Book Review: The ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Novel ‘Fear Itself’ Is A Well-Examined Look At Saru

In what was perhaps the best line in the first Marvel Avengers movie, we learned what gives Bruce Banner access to his Hulk superpowers: he’s always angry. In a very real way, James Swallow’s new Star Trek: Discovery tie-in novel, Fear Itself, lets us in on what gives fan-favorite character Saru access to his inner strength – he’s always afraid. And while fear may rob others of their power, it is his constant struggle against fear that gives Saru the ability to see and analyze alternative solutions and choose the best way to go.

Saru’s constant struggle against fear gives him the ability to see and analyze alternative solutions.



It is this keen insight into the core of Saru’s character that drives the narrative of Fear Itself, as the Kelpien lieutenant finds himself at the center of a conflict between two previously unknown alien races, struggling to prevent the loss of life and maintain command of his landing party in a situation with no easy answers. Saru compares himself constantly to his rival, Michael Burnham, and fears he will never measure up. He doubts himself, he feels like a failure, and yet he presses on. And this, more than anything, is what endears Saru to the reader.

“This is the frontier, Saru. The nearest starbase is days away at high warp; the same for the closest Starfleet vessel. We have to be ready to bend the regulations if the moment demands it. That’s the thing that separates a good officer from a great one, knowing when to bend and when to be firm.” – Michael Burnham

Set four years before the Battle of the Binary Stars and three years before David Mack’s sister tie-in novel, Desperate Hours, James Swallow’s book is a bit shorter, and more narrowly focused. In addition to the exploration of Saru himself, we also get a good strong look at Captain Georgiou, Saru’s mentor, and a little bit more insight into the Saru-Burnham relationship. At its heart is Saru’s struggle to accept who he is, to allow his hurts to become the source of his strength, and to learn how to make the hard decisions that command requires … and to grasp the finer points of humor along the way.

Fear Itself is a fast-paced, well-examined look at a popular and fascinating character. The action and motivations are clear, the story is tense and exciting, and the resolution makes sense of everything that had been set up earlier in the book. It’s a great read, and well worth your time.

We get to learn more about Saru’s relationships with Burnham and Captain Georgiou while serving on the USS Shenzhou

Canon connections

Because it is set four years earlier than the events in the pilot episodes of Star Trek: Discovery and three years prior to the events of Desperate Hours, Swallow’s book includes looks at key characters from the USS Shenzhou, including Captain Georgiou, the VR-helmeted Jira Narwani, helmswoman Kayla Detmer, and Ensign Danby Connor. In addition, Andorian first officer Commander Sonnisar “Sonny” ch’Theloh, briefly introduced in Desperate Hours, has a significant role in this story. As on the TV show, we don’t learn much about Narwani, Detmer, or Connor.

Swallow indicated in his recent interview with TrekMovie that he had developed an extensive backstory for Saru, intended for use in this novel, which the writing staff on Discovery liked so much, they took it for use in future episodes of the show. This novel still contains hints of that backstory, and also contains some foreshadowing for events in Discovery’s first-season episode, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum.”

Michael Burnham practices the Vulcan martial art of Suus Mahna, first mentioned by T’Pol in the Seven Samurai-inspired Star Trek: Enterprise episode, “Marauders,” and dismissed derisively by Ellen Landry (“Vulcans should stick to logic.”) in the Discovery episode “Context is for Kings.”

Longtime fans will recognize the name of one of the alien races, the Gorlans, from their brief mention in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode, “Mirror, Mirror.” This novel fleshes this race out extensively, although it is not clear if what is described here constitutes the prime universe version of an “uprising.”

The big baddies in the book turn out to be the Tholians, whose web-spinning ships factored heavily in the TOS episode, “The Tholian Web” and the ENT episodes, “In a Mirror Darkly, parts 1 and 2.” Here, they are used to terrifying effect, and their renowned “punctuality” gets a nod.

The mysterious Tholians first appeared in TOS “The Tholian Web”

Bottom Line

All told, Fear Itself is a lot of fun, gives excellent insight into both Saru and Georgiou, and contains enough canon relevance to make it required reading for any detail-loving fan.

Fear Itself out now

Star Trek: Discovery – Fear Itself was released earlier this week. It is available on Amazon in large format paperbackeBook and audiobook.

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I look forward to reading this. To date, I have enjoyed all, but a single chapter, of the two DISCOVERY novels released so far.

Struggled through “Desperate Hours” and didn’t make it all the way through “Drastic Measures” even though it featured my favorite character. [Too many background characters I didn’t give a rat’s a$$ about.] Maybe the third writer will be the charm?

I did like the scenes with Saru and Una in “Desperate Hours.”

I don’t know what it is about Trek “pro” novels I dislike, perhaps it’s that writers “need” to make it “super science-fiction-y” instead of shorter, tighter plots like a two-part episode of the show, or the fact that the main characters are almost always very static, but I haven’t bought and really enjoyed one in years.

I think in some ways the trick is to be able to enjoy them for what they are. They are licensed fiction, based on a show that’s currently in production, which of necessity means the main characters will be somewhat static. The fact that the Discovery tie-ins are set before the TV show means that the characters have room to grow, but of course they have to be recognizable throughout as well. I think Mack, Swallow, and Ward do good jobs threading that needle, but then again, I am able to accomplish that “trick,” to enjoy them for what they are. What I ask from Star Trek novels is to make sense, to utilize the characters well, to move along at a brisk pace, and to explore some aspects of my favorite characters and settings in a way I haven’t seen before. Some Trek novels meet my expectations, some don’t. Some exceed them, which is always a treat.

I hope you’re able to accomplish the “trick,” but if not, you’re still awesome, and there’s a lot of other Trek out there. LLAP!

I have the same issue with the novels, not only DSC, but most others as well. I suppose the mandate from CBS is to make them feel very much like a TV episode rather than a true novel. And especially with these backstory books, they can’t do anything drastic at all. So it’s basically just a more in depth look at a character that will be explored on the show anyway.
Also, I totally agree about the background characters. One of the things that really turns me off when it comes to trek lit is that they force all the minor background players into it, as if they are not allowed to have new characters.

A lot of the Trek pro novels I’ve read have been pretty bad, but there are some good ones. I heartily recommend the TOS novel Crisis of Consciousness, by Dave Galanter. It uses both Kirk and Spock well, and the aliens in the book are unusual in an interesting way, a way that it takes Spock to handle.

If this were a $7.99 mass market paperback, I’d buy it in a heartbeat. But the house is already stuffed with books, and trade paperbacks take up so much room and are so much harder to store.

I am confused about something with Saru. Are they saying his species was prey back in the distant past and that legacy shaped their genetics, culture, outlook and so on?

OR, are they saying that his species is prey at the current time in the show?

If they are prey now, how does that work with phasers and warp drive etc.?

My recollection is that they were prey in the distant past, not in the present day.

Unless you’re in the Mirror Universe, apparently, when Kelpiens are still considered a delicacy.

Spent the whole novel getting the other alien race present, the Peliars, mixed up with the Troyians, but apparently they’re actually from “The Host”.