"I think I'll stick my head in the station's fusion reactor. It would be quicker, and I suspect after a while, I might even come to enjoy it."
-Londo Mollari, identifying one of many activities that would be more fun than reading this book...
G'Kar is a prisoner on Centauri Prime. Daily, he is taken from his cell and tortured for the amusement of Emperor Cartagia. He is clinging to life, already greatly looking forward to fulfilling Londo's plan and assassinating the insane Emperor. This plan is threatened, however, by a most unlikely source. A team of Narn commandos has smuggled itself onto Centauri Prime. Their mission is to free G'Karů which even G'Kar understands cannot be allowed to happen. The freedom of Narn depends on him remaining a prisoner long enough to kill Cartagia!
Back on Babylon 5, Sheridan and his command staff decide that they, too, should send a mission to free G'Kar. It's not like they're doing anything else, what with the entire Vorlon-Shadow situation now destroying entire planets. Therefore, the station's second in command, the station's security chief, and the station's doctor are dispatched to Centauri Prime on a perilous secret mission to free G'Kar by posing as Centauri diamond merchants.
As for Sheridan, he and Delenn decide to get in on the action, too, by going undercover in Down Below to root out a ring of toy smugglers. After all, it might be "fun."
These are the people the fate of the galaxy depends on? Neroon is looking more and more sensible all the time...
At several points while reading Personal Agendas (about once every three chapters, which translates into about every nine pages or so), I would close the book, bury my head in my hands, and then pick up the book and smack the back of my head as hard as possible with it.
Being a very short, thin paperback, I wasn't able to hit very hard. I certainly could not hit myself nearly hard enough to render myself unconscious. It must be said, however, that I got infinitely more enjoyment from swatting myself with the book than I did from reading it. A few self-inflicted head blows every so often made for a nice break from the agony of the writing...
Still, roses can grow out of fertilizer, and I should point out what is good about the novel. There were a few isolated bits and pieces that I briefly enjoyed. G'Kar's fantasy about restaging William Tell with Emperor Cartagia, only replacing the apple with a raisin, was amusing.
Sarrantonio also does a fairly good job of capturing Cartagia. We are told of Cartagia suppressing yawns while torturing G'Kar. The Emperor seems always bored, always seeking some new sensation or distraction. "Bring me... amusement!" he cries early in the book, and this might well be the character's defining quote. Cartagia is like a child, playing with his power as a toddler might play with a tiny bauble. It's actually quite strong characterization.
Um... Well, I liked...
No, that's about it.
I'm not sure if it's good or bad that Sarrantonio did so well with Cartagia. On the one hand, it's nice that he got one character right. On the other hand, the accurate characterization of the Emperor raises false expectations as to how the author will characterize the rest of our regulars.
I will not say that the characterizations of the regulars are unrecognizable, because that would not be true. Sheridan, Londo, G'Kar... they are all highly recognizable - as their counterparts from Seasons One and Two. For a book set in early Season Four, however, these characterizations are woefully out of place.
Londo is completely his Season One self. Though lip service is briefly paid to the arc at the point at which the book is set, this only adds insult to injury. If Londo is desperately plotting to assassinate the Emperor, why do most of his scenes showcase him musing about women and liquor? It has been a very long time since Londo was solely obsessed with "wine, women, and song." At this point in the series, Londo is in the dragon's den, choosing every word and action with the utmost care in order to keep himself alive (since he could be killed at Cartagia's slightest whim) while plotting to find a way to save his people. This is not a Londo looking to get drunk and party. That Londo is long gone, and unless his last viewed episode of the series was Chrysalis, I have no idea how Sarrantonio could have failed to realize that.
Sheridan is back to being Captain Happy, taking a break from his responsibilities to "play spies" with Delenn in Down Below, investigating the smuggling of toys. If the book were set in early Season Two, this might be easier to believe. But the Sheridan who grinned incessantly, who swooned over real water in a shower and fresh oranges, who collected conspiracies like baseball cards, who explored Grey Sector because it was there, and who took an effervescent joy in any kind of discovery... Well, Captain Happy died long before Sheridan went to Z'ha'dum. It is quite certain that no trace of him returned. Truth be told, even in early Season Two when Sheridan was at his shallowest, I would have had a hard time believing that he would neglect his duties to "play spies." In the midst of the most dangerous time in the Shadow War, I find it absolutely impossible to believe.
Meanwhile, Ivanova has her head shaved, and we are explicitly told it will take months for her hair to grow back (and yet she has a full head of hair in the very next televised episode. Funny, that...) Garibaldi gets an early reunion with G'Kar that completely undermines the emotion of their televised reunion a few episodes from now. And, of course, in the midst of scary behavior by the Vorlons and a need to figure out a way to stop both Vorlons and Shadows, there is no reason at all why the station's Doctor, second-in-command, and Security Chief shouldn't go off on a side-trip to Centauri Prime. It's not like they're needed on Babylon 5 for anything, now, is there?
Garibaldi, every Dell writer's favorite character, is even more out-of-place for Season Four than the others are. There is no hint given that he has very recently been through a traumatic experience. There is absolutely no trace of the paranoia that we saw a hint of in the last episode. Lorien, whose mere presence at Sheridan's side as the captain's "new best friend" set Garibaldi to asking some blunt (though I emphasize, reasonable) questions, suddenly doesn't even merit a mention.
Instead, the Garibaldi we are presented with is quipping non-stop about James Bond. He makes constant wisecracks to get on Susan's nerves, and basically acts like a goofball. Actually, the characterization would not be too far off, if only Sarrantonio had named him "Marcus." Given the nature of the undercover mission, it would also be more in character for Marcus to be heading the mission than for Garibaldi to be doing so. But then, as I mentioned, Garibaldi has been the Dell series' favorite character. He's been the lead or co-lead of six of the nine Dell books, and has been the only character to be featured in every one of the Dell books. For too many of the writers, he's been a male version of a fanfiction Mary Sue. It's a good thing I like Jerry Doyle's television Garibaldi so much, because the Garibaldi of the Dell books is a character I have genuinely come to hate.
In my last review, of the episode The Summoning, I took care to praise the scene where Emperor Cartagia had one of his torturers (sorry, "pain technicians") use an electro-whip on G'Kar to encourage the Narn to scream. That scene was a masterpiece, a vivid example of how brilliantly theatrical lighting, quick editing, and fine acting can create a scene of indelible violence without actually showing anything. That which is not seen becomes far more effective, because the worst horrors exist in the imagination.
Al Sarrantonio was obviously also impressed by the electro-whip scene, as he tries to recreate it a couple of times here. However, he learned the wrong lessons. In the episode, the actual physical violence was largely left to take place in our minds; all we actually saw were the faces of G'Kar and those watching him. Sarrantonio does not leave the violence in our imaginations. Instead, he tries to top it by having G'Kar tortured more and more vigorously throughout. The first two chapters center on a scene where G'Kar is again being whipped, this time with a conventional whip. Later, we see boiling "blue and viscous" fluid poured out onto G'Kar's head. Later still, an increasingly hot fire is applied to the soles of G'Kar's feet, and we are told that "he could smell himself cooking."
In short, subtlety is forgotten. Nothing is left to the reader's imagination. While these scenes are sickening, they are not particularly effective... a problem exacerbated by Sarrantonio's insistence on playing almost every other scene in the book for laughs. To cut from G'Kar being cooked alive to Londo grousing about being denied a pillow or Vir desperately plotting to avoid an engagement would leave a bad taste in my mouth even if the humor was actually funny (which, let me stress, it isn't).
The book is also afflicted with a severe case of "idiot plotting." Take the scenes involving the Narn commandos on Centauri Prime. This part of the novel would have us believe that everyone on Centauri Prime is a blind imbecile... simply because the story couldn't possibly work if there was a single competent Centauri on the planet.
These five Narn warriors effortlessly evade the Centauri as they smuggle themselves onto the planet, walk across the capital city to the mines, and travel back and forth between tunnels and the palace seemingly at will. When they do come into conflict with any Centauri, the Narn defeat them without breaking a sweat. If the Centauri were really this inept, then they wouldn't have defeated the Narn in the first place, even with the help of the Shadows. Hell, if they were this inept, I suspect Mr. Morden would have told Londo to forget the deal; the Shadows would have been better off allying themselves with the Markhab (and I mean post-Confessions & Lamentations) than with the cartoonish Centauri portrayed here.
Later, the Narn commandos kidnap Londo and threaten to kill him unless G'Kar is brought to them in exchange. By this point - oh, and spoiler alert for anyone who actually cares - Garibaldi, Stephen, and Susan have successfully (and far too easily) rescued G'Kar, who has also explained to them some of the reasons why he must be returned to his imprisonment. Sarrantonio makes it clear that G'Kar is aware of Londo's predicament, and that G'Kar knows it is essential that Londo be freed so that he, in turn, can free Narn.
So of course, G'Kar being as intelligent as he is, he goes to find the Narn commandos, explain the situation to them, and secure Londo's release... Oh wait, no. He doesn't. He goes back to Cartagia - even though waiting one more day to free Londo first would hardly jeopardize his long-term plan - and leaves Susan, Garibaldi, and Stephen (strangers to the Narn commandos, and strangers who have been made up to look like Centauri) to secure Londo's release without him. Why? Well, I suppose it's possible that Cartagia threw in a free lobotomy with all that torture. But the real reason is because if G'Kar acted intelligently here, the novel's climax would lack dramatic tension.
(pauses to laugh hysterically at the thought of dramatic tension existing anywhere within this novel...)
Despite the short page count and shorter chapters, the book is also horribly padded. Sarrantonio not only "tells without showing," he repeats himself. A lot. The Narn arrive on the planet and discuss their mission. They are to free G'Kar, and not draw attention to themselves by killing any Centauri unnecessarily. They all regret that they cannot make the streets run red with Centauri blood. Two chapters later, they are in the tunnels. The Narn leader reminds the other commandos that they are not to kill Centauri unnecessarily, lest they jeopardize their mission; however, at a future date, they will make the tunnels run red with Centauri blood. A few chapters later, they go to the palace for their first attempt to rescue G'Kar. Again, they talk about how much they wish they could kill Centauri, but agree that they must complete their mission and not draw attention to themselves. By only 55 pages into the book, Mr. Sarrantonio has managed to tell us the same information three times... sometimes using the exact same words!
The writing is generally awful, seemingly pitched to about a third grade level (my apologies for that insult to the intelligence of third graders everywhere, incidentally). But the worst part of the novel is that it is a book whose running plots - every one of them - are specifically designed to reset themselves by the end. Nothing can come of any of the plotlines, so they have to be crafted in such a way that they tie themselves off with no effects or consequences for any of the regulars. This makes Personal Agendas worse than being merely a bad book; it makes it a pointless book.
I suppose I could keep ranting, but I find myself actively suppressing the urge to use profanity. Suffice it to say, this is not only the worst Babylon 5 novel; it is one of the worst novels I have ever read from cover to cover.
As for Mr. Sarrantonio? He should have computer, keyboard, pen, paper, cell phone - basically, anything he might remotely use to create so much as a single word of writing - confiscated immediately. In his hands, pen and paper become as much a torture device for the reader as Cartagia's electro-whip is for G'Kar.
. Everyone associated with this should be deeply ashamed.