Christopher L. Bennett returns us to the Lost Era with an examination of the life of Captain Jean-Luc Picard between the destruction of the USS Stargazer to his assuming command of the USS Enterprise.
Bennett crafts a multifaceted tale that opens with an outstanding look at the Battle of Maxia and its repercussions. When the aftermath gives Picard pause, he takes some time away from Starfleet to pursue his love of archaeology, taking up studies for a doctorate under Dr. Miliani Langford at the University of Alpha Centauri.
From Alpha Centauri the reader is taken on a rather ambitious trip in space (and, in some senses, in time as well) to discover not only galactic history, but indeed how the history of the galaxy has been touched by the hand of sentient beings in the past, and how it could be again.
Along the way, Jean-Luc Picard is faced with many decisions, and encounters many individuals who will, later, form the foundation of his crew aboard the USS Enterprise. But in the process, the command of such a prestigious ship is not his pressing concern… for Jean-Luc Picard has unleashed a force in the galaxy that must be contained, before the Federation, and indeed the entire galaxy, finds itself under the beneficent protection of a people from the past.
Coming in at 433 pages, "The Buried Age" is a lengthy novel, but Bennett doesn’t waste a single page in the story. Even when things seem to be dragging along he is imparting valuable clues and information to the reader, sometimes so subtly that its only after you have finished the book that the "Oh, duh!" sensation hits. This is an outstanding accomplishment, given the rather straightforward tack the story takes. This isn’t to say that you don’t figure out the parallels with classical literature as the story proceeds – you’d have to be blind not to; but the deeper clues, the little hints that tip you off early to the progression of the story, are easy to miss in some of the rather technical elements of the tale.
Notable in Bennett’s work is his creation of unique and lively civilizations: the Mabarae, the Manraloth, the Carnelians… each of them are unique, interesting, and provide further proof that world building is far easier in print than on television.
There are some notable ‘guests’ in this particular Lost Era tale.Being set in the aftermath of the Stargazer court martial, Philippa Louvois is a natural visitor, and we discover the heart of Picard’s reaction to her in TNG’s "The Measure of a Man". Guinan, Tasha Yar, Data, and Deanna Troi all make appearances in the story… but the entire ‘cameo’ list manages to cover just about every person you could think of who was, at one time or another, associated with Picard. Some of these encounters – particularly one with Onna Karapleedeez (a prominent Starfleet officer mentioned in TNG’s "Conspiracy") – was outstanding. Others, not so much, such as a painful encounter with Lieutenant Kathryn Janeway.
The most serious problem with "The Buried Age" (and I freely admit it may not be a problem for everyone) is Picard. The story is billed as an exploration of how Picard went from a demoralized man who had lost his ship to the commander of the Federation’s finest vessel, and yet after reading his journey, I can’t fathom why Starfleet would have bothered giving him command of the pride of the fleet. While exploring how betrayal and manipulation can effect someone is a story worthy of Star Trek’s attention, I can’t help coming away from "The Buried Age" feeling that Picard should not have been the focal point for such a story.
Does this make "The Buried Age" a bad novel. Well, not exactly. Some may well be able to see the genesis of the Picard we know in Bennett’s narrative; I cannot. Aside from every other nit I could pick with the story, the cameos, or the literary parallels, it is Picard’s motivations and actions in the latter portions of the story that reduced my enjoyment of what is, in all other respects, an engaging and engrossing tale.