The plot has an away team being gassed and captured as they land on an unexplored planet. Unfortunately, the away team includes all the senior officers, except for the Captain and the Doctor. Given the unknown nature of the planet and the difficuly getting there (atmospheric conditions require use of a shuttle instead of transporters), it doesn't seem very sensible to have all the senior officers go down together. But given the requirements of the novel's plot -- getting the main characters together so they can share their life stories -- this is forgivable.
The captured crew end up on a large, fenced in field watched by many guards on the perimiter. The prison yard is filled with prisoners, most dirty and malnourished, some violent and unpredictable, from uncounted alien races. The crew has apparently landed in the middle of a major conflict and have become prisoners of war. That's all fine. The crew keeps busy during the day time gathering useful items and making plans for escape. At night they gather around a campfire and end up telling each other about how they came to be on Voyager, in order to pass the time.
The stories are very, very good. The escape is kind of lame. For one thing, Captain Janeway is out there still, with a fully functional Voyager. But rather than mounting an assault on a prison camp that doesn't appear very difficult to infiltrate, she goes about an elaborate ruse, posing as a local baronness or somesuch who wants to inspect the camp? The people running the prison believe this ruse, and it seems she could just buy her crew back or something. But the only thing she does is punch Chakotay when she sees him, which we later learn infected him with some of Seven of Nine's nanites, which somehow give Chakotay the ability to know which direction to bring the crew to rendezvous with Voyager for rescue.
As round-about as this seems, worse is the fact that in order to get out of the prison camp, which is surrounded by a force shield, the crew gather odds and ends from other prisoners, and steal some mining parts, and hobble together two working transporters. Then they use the transporters to get onto the other side of the shield, and run away to meet Voyager. This is all done without coordination with Voyager, so Captain Janeway must have assumed they could do it. Maybe these prisoners could make a working radio, but a transporter? The prison can prevent a heavily armed starship from breaking in, but it can't prevent prisoners from constructing an advanced technological device and beaming out. It just seemed rather hard to believe. If site-to-site transporters are so simple to construct, and require so little power, why doesn't Starfleet issue them to all officers on away mission? It would certainly make escapes easier.
Let's face it, at first glance Tom's character seems to provide the least material to work with. He's not an alien, so there's no abundance of alien cultural material to work with (as with Kes, Neelix, Tuvok, Torres and Seven). He's not the captain. He has no interesting technological aspects: he's not an android, hologram, or even a guy with artificial eyes. He doesn't even have an interesting ethnic minority background like Chakotay or Harry Kim. Tom is the show's only white guy. Some might say he doesn't even have a very interesting job. He's the pilot.
The television show has established Tom's problematic past as a hotshot Academy cadet who caused a fatal spacecraft accident and was punished after turning himself in. Later he joined the Macquis and was caught on his first mission with them. Taylor doesn't change any of this. Nor does she conjure up some new, unrelated tale from a different time in Tom's life. This is exactly what Tom's backstory in Pathways is about. And it is fascinating, gripping, and powerful!
Any fan of the television show knows the basics of Tom's past before Voyager, but Taylor's story provides the details and describes how Tom felt, what he went through, what led to his mistakes and what came of them. His relationship with his father is an important part of this story, as are his first meetings with Torres and Chakotay. Perhaps this story was so enthralling because Tom was so human, and so flawed. As masterful as Taylor's depictions of aliens, mystics and super-students are in her stories about the other characters, she was at her best in this story of a passionate but essentially ordinary man.
Taylor may have been trying to be inclusive, but if "inclusion" means spineless, warmed over stereotypes I'm sure most minority cultural groups would prefer to wait for another writer. To be fair, Taylor has done a fantastic job in the novel portraying many other religious, cultural, and racial groups, such as Vulcans, Klingons, Talaxians, Ocampa, and Chakotay's mystically-oriented Native American tribe. Either Taylor's never met any actual gay people, or she had some kind of mental block when it came to writing about them. Most people will simply be annoyed by this irrelevant material, either because they are people of faith or morally conservative, or because they object to one-dimensional stereotypes. If I was facing a life-and-death situation I wouldn't want these characters in my unit whether they were gay or straight. Fortunately, there is very little material in the novel about these three gay clones. This quibble, and the weak framing material, detract from what could have been an even better book. But these problems in no way ruin it.
But I enthusiastically recommend Star Trek: Voyager: Pathways. Fans of the television show should definitely read it. It may even enhance your enjoyment of the television show. If you were going to read only one Voyager novel, it should be either Pathways or Taylor's other semi-canonical novel Mosaic, depending on whether you are most interested in Captain Janeway or the rest of the crew. Your best bet is to read both.
Should people who don't watch "Voyager" on TV read Pathways? I doubt that many non-viewers will consider it, and for most of them I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. Much of the enjoyment is derived from delving into the backgrounds of familiar characters. Yet, although a non-viewer might get less out of the novel, the book nevertheless has some very powerful vignettes that a general reader might enjoy thoroughly. The Tuvok and Paris stories are every bit as interesting, entertaining and literary as short stories published in top s.f. magazines such as Asimov's.
Rating: **** (out of 5)
Rated: PG (broadly acceptable language; some moderate but not very graphic s.f. violence; no explicit sex; Neelix's story has considerable drug use, but this is strongly portrayed as negative)