Star Trek: New Frontier: The Returned's Book III, then the endeavor has been a rousing success. If the second book seemed perhaps to tread lightly, the third book rebounds with all the action and moral complexity that makes Peter David's New Frontier series so appealing. For me David tied up enough of the story's threads and only hinted at the future in a way that New Frontier feels complete to me if there's no more to follow, but I'd also still be happy to read additional books in the future.
[Review contains spoilers]
I felt Returned Book II was too obvious in its good guys and bad guys and in the direction the story would go, up to and including that in the story's final pages, Excalibur Captain Mackenzie Calhoun violently beats but does not kill the man who wiped out Calhoun's entire Xenexian race. As I said before, obviously beating someone to death is not conduct becoming of a Starfleet officer, but what's always been a joy of David's New Frontier is its willingness to push the boundaries, often violently, of what's allowed in traditional Trek (especially at times, during New Frontier's almost twenty-year history, when televised Trek has been particularly toothless). Calhoun killing the D'myurj Sulentus would have been wrong, but it would have also been interesting.
Returned Book III starts immediately better with a repeat of Calhoun assaulting Sulentus, but instead of this being the climax of Book II's mostly-restrained storyline, it's now the launching point for Calhoun to be in big, big trouble for bloodying a prisoner. That there are consequences for Calhoun immediately makes the situation more fraught, and David writes some gripping confrontations between Calhoun and the Excalibur's new doctor Kathleen Lochley, who hasn't been with the crew long enough to admire Calhoun the way the others do. Also the captain/first officer relationship between Calhoun and Burgoyne has been slow to gel, but Burgoyne gets in some good words about Calhoun's behavior, too.
Indeed two other moments that seems particularly "of New Frontier" here include when the evil Dayan take Calhoun prisoner and Burgoyne refuses to reveal the Excalibur's location despite that the Dayan might kill the captain; it's that kind of tough situation that seems to define New Frontier best. As well, in a story that's dealt throughout with the one-upmanship of genocide -- in which the D'myurj decimate the Xenexian and Calhoun ventures to kill the D'myurj, only the Dayan do it themselves -- in the end Calhoun chooses to let the last of the Dayan die when he might actually have saved them. This, too, isn't "right," but bespeaks the kind of justice that Calhoun, formerly the Xenexian warlord M'k'n'zy of Calhoun, said earlier that he would have meted out.
There is also the wholly troubling and complicated moment mid-action where the former Vulcan/Romulan Excalibur science officer Soleta seems to unintentionally mind control Calhoun and forces him to have sex with her, ostensibly due to the Pon Farr. This equally befits New Frontier, which has long taken an approach to sexuality more nuanced than televised Trek, from spotlighting even twenty years ago homosexual and gender fluid characters to Calhoun's own exploits with some of his senior staff, to a previous incident of mental/physical assault on the ship. There's no understating the seriousness of what happens in the book, in Soleta essentially raping her captain, but it again feels "of New Frontier" to examine issues of assault and consent among irrepressible alien urges and inter-species couplings.
"Troubling and complicated" also extends to David's general assertion here that Pon Farr means any Vulcan might turn into a sexual predator at any moment and later be forgiven for it, which might make one nervous to take a long journey with a Vulcan (though in fairness to David, Voyager went there first). Given that New Frontier has often flouted sexual mores, it's controversial but perhaps not surprising that the story should end up with Calhoun allowing Soleta to remain onboard, his wife Admiral Shelby being rather sanguine about the matter, and Calhoun seeming prepared to co-parent the resulting child with Soleta. At the same time, should New Frontier continue, I wouldn't mind seeing David revisit it all as more than just a cultural faux pas on Soleta's part, but rather to explore what trauma Calhoun might experience from the assault as he captains Soleta as part of his crew.
The one place I felt Returned Book III really went wrong was in an over-long final chapter in which former-crewman-turned-demigod Mark McHenry fights his way through a labyrinth, complete with Minotaur, in pseudo-battle with Q. As I suggested in my previous review, I'd as soon watch Picard fight the Borg than see the Enterprise crew dressed up as Robin Hood characters; "cutesy" has never been my favorite Trek, and Q is a vehicle to jump that shark more often than not. I had hoped that Book III wouldn't be devoted to Calhoun versus Q and it wasn't, but neither at the same time did McHenry's fight with Q become relevant until the very, very end, and I wasn't convinced that subplot needed the level of detail it received to pay off how it did.
At the end of Star Trek: New Frontier: The Returned Book III, it's no more clear than in the beginning who "the returned" are supposed to be. We can guess, of course, just as at the outset: New Frontier itself returns as a series, hopefully; Calhoun returns from self-imposed exile, and then returns himself from the pocket dimension both just as willful but also more reasonable than he's been before; the classic Excalibur crew returns, briefly, before fracturing apart again.
But in its easiest and most difficult, what I'd like to believe is the spirit of New Frontier returns in these books, what differentiates it from the other Trek franchises; that was not as apparent in some of the recent books and even in the middle of this ebook series, but New Frontier did "return" in the end. Peter David leaves the series in a good place, with the major threats defeated and what stands before Calhoun being the challenge of parenting (a challenge, too, David has teased for Shelby for a while now); as a reader I'm equally eager to read more but also satisfied to imagine for myself how the "soft cliffhanger" might resolve. I'll wait to see what happens next.