I was intending to start my series of Stargate novel reviews from the beginning, with the first book published. The most recent novel to come into my grasp has made me change my mind, and not necessarily for good reasons.
Author Steven Savile is one of several new authors to try and tackle the Stargate SG-1 series for the UK based publishing company, Fandemonium. His first book, The Power Behind the Throne is the first of a trilogy, the titles of which have yet to be revealed. Savile is a celebrated UK writer with several bestsellers under his belt. After having written for long running franchises such as Doctor Who and Star Wars, he is no stranger to the idea of series cannon, but the cannon of Stargate SG-1 seems to have caught Savile off guard.
I am a stickler for cannon. My friends who are familiar with my love of Stargate will tell you that cannon-breakers never rank highly in my list of favorite authors. If you are going to take on something as big as Stargate, you have to have the passion it takes to check your facts and do it right. That said, Stargate has over 15 seasons of cannon to deal with. The later in the series you go, the more you have to take into account. It’s not easy, and I have even caught cannon errors in my own work, though thankfully long before I publish it. Fandemonium writers, though professionals rather than amateurs like myself, have the same challenges to deal with, and so I usually forgive small cannon errors that aren’t crucial to the plot of the story. Savile, however, missed critical cannon errors that have poked a gigantic hole in his plot.
The story that Savile tells is also unlike any Stargate novel I have read before in how it takes one of the most horrific events in human history, the Holocaust, and replays it on a different planet, under different yet hauntingly and irrevocably similar circumstances.
I’d like to warn my readers right now that I am about to describe portions of the plot in some detail, but I will not give away all the elements of the plot, nor the ending. If you wish to read on, know that the book will not be ruined for you.
Several Fandemonium novels of years past have started out with a little note stating when in the long running series the story takes place, sometimes right down to what episode it follows or precedes. The Power Behind the Throne has no such note, but that just doubles the fun for cannon-lovers like me! It becomes a game to determine where in the series the events fall. However, it becomes a dangerous line for the author to walk. If they indicate that the story falls early in the series and then drop in something that doesn’t happen until much later, the magic of the story could be broken. In this case, I eventually figured out that the story is set in season 4, but this causes more troubles than it solves. That’s right, don’t let those very season 8ish team pictures on the cover fool you. As they say, you can’t judge a book . . .
Savile’s first error has no specific episode to prove it, but is rather a constant throughout the series. When there is an incoming wormhole, either to Earth or elsewhere, the chevrons are not dialed as they are when dialing out. There is no “Chevron two encoded”, or as Savile mistakenly writes it, “Chevron two locked!” This first blatant mistake, punctuated by the intermittent countdown of “locked” chevrons by “a disembodied voice” (not even a technician!) all of which is describes as taking 90 seconds, was enough to tell me that someone hadn’t been paying close attention to the show.
The next error was easily the most galling, partially because I was still struggling to place the story in the timeline of the series. The incoming wormhole was established by a Tok’ra seeking refuge (I mentally ticked off season 1 and half of season 2 as possibilities for the story’s setting) and the iris was opened to admit her. But something went wrong. As the Tok’ra tried the exit the wormhole, she is heard screaming before she has even exited the event horizon. One foot and one hand made it through before the re-integration process failed, her outline, apparently visible just past the event horizon, disappeared, and her smoldering remains are all that are left. What’s more, Jack O’Neill mused that “he had seen wormholes fail before, and witnessed the catastrophic effects such a failure had upon the human body.”
Queue me sitting in bed scratching my head. How many times have we heard Sam Carter talk about the fail safes the Ancients put in place to prevent the traveler from dying? When have we ever seen the Stargate fail to reintegrate someone properly, or malfunction lethally in any way? The answer is never! What about the events of ’48 Hours’ when the wormhole disconnected before Teal’c could be reintegrated? Wouldn’t that suggest that the Tok’ra visitor is stored in the Stargate’s buffer crystals? This doesn’t seem lost on Savile, having an airman explain to Jack that a new wormhole connection would erase any data from the previous connection. But in this case, all the SGC wants to do is back trace where the wormhole came from . . . something we’ve never seen them do before!
The next mistake is the one that really really bothers me. SG-1 proceeds through the gate on a mission, more or less sent there by the Tok’ra. They arrive, find their objective – a sentient creature with abilities that can make it a powerful tool for good or evil, depending on who influences it – and then gate out under enemy fire. While in transit through the wormhole back to the SGC, something goes wrong again, and the team finds themselves stuck underground surrounded by ice and snow. Sounds familiar, right? Sam immediately explains that the wormhole must have jumped to an alternate gate because something interfered with its path. Jack then asks if it’s possible for the wormhole to do that. Sam says that until ten minutes before she wouldn’t have thought so.
Queue me pulling at my hair. I’d narrowed the window of time in which this could take place down well enough to know that this was a disaster. The involvement of the Tok’ra meant that ‘Solitudes’ had taken place, so the whole team knows very well that the wormhole can jump from one gate to another under certain circumstances. ‘A Matter of Time’ has also taken place, so they all know that channeling enough energy into the event horizon will make the wormhole jump to a different gate at the other end. Savile compounds his mistake when, ten pages later, the landscape on the surface immediately reminds Sam of her side-trip to Antarctica in ‘Solitudes’.
Sadly, I have to point out one more issue that really makes the whole story – all of which occurs on the planet where SG-1 has crash-gated – unnecessary. Seeing their situation, the team immediately tries to dial home, only to discover that they don’t have the planet’s point of origin. That’s right my friends, we’ve flashed back to the feature film! Not once since the original Stargate movie has the point of origin been the reason that the team can’t dial out. It has always been identified without discussion as the one symbol on the DHD and the Stargate that is unique to that planet. What could possibly have made that change? The writers of the series have come up with a myriad of ways to keep SG-1 stuck on a planet without the point of origin being the problem. We’ve had fake DHDs, missing DHDs, broken DHDs, gates that froze up and wouldn’t dial out, and even gates that have just become inaccessible. I was very disappointed in Savile for this unimaginative and illogical obstacle.
Finally, we get past the errors which – aside from Jack refering to a flashlight as a ‘torch’, a strictly British term that gives away the author’s origins – are all associated with the Stargate, it’s functions, and what the SGC is and is not capable of. Ahem. SG-1 finds themselves on a planet where the Broca Divide can be seen taking place. There are 2 evolutions of human beings living on the planet together. The Kelani are the original inhabitants of the planet, and are described as being a step closer to the Neanderthals than to homo sapiens, but they are no less intelligent or advanced than humans on Earth in the early 20th century. The Corvani were brought to the planet by the Goa’uld. They don’t remember their origins, and for a long time they lived in peace with the Kelani.
Then suddenly it seems, a tyrant rose to power among the Corvani. Taking the name Corvus Keen, the Raven King, he began a campaign of brutal and unrelenting racial cleansing, systematically exterminating the Kelani. The similarity to the Nazis and the Jewish Holocaust is far from lost on SG-1, but Savile never actually mentions the terms, as if doing so would truly bring it home. His descriptions of the “death trains”, the “facilities”, and the haggard faces of people bereft of hope for their future are so intense and so easy to picture for anyone who has studied the Holocaust that it really was every bit as difficult for me to stomach as it was for SG-1. To be graphic is one thing. This was something else entirely, and that could be seen as either good or bad depending on your personal preferences. I for one most enjoy the SG-1 novels that have levity and humor intermixed with the dire circumstances, just like in most SG-1 episodes. There was no humor to be found here, and given the gravity of the subject and how closely it runs with our own history, it is proper that there be none.
Beyond the cannon holes and extremely heavy subject matter, The Power Behind the Throne is well-written. The characterizations of the members of our favorite team are very good, though I do not believe Savile gave General Hammond the required amount of gravitas. He also downplays Sam Carter’s curiosity, making it more important to her that she get home rather than examine the state of a DHD that has clearly been tampered with. This is most un-Carter-like, but it is perhaps intended to drive home just how terrifying her experiences on this planet really were.
Most of the story is told from Teal’c’s point of view, which is a refreshing change from most of the Fandemonium novels. It is exceedingly difficult to write from Teal’c’s point of view, and it can be even harder to write dialogue for him for obvious reasons! Savile not only shows us this world and it’s atrocities from Teal’c’s point of view, but takes advantage of it to enhance the reader’s understanding of what is going on, and of Teal’c’s own mind.
The novel does end with a pretty hefty cliffhanger. The problems of that world are far from over, and SG-1’s mission was left incomplete. Though I am disappointed in Savile’s errors and the direction in which his plot inevitably went, for no obvious reason, I will still be first in line to read the sequel. A story should never be left unfinished. I believe that Savile has the power to redeem himself as far as cannon, and while the story he wove was at times revolting, it is still riveting.
I award Steven Savile’s The Power Behind the Throne 3 out of 5 SpaceGypsy wagons.
You can purchase The Power Behind the Throne as well as many more books from Fandemonium in your local bookstores and at their website.