“The Price of the Phoenix” was not the book I was planning on reviewing today. That’s alright, though, since it actually comes before “The Fate of the Phoenix,” which is what I was going to be reviewing, and it’s fair enough to have some solid background.
First, I want to get into why I’m reviewing these old sci-fi novels. One, since my dad died and left me with all of his books, I have a lot of them to get through (though I might just give the Star Wars ones to my brother). Two, they’re available and it’s fun to look at the way sci-fi has both changed and remained frightfully stagnant over the years. It’s not just going to be exclusively Star Trek novels, but it’s a good starting off point.
Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath (both editors for “Star Trek: The New Voyages,” which was a collection of short stories written primarily by fans of the series and then published by Bantam Books) wrote at least two Star Trek novels that I’m aware of and have sitting on my bookshelf in front of me. “The Price of the Phoenix” (1977/1993) and “The Fate of the Phoenix” (1979) are related to each other in that “The Fate of the Phoenix” picks up immediately after its predecessor leaves off.
The first time I read “The Price of the Phoenix” was a few years ago, and I think the main reason why I picked it out of any of the other books on the shelf was because it was both one of the shortest novels (clocking in at 182 mass market paperback pages) and because the Romulan Commander, one of my favorite characters from the Original Series, was on the cover. The description on the back reads:
Poker is a game best played with a straight face and steely nerves. Now Spock must play the most dangerous game of all. At risk: the sovereignty of the Federation. The stakes: Captain James T. Kirk.
It doesn’t actually tell you very much about the novel–which is actually a good thing. On my most recent trip to Barnes & Noble (which was to pick up the new Harry Potter book), I stopped into the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section to see what was there. I wanted to start a new series (and still do, so if you have recommendations…), but was kind of put off by the amount of information on the back covers. It’s the same thing that puts me off from seeing movies–if you share your entire story in your teaser, why should I spend the money to get the extra parts? I was also pretty surprised that “The Martian” was in the Sci-Fi section, since it reads much less like genre fiction and more like literary fiction to me, but whatever.
In any case, if you haven’t read “The Price of the Phoenix” before, you’re going in mostly blind.
The thing is, books like “The Price of the Phoenix” and “The Fate of the Phoenix” are different from some other Star Trek novels (namely, those written by the same people who worked on the television series) in that they’re very much like fanfiction that you might read today. That’s not a bad thing–in fact, I think it’s inherently good, because it’s a different kind of involvement with the source material, and the way the story is told comes from a different place. Marshak and Culbreath were clearly fans of the series before they became officially affiliated creators–and that kind of love shows throughout both novels.
Even apart from Star Trek, though, I think I’d like “The Price of the Phoenix” as a standalone object. It’s fun and tense in all the right spots, and Marshak and Culbreath have a real feel for the relationship between Spock and Kirk. Their inclusion of the Romulan Commander in this group (and leaving her name as such) wasn’t something I thought could happen, but I’m glad it did.
With individual TOS episodes though, one of the defining characteristics will be the villains, and that’s the same with this novel. Omne is ridiculous and campy and the perfect fit for TOS. Honestly. There’s no other way to put it. Spoiler alert: He captures Kirk and, in a truly iconic scene, this happens:
“Sleeping Beauty,” Omne said. “You may perform the awakening–in the traditional manner, if you like.”
Spock shot him a savage look, but could not spare eyes for it for long.
“Wake Kirk up by kissing him” seems like a plot point from a slashfic, and it’s great that this was published. Who knows–maybe in an early form, this was K/S fanfiction, tweaked and modified for the general public. These sort of cliches, like Spock having to mind meld with a carbon copy of the original Kirk, there being a Kirk for both Spock and for the Romulan Commander, faked deaths and seemingly all-powerful villains, make the novel really worth the day I spent reading (and more recently, rereading) it. It’s fun, which is the most I think you can ask of your genre fiction.
“The Price of the Phoenix” is also one of those books that are short enough to be a good introduction to Star Trek novels, much like “Spock Must Die!” If you’re going to start anywhere, you might as well see how much can be fit into 200 pages or less. If you like it, you’re probably going to be fine with other books like it.
The next Old Sci-Fi Novel Review is going to be, as it was supposed to be today, the sequel to “The Price of the Phoenix.”