"This is the Kobayashi Maru, nineteen periods out of Altair VI. We have struck a gravitic mine and have lost all power..."
The Kobayashi Maru has a special place in Trek lore, featuring prominently in both Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek (2009). A training-command scenario based on the ship's destruction tasks a cadet with effecting the rescue of the Federation fuel transport disabled in enemy territory against impossible odds -- literally impossible, for the simulation is rigged. No matter what brilliant tactics and deft maneuvering ordered by the commanding cadet, there are always more Klingon ships to contend with: their every choice leads inexorably to death. That is, of course, the point of the scenario -- the "no-win" scenario. It forces the student in command to face fear, defeat, and death.
Authors Martin and Mangels set the original ("historical") Kobayashi Maru in early Federation history, shortly before the Romulan war. The Federation as we know it does not yet exist, and its predecessor -- the Coalition of Planets -- is still young and fragile. Its four founding members are strong-willed, driven by separate ambitions. They don't hesitate to deal behind the others' backs to gain an advantage, but such disunity is dangerous. The Klingon Empire is strong and mighty, its warships formidable and intimidating even to Vuclans. Skulking in the shadows are the Romulans, who live by Julius Caesar's "divide and conquer": having failed to prevent the coalition alliance from forming in Enterprise's fourth season, they are nonetheless still at work attempting to sow division between their rivals until such time as the Star Empire is ready to rule them.
As Earth, Vulcan, Tellar, and Andoria grouse amongst themselves, seemingly anxious to go poking dozing Klingons with sticks, Captains Johnathan Archor and Ericka Hernandez ply the trade routes looking for foes in the wake of recent attacks against Coalition shipping rumored to be the work of Klingons. Archer sees the string of mysterious attacks as the work of Romulans, and is anxious to prove it -- but his best friend and former chief engineer Trip Trucker is still working as a covert agent inside Romulus, hoping to prevent the Star Empire from creating a warp-seven capable starship. Drama mounts throughout the book as attacks on Coalition interests increase and Trip's 'Romulan' comrades become more paranoid. Archer, feeling increasingly alone as the only commanding officer in Starfleet working to keep the peace with the Klingons and urging the Coalition to take a harder look at Romulus, is left without his first officer and best tactical hand when two of his senior staff steal a shuttle and attempt to infiltrate enemy territory The drama reaches its climax around the same time that Archer receives a distress call from the Kobayashi Maru, a fuel freighter stranded in enemy territory, forcing Archer into a difficult decision.
Though it started out slow, I liked Kobayashi Maru more the deeper I ventured into it. Drama abounds, mostly political and character-driven. Though I knew how the book would end (I bought this at the same time I bought its sequel, Beneath Raptor's Wings: the Romulan War), Martin and Mangels still managed to provide plenty of tension, sending Archer to Quo'nos to be manhandled by insulted Klingons and sending Trip on a path so perilous that he sighs in text at the prospect of having yet another disruptor leveled at his head. I didn't expect the plot twists in Trip's thread of the story. The authors pepper the text with humor and little tie-ins to other Trek books and episodes, though the frequent uses of "Jesus Christ!" as an expletive were jarringly anachronistic. This is, unfortunately, not simply a trait of Martin and Mangels: I've noticed it in other authors, as well. While I'll cop to being plenty biased (I like the predominant secularism of Roddenberry's Federation culture) the all-too-frequent use of contemporary expletives, Jesus Christ among them, make the characters seem more 20th century than 24th. I will admit, though, that Archer's silently mouthing "Whiskey...tango...foxtrot" got a smile from me. The only major flaw of the book is that it seems strangely-titled: while the Kobayashi Maru appears at a climactic moment, it's really more a moment of personal crisis for Archer than a question of strategy. The ship's legendary appearance is overshadowed completely by the diplomatic crisis that leads us straight intothe Romulan War miniseries.
While I generally disdain quantitative scales in regards to books, rating my reads on Shelfari has broken down my resistance somewhat. I'd probably call this a 3.7- 3.8 out of five, or a "pretty good" on the vernacular scale.