From the back cover:
Early in his five-year mission commanding the U.S.S. Enterprise, Captain James T. Kirk found himself caught up in a growing conflict on the planet Neural. To maintain the balance of power against a force being armed by the Klingons, he provided weapons to his friends, the Hill People.
Years later, Admiral Kirk learns that the Klingon presence on the planet has grown considerably, in possible violation of the Treaty of Organia. Did his impulse as a young captain turn out disastrously wrong? Should he—could he—have done more to eliminate the Klingon threat? To find out, he embarks on a secret mission back to Neural—where he might just be the only person who can prevent an interstellar war.
Jeff Mariotte returns to the Trek universe with another novel under the Original Series banner. This novel, however, is a much different story from last year’s The Folded World. Set in the period between the end of the Original Series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, this Spring’s Serpents in the Garden revisits an episode of TOS that has been practically begging for a follow-up.
“A Private Little War” was a thinly-veiled Vietnam allegory that aired during Star Trek‘s second season. On the planet Neural, two populations, the Villagers and the Hill People, have lived in peace for many years. However, Klingon interference in the form of firearms provided to the Villagers has shattered that peace. At the end of the episode, Kirk feels that his only recourse is to similarly arm the Hill People.
It was an audacious and unexpected ending to a Star Trek episode, with implications that call into question Kirk’s interpretation of the Prime Directive on this particular occasion. Serpents in the Garden takes place a few years after that incident, shortly after Kirk’s promotion to Admiral prior to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Admiral Kirk travels to Neural along with his aide and a pair of security guards to determine the current situation there. Of course, he discovers that the Klingon interference has worsened, and the ghosts of his decision years earlier return to haunt him.
For the most part, Serpents in the Garden is an enjoyable novel. It is refreshing to have a novel set during this time period, largely (or at least, relatively) unexplored when compared to other settings in the Trek timeline. Tempered by more experience and wisdom, the Kirk of this period is more reflective than his earlier self.
One of the drawbacks of the “anthology” format of the Original Series is the lack of opportunity to revisit earlier stories. Episodes that had an ambiguous or troubling ending didn’t have any impact on future stories; the Enterprise would simply warp off to her next adventure, completely ignoring any consequences that arose from the episode’s events. “A Private Little War” is possibly the greatest example of that. I would think that arming an entire population would have long-lasting consequences, most obviously to the people of the planet, but also to Kirk and the Federation. In this novel, we learn about the consequences that arose from that decision, and the legacy that both the Klingons and the Federation have left behind on Neural.
In Serpents in the Garden, we are introduced to an interesting cast of characters. A young man with a case of wanderlust and his opportunistic rival whose actions reveal he cares little for the consequences of those around him; we also learn more about Apella, the leader of the Victors (formerly known as the Villagers) and how Klingon interference has given him more power, but will ultimately lead to his ruin. I also enjoyed the characterizations of the Starfleet personnel who accompany Kirk to Neural. Mariotte does a great job in fleshing out his supporting cast.
A well-written, tightly-plotted story, Serpents in the Garden was fun to read. It was great to revisit the Neural situation and to learn more about the planet and its inhabitants. Some good character work, and a welcome intrusion into the story by Uhura, Scotty, and Chekov elevate this novel above more pedestrian fare. I enjoyed it significantly more than last year’s The Folded World, and this novel makes me interested in seeing more from Jeff Mariotte.
Serpents in the Garden is ultimately about consequences. Kirk must face the consequences of his decision in “A Private Little War,” and the consequences of his decision to return to Neural. What the novel has to say about this topic is not particularly profound or unique, but it does a fairly good job in revisiting the situation in “A Private Little War” and providing a satisfying conclusion.
I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily on my list of “essential” Trek reads this year, but it’s still one I definitely recommend.
– Reviewed by Literature Editor Dan Gunther
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Serpents in the Garden