Scanning the Babylon 5 newsgroups, I have noticed that this particular novel comes under a lot of fire within B5 fandom. It seems to divide its readers into two camps - those who find it exceptional, and those who find it unreadable - with little middle ground.
Well, with a few distinct reservations, I find myself falling into the first camp. In my opinion, writer Jim Mortimore has delivered the best of the Dell Babylon 5 series I have read. And yes, I include The Shadow Within in that assessment.
The end of the Narn/Centauri War has freed the Tuchanq, an alien race that had long been subjugated by the Narn. However, their world has been devastated by the Narn occupation, leaving them unable to support their own people. In desperation, the Tuchanq go to Babylon 5 to seek aid from one of the governments there, arranging meetings with the humans, the Minbari, and the Centauri.
It isn't long before an incident between the Tuchanq and the station's Narn population forces Commander Ivanova to render both sides unconscious. A simple and harmless solution... until the leader of the Tuchanq informs Susan that their people never sleep. Their consciousness and sanity is dependent on the continuity of their "Song of Being," and if that Song - their consciousness - is ever interrupted, they will be rendered insane.
Fortunately, this is easily solved for most of the affected Tuchanq. However, one of them, a young female known as D'arc, escapes into the bowels of the station. In her insanity, D'arc kills a businessman... prompting a major diplomatic incident. President Clark has pushed a new law through the Senate, reinstating the death penalty as a punishment for murder. Sheridan is ordered to try D'arc, and to execute her. Given that this order is completely legal under the new law, Sheridan can see no way out - a fact that puts him at odds with both the Tuchanq delegation and Dr. Franklin.
Meanwhile, Londo takes advantage of the Tuchanq's hatred of the Narn to stage an attempt on the life of G'Kar. But when G'Kar survives and traces this attempt back to its source, it is Londo who lies bleeding in Medlab, leaving Vir with a difficult decision...
I have now reviewed several of the Dell Babylon 5 novel series. Most of the books in the series have been superficially enjoyable; Blood Oath even managed to be a fairly solid piece of fiction in its own right. However, all the books have been marked by stories that were lightweight, holding few implications for the characters and casting no shadow on the rest of the series. Most of these books, with a few character names and descriptions altered, could just as easily have been pitched as Star Trek books.
Clark's Law is very different. Writer Jim Mortimore has mined the series' continuity far more deeply than the other Dell writers have done, and his story is considerably more ambitious than the stories told in the earlier novels. Mortimore seems determined to shape his book around the series' grand arc - even as that arc remained incomplete - and to flesh out some of the characters and their motivations.
Along the way, we get more references to past episodes than in any other Babylon 5 novel. Lyta's scanning of Kosh in The Gathering is mentioned; the events of Divided Loyalties and The Long Twilight Struggle form the basis for key plot points; the entire plot is founded on a change in the law that was established in The Quality of Mercy; N'Grath, the underworld leader of Down Below, pops up for a brief but critical scene; And Now for a Word and In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum get mentions; G'Kar recalls his meeting with Morden from Signs & Portents; and Vir's entire subplot is crafted as a follow-up to his scene with G'Kar in Comes the Inquisitor. There is no question that Mortimore did some considerable research into the series' continuity prior to writing this. He does get some details wrong (more on that later), but for the most part he uses the events of prior episodes to good effect.
One of the book's best accomplishments is in how extremely well it fits into the end of Season Two. The Babylon 5 universe has become very dark at this point in the series, and this is reflected in the book. Stephen is battling his growing addiction to stims, and is becoming aware that he might just be developing a problem, even as the demands of his work seem to require their continued use. Sheridan is trapped in a situation he detests, but the demands of duty are very clear; he can find no way out of his orders. Events seem to lie just just outside the characters' ability to control or contain them, and the entire timbre of the piece seems to be tilting toward the Apocalyptic.
One area where previous Dell novels have been consistently poor is in their portrayal of Sheridan (due mainly to the authors' lack of familiarity with the character, I'm sure; the first two books, at least, were started by their respective writers before the cast changeover had even been announced). Voices showed a humorless martinet; Accusations portrayed a moral weakling; Blood Oath avoided the issue altogether by keeping him mostly off-stage. Betrayals did a bit better by him, rendering a Sheridan who was at least recognizable as the character from the television series. Even there, however, he was portrayed in fairly shallow broad strokes.
I mention this because, in Clark's Law, Mortimer positively nails Sheridan. We see more facets of the character than I have sometimes believed existed, but I can find examples from the television series to support all of them. He has a strong sense of moral right and wrong within himself, and is willing to manipulate others to achieve his ends. He reacts both rigidly and irritably when cornered, and is capable of being the tiniest bit unlikable when questioned. He feels desperation, weariness, and disgust at his situation, at his government, even at himself... which is exactly what he should be feeling at the tail end of Season Two. In this novel, for the first time since his introduction, John Sheridan is every bit as complex and complete a character as his predecessor.
In my review of Hunter, Prey, I noted the scene in which Sheridan demanded of Kosh, "What do you want?" Kosh sharply ordered Sheridan never to ask that question. The choice of question on Sheridan's part, coupled with Kosh's vehemence, led me to speculate about Sheridan's vulnerability to the Shadows' influence. Mortimore seems to share that speculation. Several scenes couple Sheridan with Shadows. Sheridan is paranoid that the Shadows - which, from In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum, he knows are invisible - are everywhere he goes. Descriptions of Sheridan are frequently evocative of shadows in general. Near the end of the novel, Ambassador Kosh tells Sheridan that he is "touched by Shadows" ...and certainly, many of his manipulations don't seem entirely removed from the tactics of the Shadows. Sheridan comes across as a man standing on a tightrope, balanced between Light and Darkness - a precarious position, to say the least.
Sheridan is not the only regular well-characterized. Mortimore also gives a fair slice of the action to Dr. Franklin (a character who has been often ignored by the book writers), and he largely captures him, too. Mortimore's Stephen is as driven as the television version, and as stubborn. Just as Sheridan firmly believes in his own view of right and wrong, so does Stephen - and Stephen is even more unbending. The book may overplay his growing stim addiction, but at least Mortimore stays consistent with the television Stephen, a man whose refusal to bend to anyone - even to the need for sleep - is driving him to the point where he must inevitably break.
Stephen is also at the center of the single best-written set piece yet presented by the book series (either Dell or Del Rey). The sequence in which Franklin and his medical staff have to race the clock in performing the amputation of a trapped dock worker's leg, all in zero gravity, is a stunning piece of writing. The description of the blood from the man's wound floating up from the site, Franklin's assessment of the wound, and the descriptions of the careful procedures used to perform the operation while maintaining the integrity of the man's suit (which, if breached, will cause death by decompression) give proceedings a measure of reality. The dangers involved to the doctors as well as their patient make it an extremely suspenseful scene, as well.
The writing in general is a stark contrast with the largely undistinguished work that has characterized much of the book series. Mortimore has put real effort into his descriptions, and has given some thought to the realities that would come with living on a space station. The differing rotation of the alien sector is described, along with how that sector's rotation provides different gravity. There are scenes that firmly remind the reader of the fact that the differing atmospheres would be lethal if a suit or breather was breached. Even the implications of Earth-normal gravity to Mars-born humans are explored through the character of Jacintha Grond, the widow of the murdered man. Her discomfort at the Earth-normal gravity, which is stronger than Mars, is frequently mentioned - and is a facet of the Babylon 5 universe that even the television series has consistently overlooked (given that Sinclair was identified as Mars-born, perhaps this also provides an additional explanation, beyond his war scars, for his extremely stiff bearing).
I also can't help but note the writing of the scene in which Jacintha Grond observes the procession surrounding D'arc's execution. As the procession devolves into chaos, the smooth lines of Mortimore's text become broken. Paragraphs end in mid-sentence, with the sentence continued on the next line, in the next paragraph. The broken lines, the repetition of phrases, the emphasis on mood over action, resembles poetry more than prose at this point. This style won't appeal to all readers, but it's certainly more ambitious than anything I have seen in a Babylon 5 novel prior to this point.
We even see a couple of scenes directly from President Clark's point of view, in the prologue and epilogue. In the process, Clark is made both more human and more frightening. I've always found that the scariest villains are those who believe they are morally right. Here, we see that Clark believes he is shaping the future for all humanity. He believes he is "the last, best hope for Earth," and never doubts that the things he does are necessary, even moral. "Peace through strength" is his motto, we are told.
We are shown Clark using his situation as a gamble to cement his popularity. In the face of a renewed challenge by former Presidential candidate Marie Crane, Clark steps down, awaiting a vote of confidence from the Senate before resuming the Presidency. This holds a parallel with a real figure from history, another man who committed atrocities in the name of uniting his people: Ivan the Terrible, the Russian Czar who in a bold tactical move stepped down from the throne and would not return until the people demanded it of him - the result of which made him more powerful than ever before.
The ending leaves every major character losing in some way. Sheridan is brought face to face with his own dark side, and left to wonder if he truly can consider himself a good man. Garibaldi is left owing a debt to Morden (another fascinating development which I just haven't found space to mention in this review, but which somehow felt exactly right). Vir loses another piece of his innocence. The only ones who end up winning are those ever-present Shadows. As Sheridan reflects in his final scene in the novel, ruminating on the way his life has come to be marked by weariness, pain, and fear:
Always with Shadows."
Above, I praised the ambition of Mortimore's writing style. It must be noted, though, that his reach sometimes exceeds his grasp. Mortimore's use of stylistic devices intermittently draws too much attention to itself. Sheridan's first scene repeats Kosh's warning, "If you go to Z'ha'dum, you will die," so many times in the space of a few pages that it becomes unintentionally comical. Worse, the very next chapter starts off with a similar device, this one marked by repetition of variations of "The Corps is your friend. Trust the Corps." It doesn't make the best first impression on the reader.
Further, though Mortimore's use of continuity is responsible for many of the book's best aspects, some of it is just plain sloppy. The most blatant example is his assertion that Lyta Alexander is deaf. Now, don't get me wrong; I think the idea of a deaf telepath using her abilities to "hear" is an interesting one. But if Mortimore wanted to explore that idea, he should have introduced a telepath character of his own, rather than using Lyta.
There are other examples. Near the end of the novel, Mortimore attributes a quote to the Centauri Emperor... and gets the name wrong! By this point in the series, we already know that the new Emperor is Cartagia. So I paused to blink a few times when I read that now the Emperor's name is apparently "Narleeth Jarn." It' s even funnier to reflect that Mortimore's name for the Emperor sounds more like a Narn name than a Centauri one.
Other continuity issues can be laid more at the feet of Dell's editorial staff than at Mortimore's feet. For example, Mortimore had no way of knowing at the time of writing this book that John Vornholt's Blood Oath would establish G'Kar's wife as "Da'Kal," so Mortimore is blameless in naming the same character "J'Ntiel." However, surely Dell's editors should have caught such a simple and obvious discontinuity? This kind of in-house sloppiness is another sign, I suspect, of why the Dell range is poorly regarded. Meanwhile, both Mortimore and Dell share the blame for a minor but glaring continuity point. A character is introduced in the book's prologue, then brought back on-stage for the epilogue. Somewhere between beginning and end, however, his name changes. Oops!
Finally, having noted how many characters Mortimore gets right, I have to note one that he gets wrong: Londo. Londo is portrayed too simplistically; he's too much the villain, with few of his other aspects even touched upon. The relationship between Londo and Vir is particularly off-kilter. When Vir discovers Londo bleeding in his quarters, Mortimore has Vir briefly consider letting him die. This would never happen. It overlooks Vir's defining trait: his loyalty. Vir believes in Londo even when Londo no longer believes in himself. The real Vir would do anything short of dealing with Mr. Morden himself to save Londo's life. Only after this point, when Vir begins to desperately search for help for the dying Ambassador, does the character relationship seem "right" again.
The strongest of the Dell Babylon 5 books thus far, this would rate a "9" if only someone had corrected those continuity issues I mentioned. I'm honestly a little surprised; some of the reviews I had read of this had me positively dreading it.
Next Up: Another season ends, with The Fall of Night.