“a very fun read from beginning to end . . . never lags . . . extremely inventive . . . playful . . .”
Out of the crop of Star Trek-inspired semi-spoofs that have come up recently, Willful Child is one of the more successful.
It's cheesy, but the cheesiness has a purpose—namely, to point out how idiotic the governing forces in the book are, and how Captain Hadrian Alan Sawback is the only one who sees it.
He's a force of chaos, but it's chaos that proves that the rules he's breaking are rules that need to be broken. The book as a whole is crude, strange, moves at breakneck speed, is full of people who totally disregard personal safety, and gleefully runs with the clichés of the Star Trek Original Series without losing the core of the franchise: exciting explorations with the purpose of bettering life in the galaxy. Really, with how incredibly off the wall the book is, it's kind of amazing that it comes back to that grounded fact.
Willful Child is the first long-term deep-space mission sent out to explore the galaxy, helmed by a young crew picked mostly on looks and a captain who wants to sleep with everyone there and mostly fails to impress anyone on that regard. He's a loose cannon from the start, but he also has a sharp eye and knows when the many aliens they encounter are bluffing—mostly because they're by and large even more idiotic than the neurotic humans encountering them.
This could come across as unpleasant to read, but instead, because of the use of pop culture references and the conversations Sawback has with the rogue AI that immediately takes over the ship, it comes out as satire. Gleeful, spoofy satire that simultaneously pokes fun at the source material, makes some sharp observations about the goals and purpose of the entire existence of a well-armed “exploration” vessel, and manages to go a few steps further in cheesiness and in episodic complication.
Most of the humor is bathroom or sex jokes, but it also has a thick layer of winking wryness over top. If you've seen the shows and love them, there's lots of nods and comments that elevate the joking somewhat above the details of the story. For example: everywhere they land looks like Northern California, and at one point, they find a planet with plastic trees and fake rocks. The book, though not long, reads as a novelization of a whole season of a TV show—complete with the AI commenting on how strangely episodic the captain's adventures are.
Captain Sawback himself is ridiculous, but the book never tries to claim that he isn't. In fact, while he claims it all the time, most of the story, everyone around him wonders if he's insane. And while he does, in fact, save the day over and over, it's mostly because he has a good team around him, and a lot of luck.
The crew may have been picked for less than their skill, but the mission proves that even when they're all half mad, they can still get the job done. It's not the crew—or the story of a crew—that a flagship should have, but it's the exact one to bust through all the layers of bureaucracy that have held back human development and that Sawback wants to push people beyond.
Willful Child is not for those who like fancier humor, but it's a very fun read from beginning to end, it never lags, it manages to be extremely inventive in a very playful way, and it's worth a read if you'd like a very strange love letter from one fan to another.