When I say a book is "daring," I don't mean it's perfect. This one isn't. Its biggest shortcoming is the utter implausibility of Starfleet's final answer the crimes of the Federation president. And you really have to have a strong stomach or an appreciation for descriptions of graphic injury and violence to get through this book's more brutal passages. David Mack's writing is sometimes shockingly vivid, enough to make one wince at times. There's also no escaping what this book and the one before it, A TIME TO KILL, are really about: the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. The analogy seems plain -- but thinner and not as well-disguised with SF ideas as such episodes of the 1960s STAR TREK series as "A Private Little War" or "A Taste of Armageddon."
But if those are the things that A TIME TO HEAL did wrong, what did it do right? For one thing, even though it used current events as a template, it didn't take sides. Even the so-called villains have reasonable motives, if self-serving or misguided. Mack's portrayal of the tragedies of war, the horrors of combat, and the senselessness of violence is stirring and provocative. He challenges his readers' conceptions of the NEXT GENERATION characters as "pure" or "morally spotless" by putting them in situations where they must make really hard choices between doing the ethical thing and paying a terrible price, or bending their rules little by little in order to stave off disasters, only to find themselves suddenly knee-deep in compromise and complicity.
Another excellent element of this book is its use of supporting characters. The "little people" on the ship come to life in lots of well-dramatized incidents that give them personalities. We get to know them, in both their fragility and their heroism, making it truly poignant and upsetting when they meet gruesome fates.
The plotting of this book is superb; like A TIME TO KILL, action transpires in multiple places at once and encompasses dozens of characters, yet Mack keeps them all clearly drawn. The story has elements of humor and pathos, military tactics and political scheming, strangely bittersweet relationship arcs and an unrelenting sense of impending disaster. In addition, Mack's use of language is remarkably agile. By turns he can be stark, blunt and hard-hitting, then suddenly lyrical and lushly descriptive.
His characters also work on many levels. (Picard is the exception, as he seems to have faded into the background for most of this book. His few moments of pseudo-paternal concern from A TIME TO KILL have greater resonance than all his maudlin pining for Beverly Crusher in A TIME TO HEAL.) In particular, the one frequently underused character who finally got some real development was Deanna Troi. Finally, a STAR TREK main character is forced to confront a truly dark aspect of themselves and isn't able to brush it aside as something alien or "artificially induced" -- Troi must now grapple with the fact that she, like all people, carries the primitive seeds of cruelty in her nature. This is probably some of the best writing ever done for the Troi character.
It's easy to see why this book is so polarizing. It asks readers to realize that even an entity such as the Federation, which we have always been told stands for what is good and noble, can in times of terrible national stress forget the ideals it claims to defend. As the Federation president, his chief of staff, and a cabinet member work a criminal conspiracy to conceal the true reason for why Starfleet had to conquer and occupy the sovereign planet Tezwa, we see the Federation -- long considered STAR TREK's analog to the United States -- engaging in pre-emptive military action, telling one set of lies to its own troops, another to its allies, another to its accomplices on Tezwa... And when good people, like the crew of the Enterprise, are pressed into service based on lies and deception, their achievements, no matter how honorably they were engaged by our heroes, become tainted by the lies of the people who sent them into battle, into war, into conquest.
I don't think that Mack set out to tell a story of carnage and violence because he wanted glorify such evils --- I think this reads like the work of a writer who is appalled and horrified and very angry about what he has been seeing in the news. More than just another STAR TREK book, A TIME TO HEAL in my opinion, is a vicious polemic against a war and a point of view. It is dark, morally complex, violent, graphically brutal, tragic, and, frankly, brilliant.
Regardless of one's opinion of its story, or its conclusions, it is beautifully written. I would never expect everyone to love a book like this -- I don't think that's possible -- but I think it's definitely a book that is worthy of respect.