Many Star Trek novels are basically ‘just another episode’. An adventure happening alongside all the normal ones of the TV series. Some of them go after bigger subjects, like this one which presents Kirk’s evolution as a command officer into who we see during the first season of TOS. And it does it very well.

There’s a few problems. The novel is really two stories (with some connections) told in a jumbled-up fashion. This is generally well done, but the switching between various portions of five years can get dizzying, and while I was fine with it (at least once each section of plot got itself going, and I could orient myself), I wouldn’t blame anyone who found it too much to follow.

We get to see Kirk’s first encounter with Bones, how he gave him that nickname, and his first command of a smaller ship (USS Sacajawea), as well as his initial mission on the Enterprise.

This last is trouble, since we already have novel about that, Enterprise: The First Adventure. This novel doesn’t even give a nod to that one. Overwriting portions of it would be one thing (like the background of Kirk’s previous mission to getting promoted to starship command), it wouldn’t have taken much to step around the time frame of that novel and leave interested readers to do whatever they must to reconcile the bits around them. Instead we get completely conflicting versions. Its more of a shame since the two books have very different aims. TFA features the entire main cast, most of which have their own troubles at the start of the famous five-year mission. That is, it’s focused on the crew coming together as a whole, while Bennett’s book is focused on Kirk and how he became the commander we see on screen. This is well done, and he points out that the Kirk we get in first season is more driven and less relaxed than what we see later, and what we generally think of with the character, and the novel even points up that arc.

USS Sacajawea is from the listing of scouts in the old Star Fleet Technical Manual. It doesn’t really indicate what a “scout” is; the class is externally identical to a destroyer, but with only a fraction of its armament. Star Fleet Battles decided it was packed with extra electronics so it could detect things like fleet movements at a greater range. That would have been handy in the course of the novel, as unknown alien vessels are managing to get through the Federation’s outer sensor net undetected. I can’t blame Bennett for not going with that idea, but on the other hand, he never really gives an idea what a scout’s role is as a ship. The best guess from what’s given is that it’s simply a cheaper, lighter-duty version of a destroyer, meant for use along the unknown reaches of the frontier.

Those “gripes” aside (that’s dignifying these comments with more force than I really intend), the plot is well done. We have some truly alien aliens, with some interestingly different technology, that makes for a good sense of mystery and suspense. We have some action, we have some very good characterization, and the overall plot (once you sort it out) is good. In a way, my real complaint is that it’s better than The First Adventure, which is an old favorite of mine, which it sort of replaces.