November - December, 2258. During this time, the command staff of Babylon 5 have discovered the Great Machine of Epsilon 3 and the reasons for the disappearance of Babylon 4; Sinclair and Catherine Sakai have made plans for a future that, in one horrible instant, will be changed forever; Delenn has made a more conscious decision to alter her own future; and Londo Mollari has made an ally whose "help" he already realizes may come at too high a price. Momentum has been building, events have started really moving one into the next, and the entire tone of the Babylon 5 universe has grown steadily darker.
...and such is the case even far from the space station, as this novel written by The Shadow Within's Jeanne Cavelos indicates. Viewing the last two months of Season One through the eyes of a group far away from Babylon 5, we see that this gathering darkness is visible even far away from the arc's central characters, while at the same time introducing backstory that enriches a few of the more minor characters from J. Michael Straczynski's universe.
Galen is the apprentice to Elric, a powerful member of the Circle of Techno-Mages. Galen has spent most of his life with Elric, who took him in after the deaths of his parents, and he used that time to study the power of the mages, who utilize the mysterious science of "The Tech" to simulate the effects of magic.
November is the time of the Convocation, the gathering of the Techno-Mages to test and induct a new generation. But Galen, in attempting to deliver something original to the Circle, taps into an equation at the very base of the Tech: a spell that could create untold destruction.
To test Galen's control, the Circle votes to send him and one other recently-inducted mage - the pretty, piercingly intelligent young Isabelle - to investigate rumors of approaching danger. There has been increased traffic to the outer rim, including races that have not been seen in some time. Some members of the Circle suspect the return of the Shadows; others cling desperately to the notion that all is normal. Galen and Isabelle must find proof of the Shadows' return.
But in so doing, they will discover some harsh truths about the Circle of Mages, and will have their own allegiance tested: for not all the mages have remained loyal to the Circle...
The books that were set before the start of the series flowed very nicely into one another. Even though Deadly Relations: Bester Ascendant and The Shadow Within were written by different authors, years apart, the events at the end of Deadly Relations flowed very naturally into the events of The Shadow Within. At the same time, these books greatly enriched the universe of the series while developing some characters who had been somewhat underdeveloped in the series proper.
Casting Shadows continues this tradition. Cavelos' development of "Shadow Anna" and Morden carries on more or less directly from where The Shadow Within left off, while the development of the story (centered around the investigation into the Shadows' return) fits in very well with the shifting tone of the first season - from events feeling more or less normal to a sense of slowly growing darkness. In the book's epilogue, Cavelos takes particular care to fit the events of her novel into the wider context of the series.
Better still, Casting Shadows allows Cavelos somewhat more freedom than The Shadow Within. In that book, she had to focus much of her attention on characters that were already established; John Sheridan, Delenn, Sinclair, Garibaldi, Morden, and even Anna were characters whose general destinies had been already mapped out. Cavelos fared very well bringing Anna and Morden to life, probably in large part because these characters had rarely been developed as more than ciphers to begin with. She did well writing Sheridan, as well; clearly, Cavelos has a certain fondness for the character. She struggled, however, to convincingly display the relationship between Sheridan and Anna, frequently resorting to "telling" rather than "showing." And Delenn, Sinclair, and Garibaldi seemed more like names on Cavelos' checklist than like characters who were a natural part of that story.
Casting Shadows is a more recent book, of course, and one could simply accept that Cavelos' writing has improved in the interim. But I suspect the book benefits precisely because it does NOT feature the main characters of the series. Elric, Isabelle, and Alwyn appear as guest characters in one televised episode a piece; even Galen, who was a major character on Crusade, only appeared in about half of that show's 13 episodes; he had been developed much more fully on screen than the other characters in this novel, but there was still much left unsaid and unshown as of the end of the series. This allows Cavelos more freedom to make these characters her own than when dealing with a Sinclair (25 episodes plus one movie) or a Sheridan (88 episodes plus 3 movies).
Whatever the cause, Cavelos' writing has greatly improved between The Shadow Within and this novel. The writing style is just much cleaner than it had been, the characterizations less forced and more natural. The relationship between Galen and Isabelle comes to life on the page in a way that the relationship between John and Anna did not. Galen's lack of self-confidence seems to fit well with his generally aloof nature; and if this novel's Galen seems altogether less formidable than Crusade's Galen... well, that fits too - this is, after all, a Galen still unformed and untested; he has many years of experiences to endure before he will be the Galen seen in Crusade.
The book benefits strongly from added length. Whereas previous Babylon 5 novels have averaged about 250 pages a book, this book is allowed 336 pages. This allows time for the characters and settings to develop at a more leisurely pace. Thanks to the added page count, we are allowed so much that makes the characters and settings seem more real: the conflict between the two farmers that demonstrates much of the planet Soom's culture and Elric's role on that planet; Galen's telling of the troubled woman's fortune; the characterization of Cadmus, the cowardly innkeeper who discovers his courage thanks to Isabelle's encouragement; or the absolutely priceless scene in which a Narn widower teaches Galen and Isabelle to make breen. If Cavelos had been forced to cut 80+ pages to make the length of this book correspond to previous Babylon 5 books, I suspect most or all of these bits would have been cut. Sometimes a book needs a little room to breathe.
Somehow, between the Crusade episodes The Well of Forever and The Path of Sorrows, I had the impression that Galen and Isabelle had been together for a bit longer than this book indicates. It just seems that the depth of Galen's feelings for Isabelle would be difficult to achieve in a little over a month. It works within this book, certainly; but if the relationship was as brief as this book portrays it, I have difficulty fully believing that Galen would still be as haunted by and faithful to Isabelle's memory more than ten years after the fact.
In addition, Cavelos re-uses elements of her previous book in this one. Galen's regret at the end of this novel is that he never told Isabelle that he loved her; Sheridan's regret in The Shadow Within is that he failed to tell Anna that he loved her at the end of their last conversation. This would be fine if Cavelos was drawing a deliberate parallel between Galen and Sheridan; but since Sheridan is barely even referenced in this novel, and the parallels Cavelos seems to be working toward are more between Galen and Morden, I suspect this is simply an accidental bit of recycling, one that stood out to me immediately.
Finally, not so much a "Bad" as a warning to anyone thinking of reading this book before watching the series. Short version: Don't. Long Version: the effect of the Techno-mages in The Geometry of Shadows is entirely dependent on their being mysterious. This book, by its very nature, undermines the mystery of the mages. It also reveals a lot of information about the Shadows and the Vorlons that is best withheld until the end of the Shadow War in Season Four. Don't get me wrong, it's a fine book - a strong contender for best Babylon 5 book to date... but it's also one only to be read after viewing the series in full.
Next Up: A new season, a new station captain. Points of Departure.