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.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
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.
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.
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.