Overall this is a fairly varied and entertaining compilation of the ongoing SCE stories, some of which feature a new take on the "engineering doohickey of the week" concept. My apologies in advance if this turns out to be a long review, but I feel it's easier to discuss each of the stories in turn, rather than vague comments on the entire collection.
1. Ring Around The Sky
A very welcome and informative story shedding some more light on the new Tellarite second officer, Tev. Since his introduction, he has quickly and firmly become one of my favourites as he is unique among the characters from most Star Trek originals: he's brusque, supremely arrogant, unintentionally humourous, but without guile, deceit or malice; ultimately he's a brilliant engineer and is slowly gaining a (grudging) respect from his comrades as he fits in.
This tale has the Da Vinci head back to the colony he spent his formative years on, which is still suffering in the aftermath of the Dominion War. Tev has his own baggage on this mission, so we really get an insight into what makes him tick. I'm especially appreciative that the writers still don't feel the need to "humanise" him, which is refreshing to me, the reader.
The story itself involves a nice bit of continuity for anyone who has read the Invasion series and makes direct reference to the Furies; the antagonists mentioned throughout that crossover series.
Hmm... I feel guilty saying this, but this was an incredibly hard story to get through - though I still can't put my finger on why this is. A colony ship based around a concept not unlike a Dyson Sphere is slowly making its way into Klingon space; specifically, on a collision course with the Klingon homeworld. This gives rise to the SCE being accompanied by a Klingon engineering crew.
That particular aspect of the two crews interacting was enjoyable, though I was a bit put off by the idea that the Klingon Empire is already starting to recoil from their alliance with the Federation. Whether or not this would have been the case if the 24th century series had continued is moot, but I was a little disappointed that the camaraderie seen in the later seasons of DS9 is starting to break down.
The overall story itself is slow, almost glacial at times, as well as being initially confusing. Anything pertaining to the inhabitants of the colony ship is written in their perspective - so uses their terminology, cultural references, etc. This can be quite jarring at times, even tedious; and the first chapter is one of the most difficult I have ever had to get through in the SCE series. This probably overshadowed my experience of the story on the whole, as I was immediately put off.
Unfortunately, I had figured out what the problem was long in advance of the big reveal at the end, which didn't help. In its defence though, when it was focusing on the SCE/Klingons and the engineering perspective, it was excellent. The cultural aspects felt like long-winded filler which was both tough to read and not particularly enjoyable.
3. Grand Designs
A *really* refreshing change of pace after Orphans and gave a new perspective on the SCE theme - in the form of a diplomatic/political story based around a planet and a colony within its solar system bluffing and double-bluffing each other into a war which would wipe out an entire civilisation. A concept touched upon by DS9 and Insurrection is that the Federation isn't always perfect and at times can be downright selfish and oppotunistic - even to the chagrin of Starfleet, who are supposed to represent the best ideals of the Federation.
This plays out as the usual irritation felt by Starfleet whenever the Diplomatic Corps get involved and driving a wedge between the SCE and regular crew on Da Vinci. This leads to some good character interactions and development.
David Mack's turn to bring us an SCE story, and he doesn't disappoint. Never as a reader have I felt put through the wringer as much as I did when reading Wildfire, and Failsafe is a worthy successor. Mack again plays to his strengths of high-octane action scenes and the emotional punch in the guts I've come to expect from him.
As a probe crashes on a pre-warp planet in the height of a world war, the SCE are sent in to deactivate it safely before the inhabitants blow themselves to kingdom come. While the characters on the planet are thrown around like ragdolls (would you expect anything less?), I certainly didn't feel the usual feeling of "oh they'll be all right, they always are... especially as I'm nearly at the end of the story". Quite the oppposite in fact as Mr Mack manages to really make me wonder if he's got some of our favourite characters in the crosshairs again!
Also this serves as a kind of sequel to Wildfire, expanding on some themes and getting inside characters' heads who still haven't fully recovered from the Galvan VI mission.
5. Bitter Medicine
At first glance, this is any sci-fi fan has seen multiple times on various shows: alien ship has a virus, no-one is on board, some poor unsuspecting ship has visited it and probably gone off with the virus and now the sector/galaxy/universe hangs in the balance.
While that is the story to some extent, it is by no means the primary focus, and what we're treated to is actually quite a tender and emotional story about what happens when a doctor gets too involved with a patient - in this case a child.
6. Sargasso Sector
I don't believe the SCE series has done an all out comedy story yet, but this is pretty much it. And to be honest, I loved it. It pays homage (intentionally or not) to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf's Out of Time and DS9's "Rivals" and is about the crew being caught up in an area of space where essentially every possibility in the universe can be played out and logic and reason no longer apply.
This leads to some great comedy moments, and I don't feel any of them go too far. They're all believable within the context of the story and this leads to some fantastic character interactions.
There is a bit of a dubious premise to the story though: The ship is in the Sargasso Sector (a Bermuda Triangle-esque region of space) to destroy a graveyard of ancient ships because the Breen have pulled out and Starfleet want to make a colony beyond the sector... It doesn't strike me as being in Starfleet's mandate to pass up such a massive opportunity for research, but nevertheless, it leads to a rollicking good read!
So yes, apologies for the loooong review, and in conclusion, if not for Orphans feeling like a chore to read, this is an excellent compilation which keeps the series moving at a steady pace and tries some stuff we haven't seen before - with mostly positive results. Keep 'em coming!