Sacraments of Fire
David R. George III
Publication Date: July 2015
Progress: Following the events of Warpath, Fearful Symmetry, and The Soul Key, Iliana Ghemor joins the Ascendants, taking on the role of The Fire for this group of confrontation-eager religious zealots. Still obsessed with Kira, Iliana has her sights on Bajor. After leading the Ascendants in an attack on an Eav’oq colony, Iliana ends up commandeering the Ascendant’s main weapon and heading toward Bajor.
Meanwhile, back on the new station—which, given its size and resources, is now more often referred to as a starbase–Captain Ro Laren and Lt. Cmdr. Blackmer deal with Altek, the mysterious visitor from Bajor’s distant past who popped up at the end of the author’s preceding book. Ro, understandably extra-cautious in the wake of the assassination of President Bacco, is skeptical about the timing of Altek’s appearance through the wormhole, and about his possession of a projectile weapon similar in kind (but admittedly much more primitive) than the one physically yielded by Bacco’s assassin. After a significant political back-and-forth, though, Ro releases Altek, who spends time on the starbase learning about the state of the world, including the history of the Federation, and trying to figure out why the Prophets may have brought him forward in time. By the end of the book, we learn of the real culprit behind Bacco’s death (more in comments below).
Kira appears aboard the Even Odds six years earlier—to find that Taran’atar is one of its crew members. We get his backstory about joining the ship, which includes a gritty confrontation with an Ascendant. Kira decides to not disclose her knowledge of future events, particularly as they will involve Taran’atar sacrificing himself in a battle against the Ascendants in order to help protect Bajor. Though Kira is unsure as to whether she has been sent in time to prevent Taran’atar’s death or to help events fulfill themselves, as historically recorded, in a causality loop, she resolves to help protect Bajor at all costs, even if it means dying for it. Taran’atar finds a new sense of purpose by joining in her cause. As Taran’atar and Kira become engaged with Iliana, these two stories link up.
In a separate strand, Sisko takes the Robinson out to the Tzenkethi border as a show of strength (not his idea) and is able to resolve an incident in which the Tzenkethi are firing into a nebula in unclaimed space. After returning from this mission, he accompanies Odo to the Newton Outpost, where the Changeling-type being discovered in Revelation and Dust is being held. It is hoped that Odo will assist in communicating with it and determining exactly what it is. But when he begins to link to it, the captive being goes crazy, and destruction ensues.
Another major plot development that occurs towards the end of the novel involves the discovery, after an Ohalavaru attack on the Bajoran moon of Endalla, that the entire moon may be artificial in origin, a “falsework” designed to hide the true function of something else within. Furthermore: “The falsework itself was an anchor upon which the Bajoran wormhole was first constructed.” If true, this revelation has potentially serious implications for the Bajoran faith. Cenn Desca certainly reacts strongly to it.
There are also two Ferengi subplots, both of which are left unresolved: Nog has problems getting Vic Fontaine back up and running, and Quark has been unable to track down Morn, whom he misses, and so he begins an investigation regarding Morn’s whereabouts.
Behind the lines: This is a very busy novel, populated by dozens and dozens of characters (most of them from previous relaunch novels, though a few are new), and tapping into almost as many individual storylines. It’s also a novel in which, despite almost 400 pages of small print, nothing much happens up until the end. I found it an admirable attempt to bring coherence to two essentially distinct relaunch continuities—the Iliana Ghemor and Ascendants arc, on the one hand, and the subsequent Typhon Pact/The Fall arc on the other—that falls short of expectations and proves a frustrating reading experience. George’s choice to use time travel as a way of bridging these continuities is inspired and daring, but the execution is a letdown.
David R. George III doesn’t tire of doing it, so I won’t tire of saying it: there is a needless amount of recap in this book. I understand the reason. The Soul Key was published back in 2009, and by the time this book appeared in 2015, most readers would have needed a refresher not only of that book’s central plot, but of the preceding events leading up to it. Still, it’s excessive. The synopsizing of previous events probably contributes, all told, about fifty pages of prose. These could have easily been boiled down into an introductory timeline, as was wisely done in Unity. It becomes particularly soporific after the time jump from Part I to Part II, when George stops an already slow-moving narrative to summarize things we’ve just read in the preceding 250 pages—as well as glossing over relatively important events that would have befitted from dramatic enactment. At first I was excited to spend more time aboard the Even Odds, as it elicited fond memories of Rising Son. But when Kira spends page after page meeting and greeting every member of the ship’s crew, it began to feel more like a retread. Revisiting the Wa is initially cool, but again, it goes on too long, to rapidly diminishing turns.
Some of this exposition is clumsily disguised as dialogue. Consider Kasidy telling Sisko the following:
… your time in Starfleet has been good for us. Yes, you were confined to patrolling the Bajoran system for two years, but that allowed you and Rebecca and me the time we needed to learn to live as a family again, and then to transition to taking up residence on the Robinson.
In no way can I picture Kasidy actually speaking like this.
Repetitions in dialogue don’t help. On a single page (215), Taran’atar says “I do not know” in response to Kira’s questions three times in a row. Sure, he’s not supposed to be the most eloquent character in the galaxy, and I can see George maybe wanting to underline his pre-programmed nature, but the kicker is that after saying this each time he proceeds to speculate or provide additional information related to Kira’s queries. You could simply strike the “I do not know” each time and the whole conversation would lose none of its meaning, and would in fact be more engaging.
There’s also the issue of unnecessary descriptive detail, which further inflates the wordcount. Orienting us on the new station, for example, is helpful, since we haven’t spent many books on it yet and are still getting our bearings as readers. But then, on page 93, you hit on something like this, which is exemplary of the kind of detail that should have been cut: “‘The time is zero-two-thirteen hours,’ came the immediate response, in the ubiquitous female voice Starfleet utilized throughout its starships, starbases, and other facilities.” We all know the voice.
George’s habit of anticipating future events when tension is flagging, by abruptly switching from a close character POV to omniscient narration, strikes again, as for example here: “At that moment, Nog had no way of knowing that, by the next night, he would be far from Deep Space 9, on his way to track President Bacco’s killers.” Fortunately, this isn’t as frequent as in some of his previous works.
As my comments so far, and in previous reviews of this author’s novels, make clear, I have a hard time getting into George’s prose rhythms, and find many of the scenes he constructs dramatically inert. I do want to be clear, however, that my criticism of his storytelling is leveled as much towards the editor overseeing these titles as the author himself. Judicious pruning could have gone a long way to mitigating the things I’ve mentioned. Here’s another reason I’m invoking what appears to have been minimal editorial oversight: this novel features a long scene in which Blackmer presents his resignation to Ro and she proceeds to talk him out of it. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same thing happened in The Missing. Neither of the characters here reference the fact they’ve just been in this situation recently, which makes it feel like the result of an editorial snafu.
A few words on Bacco’s assassination. We know from The Fall: Peaceable Kingdoms that Kellessar zh’Tarash of Andor will take the oath of office of President of the Federation in late November 2385—in fact, we know this even if we haven’t read Peaceable Kingdoms, because it’s disclosed in the introductory Historian’s Note in The Missing. So we know Ishan is not going to be in power for very long when this novel kicks off. Combined with Sisko’s rapid deduction that Ishan is the only plausible pressure point on Akaar, forcing the show of strength along the Tzenkethi border, it immediately makes Ishan a suspect (he benefited directly from Bacco’s death, rising to power, and thus had motive; his behavior now suggests part of a grander plan involving premeditation). Several chapters later, therefore, it’s not particularly surprising when Sisko thinks the following: “Although he couldn’t precisely say why, the repugnant idea of Federation complicity in the murder of Nan Bacco carried the faint ring of truth to him.”
The later reveal that Ishan wasn’t in fact Ishan, but Baras Rodirya, who had stolen Ishan’s identity during the Occupation, is theoretically interesting, but doesn’t have much emotional effect unless you’ve read several other books outside of the DS9-specific relaunch. But at least now we know that Rodirya, working through Onar Throk, who physically manipulated an unconscious Enkar Sirsy into actually pulling the trigger, was behind this debacle, and we can put this matter to rest. See, I had a feeling it wasn’t the Tzenkethi!
The Odo plot shows promise, but I wish we’d have gotten farther along with it. One early moment made me intrigued about the parameters of Odo’s spacefaring abilities, which we’ve seen in a limited fashion. When Odo tells Sisko that he wouldn’t need a ship to travel to whatever Starfleet facility the potential Changeling substance is being held at, it’s a dramatic way of underscoring his independence and abilities. But it made me think of practical considerations. Could he shapeshift into a vessel with a functioning warp drive, or even a quantum slipstream drive, for instance? Or can he only propel himself through space by his own intrinsic means, whatever those may be? Is there a cap to his speed? Would his morphogenic matrix be harmed by prolonged exposure to the radiation in space? What about the sheer relativistic impact of interstellar gas–or could he form the equivalent of deflector shields? Inquiring minds want to know.
Of the characters George concentrates on, I found Taran’atar most interesting, particularly in his dynamic with Kira. This line was amusing in a Klingon-esque deadpan way: “Jem’Hadar do not think anything is funny.” However, it reminded me that in his confrontation with the Ascendant earlier, we were given access to this thought by Taran’atar: “Fortunately, I have no such weapons, Taran’atar thought with grim humor.” It seems to me that to think something with humor requires opinions about what is funny and what is not. So perhaps Taran’atar not only secretly things that certain things are funny, but he’s also good at hyperbole for humorous effect. I will say, I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with him, and moving past the manipulation themes from the last few books in which he’d been foregrounded.
Ro’s development throughout this novel also strikes me as compelling and well-executed. Her growth, all the way from the Avatar duology, perhaps comprises the most long-lasting and, in my opinion, consistently well-handled element of this series. There are times when she really carries the story. Case in point: The moral quandary arising from trying to hold Altek in custody longer than legally permitted was interesting, but I would have probably lost my patience with it if it hadn’t involved Ro.
One scene that I found particularly effective, for how it shows Ro’s evolution into her captaincy and for the way it follows up on a dangling thread from The Fall: A Ceremony of Losses, is her holding Penmei accountable for her complicity in Bashir’s plan. The exchange is mature and crafted with sensitivity rather than melodrama. It’s a delight to see it result in a closer relationship between these two strong characters.
For all of my complaining about the novel’s torpid pace, I’ll grant that it picks up in the last seventy or so pages. I’m not entirely sold on the impact to Cenn’s spiritual beliefs of the discovery of the “falsework,” but maybe this will feel more believable when it’s fleshed out in the next book.
If Ascendance does indeed conclude this story, I think that Sacraments of Fire should have been advertised as the first installment in a new duology (or possibly as the middle volume in a trilogy, with Revelation and Dust the first book in the set).
So as not to end on a gripe, here are the two new Rules of Acquisition I spotted—the second of these surely applies to many authors who have toiled in this post-finale series:
- The 108th Rule: “Hope doesn’t keep the lights on.”
- The 243rd Rule: “Always leave yourself an out.”
Memorable beats: Ro: “I don’t underestimate the impact that the Prophets have had on Bajor, both directly and indirectly. I just don’t know that alien beings who insert themselves, uninvited, into the affairs of another species deserve to be accorded the mantle of divinity.”
Odo: “Captain, I don’t need your ship, or any ship, to travel in space. I only need to know where I’m going.”
Asarem: “…we are charged with protecting more than simply the lives of those whom we lead: we must protect their values.”
Sisko: “…as a people, as an amalgam of worlds that share the same lofty values, we’re far more than just interstellar diplomats and military enforcers. Sometimes it’s necessary for us to play those roles, but that’s not who we are: we’re explorers and scientists, reaching for the unknown and to expand our knowledge of both the universe and ourselves.”
Taran’atar: “I am dead. I go into battle to reclaim my life. This, I do gladly… for my friend, Kira Nerys. Victory is life.”
Orb factor: A few choice moments, but unfocused; 6 orbs.
In our next installment: We’ll be back in this space on Wednesday, October 28thth with David R. George III’s Ascendance!
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.