Stewards of the Flame begins with Fleet Captain Jesse Saunders waking up in a hospital on a planet run by the medical profession. He is accused of the crime of being an alcoholic, and his judge and jury consist of physicians and psychiatrists. It seems he has no hope of escaping the medical machine, yet somehow he does, and that is when his life-changing adventure begins.
Through his new friends, Carla and Peter, Jesse becomes involved with a group of subversives who oppose the medical regime that rules the planet. Through them, he begins to explore the potential of the human mind for controlling the body, among other things. Looming over all of this is the threat of discovery by the Meds, but the author mainly uses this to move the plot forward when it seems to stagnate.
The story is compelling, and drew me in from the first few pages, but I found myself occasionally weary of the long sections of dialog in which Engdahl used the characters to expound on her theories of parapsychology and the potential future of involuntary medical monitoring and preventative treatment. If one were to take developing (and developed) technologies that use basic household appliances such as toilets to monitor physical health, and then project such technologies (and the mindsets behind their creation) fifty or a hundred years into the future, it is possible that we may end up with a society willing to give up personal freedoms and privacy for the sake of maintaining good health.
What Engdahl has done is take this premise even further to examine death in such a society. For the people of the planet in her story, death is no longer an option. Should their bodies cease to be able to function on their own, they are simply put into stasis in perpetuity. No one will ever die, at least not officially. Ironically, it is the doctors who have sworn to protect life that makes this (horrific?) reality possible.
As an outsider, Jesse is a conduit for viewing this society through the lenses of the reader, or at least the reader who is accustomed to Western or Christian views on end-of-life concerns. The author uses Jesse to guide the reader in an exploration of the paranormal and the use of the mind to maintain or destroy the health of the body as an alternative to the modern medical practice of treating the symptoms. She lays out the arguments in a way that is compelling, doing what science fiction is supposed to do – making the reader think about a concept from a different perspective.
To that end, Stewards of the Flame accomplishes what it should. However, I found the conclusion to be anticlimactic and also a bit of a cliff-hanger. Hopefully this is simply the author's way of leaving the door open for continuing the story, because otherwise it is a weak ending to an otherwise solid novel.
For those who are familiar with Engdahl from her young adult novels, take care. This book contains some adult themes that you may not yet wish to expose to the young folks in your life.
Stewards of the Flame is a thought provoking novel that may make you question the authority and direction of modern Western medical practices. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading genre fiction with some substance to it.