metaphysically enlightened pronouncement, but nevertheless accurately conveys my emotions when reading these scenes.
Part of my dislike for such a heavy dose of AU medicine is that AU scenes naturally lend themselves to melodrama and pomp. I find this type of scenery-chewing more palatable when there’s actual audiovisual scenes to consume. (Having said that, I remember with fondness reading Diane Duane’s TNG AU novel Dark Mirror about a quarter of a century ago. I wonder how it holds up). In short, the AU as developed over the course of various DS9 episodes tends to celebrate excess, which in this book takes the form of countless pulpy machinations and counter-plots. Stylistically, Woods tends to match her prose to this aesthetic. Iliana purrs (I counted at least three instances of this), she barks (an access code, no less), she screams, she repeatedly pounds her fists, and so on. It’s fun, but also a little tiresome in a school play kind of way.
Numerous explicit references to symmetry (“And the terrible symmetry of those memories often seemed too intolerable to contemplate”; “‘A fitting symmetry then,’ said Iliana”; “There’s the balance to consider—the symmetry that needs to be maintained as I go to claim my destiny”; “‘It has a pleasant symmetry, don’t you think?’”), while thematically apt, were heavy-handed. With this novel and its predecessor, I feel like the relaunch has started to slide from character drama to soap opera, and while I don’t mind all of the new antics, I do hope for a return to form sooner rather than later.
It’s not all objectionable. The story does advance more than it did in Fearful Symmetry, with some significant payoffs, and numerous short chapters and scene breaks make for better pacing, along with zippy transitions. The novel tackles interesting ideas about faith (“If that were enough, Captain, then I would shepherd this flock myself,” Jaro says, at one point, on the verge of tears; “You once told me that the faith we both had in Odo could be our common ground,” Kira tells Taran’atar after his emancipation). There’s also well-executed character development for Taran’atar, Kira, and Vaughn, particularly as the latter two reconcile and bond in a couple of short scenes. I also love the idea that the Prophets refer to universes as “lines” and dub them things like Broken and Penitent. Perhaps after a jaunt over to the Compunctious line we can change pace and hit up the Scintillating line.
Memorable beats: Quark: “Remember Rule of Acquisition Number One-Ninety-Nine: Location, location, location.” The entire causality of the plot, in retrospect, hinges on this single utterance, so: nicely done, Quark.
Orb factor: As it stands, 4 orbs. If this were combined with Fearful Symmetry (as a commenter on the last review indicated that it was originally supposed to be), re-edited for greater linearity, and the entire package significantly pared down, that hypothetical book (which surely exists in an alternate dimension) would probably merit 7 orbs.
In our next installment: We’ll be back in this space on Wednesday June 10th with Una McCormack’s The Never-Ending Sacrifice!
Alvaro is a Hugo- and Locus-award finalist who has published some forty stories in professional magazines and anthologies, as well as over a hundred essays, reviews, and interviews. Nag him @AZinosAmaro.