John Vornholt's Gemworld series sucked me in right from the start, for two reasons: Deanna Troi took command and led the crew through a crisis, and Reginald Barclay's bumbling made him a valuable piece of the action. I'm a big fan of both Troi and Barclay, but it's impossible to deny how annoying they can be in the hands of unskilled writers; Troi spends all her time feeling others' pain and stating the obvious, while Barclay causes trouble until one wonders why Starfleet lets him keep putting his shipmates at risk. In Gemworld, Troi saves thousands of lives despite great personal suffering, and Barclay both falls in love and becomes a senior engineer. The recent Voyager episode "Pathfinder," which reduced both characters to their early Next Generation cliches, has probably rendered Gemworld non-canonical, but it's still a fabulous read.
Vornholt picks up the story of Melora Pazlar, who appeared briefly on Deep Space Nine as a love interest for Bashir in a superficial episode about people with special needs. Melora comes from a planet with extremely low gravity, so although she can fly through the air at home, she's a cripple under normal Starfleet conditions. Gemworld is home not only to her people, the Elaysians, but to several other unique species. Unfortunately, at the time of her arrival on Picard's Enterprise - shortly after the Dominion War - her home planet suffers a terrible catastrophe. Melora and Deanna are the only people outside the planet who know about the disaster, and they know only because one of the other Gemworld species, the Lipul, send them terrifying dreams.
The two women persuade Picard to investigate, but the anomaly wreaking havoc on the planet also disrupts most of the Enterprise's systems. Both the ship and the unique crystalline world soon face grave danger. It soon becomes obvious that only cooperation between the Starfleet officers and the diverse races of Gemworld can save them all, but many individuals have their own fears and agendas about how best to protect the planet's artificial atmosphere. Since Melora trusts him - because he feels as out of place in Starfleet as she does - Barclay becomes a reluctant diplomat and strategist. Although Picard plays a role in negotiations and Data comes up with many of the scientific solutions, Troi and Barclay repeatedly save the day via courage and risk-taking, which is a really nice change.
It's always a pleasant surprise to read a Trek adventure where there's substantial character development. Gemworld focuses on relationships as well - primarily the budding romance between Barclay and Melora, yet Riker and Troi have a few passionate scenes, and even Picard and Crusher get a couple of moments that focus on their past and possible future together. None of the main characters are neglected in terms of plot - LaForge gets a chance to save the ship even though he's mostly out of the action - and the aliens are all fascinating, for the most part quite different from anything we've seen on Trek before.
My only complaint has to do with the paucity of science, which isn't really the author's fault, since Deep Space Nine never explained how a planet with such low gravity could possess an atmospheric density breathable for humans. A few other niggling questions popped into my head, like how the flesh-eating Frills could possibly have gotten enough dead bodies to stay alive during peacetime. But these don't detract from the story any more than the usual series technobabble. As far as I'm concerned, Vornholt can write the next TNG movie, because he can tell an action-filled science fiction story and give the female characters something to do other than be rescued by the men.
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