My mom has a huge ST book collection. She used to pester me about reading them once I got interested in the show. I resisted for awhile, until I finally gave in and tried some at random. Most of them to me are rather meh. Not bad stories, but not good enough to read again. Uhura's Song by Janet Kagan is one of the gems.
Even if you are not a big fan of ST in general, if you like science fiction, a deadly epidemic that can cross races easier than rabies, a cure in the missing verses of a tabooed song, and just the right amount of humor to leaven the suspense, you may like this story. Even if the medical crisis might not be your cup of tea, if you enjoy thinking about how an alien culture might work, this still might be your book. The medical disaster is what prompts the cultural discovery, but the new culture is the predominant arena of the story which leads to the cure.
On Uhura's first posting, she befriended a junior diplomat from Eeiauo, Sunfall of Ennien, a graceful cat-like being. The two women became close friends, almost like sisters. One night in exchange for Uhura's bawdy songs, Sunfall shared some of her world's taboo songs, a taboo so strong that it might be considered treason to sing them, even though in a generation or two they might be forgotten altogether.
Because in the old songs, Eeiaou doesn't mean beautiful; it means outcast.
Now a deadly epidemic is sweeping over Sunfall's planet, and Uhura's friend is dying. Humans have also started contracting the disease, including Nurse Chapel and Dr. McCoy, now trapped in quarantine on the planet. The crew's only hope in saving their friends lies in the forbidden songs. Just like Heinrich Schliemann finding Troy, they use clues from the songs and one Eeiaouan doctor's confession to find the real homeworld of the Eeiaouans: "Sivao, where the North Star beats like the heart of a child."
Now they must make contact with the Sivaoans and pray that they have the cure. Assuming they can convince the Sivaoans to even speak of the exiled ones. It may take the youth of Sivao to be adult enough to breech the barrier of taboo in order to discover the answers they need before time runs out for their friends.
This story is fascinating for the interaction between the Enterprise crew and the Sivaoans. Kagan created a fully developed culture and rich landscape to set the majority of the story. Sivaoans have unique societal patterns and their own way of phrasing things. "I'm all loops," meaning they are very happy because their tails curl into a loop at the tip when they are. "When I have my own name" is what teens say when looking forward to adulthood. When they are ready to make the transition, they announce their intentions, form a group of their peers and take The Walk, literally and figuratively, into adulthood. They must travel from one camp to another and if any fail to make it, the whole group fails. Fail twice and you are considered bad luck. Once you make it, you can choose your own name, either keeping the one you'd been given or something new.
The characters are so real that I both laugh and cry, sometimes within just a few pages, every time I read it. Shame, taboo, music, cultural awareness. It's all here. Along with some of the funniest lines I've had the pleasure to read. Dr. Evan Wilson, the guest character who accompanies the crew while McCoy is in quarantine, is the source of many of them. Short and spunky, she is a hoot and a half.
Spock: raises an eyebrow at some thing Dr. Wilson has said
Dr. Wilson: (with a mock scowl) Don't you point that thing at me, Spock--it might be loaded!
Earlier in the book:
Captain Kirk: Would you mind a personal question, Dr. Wilson?
Dr. Wilson: (she stops) Call me Evan if it's a personal question.
Captain Kirk: Why would a doctor take up saber?
Dr. Wilson: (gives wicked grin) I took up saber for the same reason I took up quarterstaff and eating with chopsticks. (runs off before Kirk can ask what she means.)
Kirk is left to wonder for most of the book what saber, quarterstaff, and chopsticks have to do with each other. If you want to learn the answer and how else she teases Kirk and Spock, you'll have to read it for yourself! (wicked grin of my own)