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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Soul Key by Olivia Woods (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Soul Key would wind up being the last novel published as part of the Deep Space Nine relaunch.

The Soul Key was published in July 2009. The next month, Una McCormack’s wonderful The Never-Ending Sacrifice would be published. However, McCormack’s novel was very written outside the relaunch, running as a companion to the series and unfolding in the immediate aftermath. After that, the Deep Space Nine book line found itself folded into various crossovers, like Typhon Pact and The Fall. There was a sense that the line was drifting away from Deep Space Nine and being recontextualised in Pocket Books’ larger Star Trek series.

The Soul Key picks up where Fearful Symmetry left off, following Kira, mirror!Iliana and Vaughn as they venture into the mirror universe in pursuit of the crazed Iliana Ghemor.

ds9-soulkey

The Deep Space Nine relaunch had to tackle the mirror universe eventually.

It was inevitable. The line had dedicated to itself to continuing the story of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine beyond What You Leave Behind. Of course, What You Leave Behind had consciously wrapped up a lot of what had worked around the show. The Dominion War was over, the character arcs were completed, Sisko had come a full circle from Emissary. It was, in many ways, a satisfactory conclusion to a seven-year journey that acknowledged a lot of what had come to be associated with Deep Space Nine.

To be fair, this did not stop the relaunch line from reversing and revising some of the conclusions included in What You Leave Behind. Benjamin Sisko returned from the Celestial Temple; a Jem’Hadar joined the ensemble; Bashir and Ezri broke up. It also expanded into new storylines, devoting story space to twenty-fourth century Andoria. However, the novel line inevitably sought to play with narrative elements that the show had not neatly resolved at the end of its seven-year run.

The dangling plot threads were generally aspects of the show that had slipped out of the spotlight over the years – parts of the show that were not important enough to receive a definitive resolution in the show’s mammoth ten-part finalé. So the novels inherited Bajor’s admission into the Federation, the politics of Trill and a few other bits and pieces. Since The Emperor’s New Cloak had never really wrapped up the mirror universe plot threads, it seemed like it was worth revisiting.

However, there is a sense that the mirror universe is fundamentally broken. This is not the fault of Olivia Woods or anybody working at Pocket Books. The whole mirror universe concept imploded on Deep Space Nine. The mirror universe was cleverly reintroduced in Crossover, one of the stronger episodes of the show’s second season. Offering a dark and twisted reflection of the station and its inhabitants, Crossover worked as a very clever way of critiquing certain elements of the franchise.

However, things started to go wrong very quickly. Through the Looking Glass, Shatter Mirror and The Emperor’s New Cloak treated the mirror universe as a dark and campy parallel to the mainstream universe. From Through the Looking Glass, there was no longer a sense that we were meant to read anything into these alternate counterparts of familiar characters. Instead, it was an opportunity for the production team to play with tired space opera clichés in an environment almost entirely free of consequence.

One gets the sense that the show never really wrapped a bow around the mirror universe plot line was because it would be impossible to impose any narrative sense on all of these story threads. The mirror universe stories were a collection of vaguely wacky hijinks rather than sketches of a fully-formed world. The rebels had captured Terok Nor, with the show never explaining what that meant for Bajor. There was never a sense of an over-arching plot beyond what ever contrivance was necessary for the individual episode to function.

In Through the Looking Glass, Sisko was recruited to seduce mirror!Jennifer. In Shattered Mirror, Sisko was convinced to help build a functioning copy of the Defiant. In Resurrection, the Intendent wanted an Orb. In The Emperor’s New Cloak, the Alliance needed a cloaking device – ignoring the fact that the mirror!Klingons had a cloaking device in Through the Looking Glass. The mirror universe could not get its own continuity straight, let alone imposing a larger arc on to the stories in the sequence.

The Soul Key suffers from this. It seems like a story crafted specifically for the purpose of using the mirror universe. Olivia Woods’ previous novel, Fearful Symmetry, had cleverly broached the idea of the mirror universe wormhole and tied in the idea of Iliana Ghemor to Kira Nerys’ other doppelgänger. However, The Soul Key really has nothing novel to add to that. In fact, it seems largely bored and disinterested in the mirror universe setting.

The Intendent is killed off-page. By the time we join The Soul Key, Iliana Ghemor has already replaced her. There are a few references to the act itself, but the Intendent gets a rather ignominious send-off. In flashback, one character even pauses to note just how terribly ineffective the Intendent is as a villain and how much even her continued presence undermines the narrative:

“The more I learn about her, the more amazed I am that Intendant Kira has survived as long as she has,” Shing-kur said between bites of a plant that looked a little like a Bajoran desert cactus. “You’d think her superiors in the Alliance would have put down a megalomaniac like her long ago.”

Perhaps this is what it takes to salvage Deep Space Nine‘s mirror universe as a concept. The most iconic and distinctive character from the mirror universe has to be sacrificed immediately, so that another character can impose their own more structured and logical narrative on to the mirror universe.

The Soul Key is Iliana Ghemor’s story. The mirror universe is just a place where she can tell it – a universe where she can write her own narrative, a collection of tropes and archetypes so desperate for a narrative that she need only provide one and the entire universe will dance to her tune. After all, the mirror universe is completely unprepared for Iliana Ghemor. The only chance of stopping her reign of terror is the arrival of Kira Nerys to wrap her own identity crisis.

It is telling that the established mirror universe cast members are largely absent here. mirror!O’Brien and mirror!Ezri are very much at the periphery of the plot. Instead, The Soul Key introduces a whole new cast of mirror universe characters, teasing readers with twisted reflections of Winn, Opaka and Jaro. These are hardly headline draws when it comes to the mirror universe, and there’s never really a sense that these characters illuminate or inform the reader’s understanding of their mainstream counterparts.

It feels quite unsatisfying. The Soul Key is using a part of the Deep Space Nine mythos that comes with an incredible amount of weight – in terms of continuity, in terms of historical importance, in terms of symbolism, in terms of attention given to it during the run of the show. However, The Soul Key seems pretty disinterested in the entire concept. This isn’t a novel that is willing to expend the time or the energy necessary to try to make something of all the convoluted and over-complicated story history here.

Perhaps The Soul Key comes closest to working when Elias Vaughn comes face-to-face with his own mirror counterpart. It’s a sequence that has little to do with the plot or politics of the mirror universe, and instead feels like a solid character beat. Indeed, it feels almost contrived, woven into this much larger story, using Sisko’s strange relationship with time and space as a convenient excuse for Vaughn’s character growth and development.

It is a nice scene, and perhaps one that gets quite close to the heart of The Soul Key. The Soul Key seems to suggest that the mirror universe cannot be salvaged as a concept. Writer David Mack would beg to differ, penning a collection of Mirror Universe novels much more interested in the continuity and legacy of this alternate universe. However, Olivia Wood sees the mirror universe only important in how it serves the characters at the heart of her drama.

It is a large and mostly generic space that exists as a battleground between Kira Nerys and Iliana Ghemor. There’s a certain charm to his – Kira and her counterpart square off against one another in a world that has been reduced to a carnival funhouse, populated with reflections of familiar characters. The Soul Key might just as easily have unfolded in any of the alternate universes that Worf visited in Parallels, the themes would remain the same.

The story spills over from Fearful Symmetry, to the point where The Soul Key feels more like an extension of that novel than a story in its own right. Scenes in The Soul key are structured to mirror scenes in Fearful Symmetry, itself a recursive reflection of Fearful Symmetry, which was structured around recurring and repeating patterns. In some respects, this means that The Soul Key feels unsatisfying. It is never its own thing. Then again, a mirror can only reflect.

Woods pares back a lot of the complications and contrivances and convolutions that have made the mirror universe such a mess, and boiled the concept do to its most simple concept. It is a place where there are people who are you, but who are also not you. Anything else is over-complicating matters a great deal. In many respects, the mirror universe setting of The Soul Key is a red herring, a distraction from the heart of the story.

The Soul Key seems to suggest that – by the time Deep Space Nine had finished its run – the mirror universe was practically scorched Earth.

You might be interested in our reviews of the third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

 

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