Every installment I have reviewed so far has been concerned with portraying the history and backstory of the Babylon 5 universe. The telefilm In the Beginning details the history of the Earth/Minbari War, which engulfed most of the series' major characters and led directly to the creation of the Babylon 5 station. Dark Genesis showed the discovery of human telepaths, and the creation of the Psi Corps to both protect and control those telepaths. Deadly Relations further showed the gulf of distrust between telepaths and mundanes, as well as providing a "biography" of a man who will become a key character.
All very interesting, all of it contributing to making the universe of Babylon 5 a cohesive and convincing one. Certainly, having read these books will affect how I view the characters and conflicts in the series to come.
But Jeanne Cavelos' The Shadow Within marks a turning point in my run of the series. Because this book marks the point at which "history" ends, and the actual story begins. And while not entirely flawless, it does so while providing a compelling and absorbing read, one which will enhance my viewing of the episodes to come.
The central narrative of The Shadow Within is that of IPX archaeologist Anna Sheridan's ill-fated expedition to "Alpha Omega 3," better known to Babylon 5 viewers as Z'ha'dum. It's an expedition that seems doomed from the start. Anna's friend and mentor is hiding some deadly truths from her; a Psi Corps plant on board (Donne, a character we briefly met in Deadly Relations) has an agenda of her own; and Mr. Morden, the gifted linguist attached to the mission at the insistence of Earthforce, has knowledge of the mission that he's not sharing, as well.
This book provides a sterling example of the role these "tie-in novels" can play in strengthening the overall arc. Babylon 5 may have been plotted out in advance like a novel; but it was a television series, dependent on actors remaining available and staying the course for the full 5 years of the series' run. There were at least three major cases of cast turnover that affected the production. Inevitably, these turnovers left some loose threads dangling from the tapestry. The Shadow Within helps to weave some of these loose threads back into place in the overall picture.
The most visible changeover was, of course, the Sinclair/Sheridan one. I'll make no bones about my preference for Sinclair - with The Gathering and Season One coming up next, that preference will doubtless become clear in my forthcoming reviews.
But my major issue with the switch in leads during my first viewing had less to do with Sinclair or Sheridan than with the fates of their loved ones. It is easy to guess that had Sinclair remained with the show, Catherine would have been the one "taken" by the Shadows during Season Two in order to tie Sinclair to the Shadow War. Further, it was obvious to me that Catherine's fate would have carried far more dramatic weight than Anna's. Catherine was a character we had gotten to know and like; Anna, by contrast, was a cipher. We never met the "real Anna," so the only emotional weight her fate carried was in how it affected Sheridan.
In The Shadow Within, we get to know Anna Sheridan very well. She's an easy character to like: intelligent, dedicated to her work, and compassionate; but also a little rash, a little naive, and a touch impatient at times. Cavelos' book makes Anna live on the page for 253 pages. As her inevitable fate closes in around her, we feel a mounting horror at the fact that, for her, there truly is no chance of escape.
We also get to know Mr. Morden before he sacrifices his humanity. We learn just what there is that the Shadows could offer Morden that made him willing to trade his soul. It's an answer that is surprising, and yet somehow fits with the series - as well as tying into a prominent piece of Morden's costume. A joy of the novel is that this early version of Morden is far from the evil man we will meet later; Morden is secretive, and not entirely trustworthy, but he is far from despicable. As with Bester, Morden has a journey that takes him from man to monster. Though Morden is not the central figure of this novel, his journey gets enough focus for the loss of his soul to be every bit as tragic as the loss of Bester's in Deadly Relations.
In peripheral subplots, we also tie Sheridan into the beginning of the story of the Babylon 5 station, even more explicitly than was done by In the Beginning. Sheridan, newly appointed to the Agamemnon, is sent on a mission to stop a terrorist plot to destroy the newly-operational space station on the day of its dedication ceremony. Sinclair also makes an appearance, as does Security Chief Garibaldi (chronologically, Garibaldi's first appearance), both of them already harried by the endless flurry of crises surrounding the newborn station.
In bringing all these characters together in one novel, and placing the story in the context of Babylon 5's dedication, the novel does its part to smooth away some of the rougher edges of the series. On this run, Sheridan will no longer seem like a "late-in-the-day replacement," because this book and In the Beginning have already set him up as a central figure in the arc, thus shoring up one of the weaker aspects of the original series.
The central story of Anna's ill-fated expedition is extremely effective. The story is intriguing for the first half of the novel, as it becomes apparent that not everyone on Anna's team can be trusted. Then a sense of dread gradually rises to take over the second half as events move toward their inevitable and horrifying conclusion. The subplot involving John Sheridan and his mission is also generally well-executed (though no prizes for guessing the identity of the saboteur on John's crew), and does allow for a small triumphant beat in an ending otherwise shrouded in darkness.
Unfortunately, the third subplot, involving Jeffrey Sinclair's efforts to get his station ready for the dedication ceremony, is alternately underdeveloped, irrelevant, or both. Sinclair's scenes feel very much tacked onto the rest of the book. He apparently has Garibaldi hunting for a drug dealer on the eve of the dedication ceremony... but this hunt is both conducted and resolved off-stage, and so lacks any sense of real conflict.
Those Sinclair scenes that do tie into the main story - with Ambassador Delenn requesting Sinclair to have the Icarus recalled - feel similarly irrelevant. If this were a larger part of the book, it could create some suspense as Sinclair desperately tries to have the ship recalled and is powerless to do so. But Sinclair's efforts ultimately consist of the equivalent of two phone calls, and Sinclair is (uncharacteristically) quick to back off rather than fight the issue. As a result, even these scenes feel largely pointless to the book. Despite my liking for the character of Sinclair, this book either needs to do something with him or remove his scenes altogether. As it currently stands, this would be a stronger book without him.
Finally, though Cavelos' character writing is generally strong, she oversells the Anna/John relationship early in the book. We do not require endless paragraphs telling us how much they "twuwy wuv" each other. It is enough to describe their relationship and show us their conversations. Telling us that Anna "had truly found the love they talked about in poems" and that they never end a conversation without saying "I love you" and meaning it... this constitutes overselling. It's also not entirely plausible, in the latter case: no couple that is together for years always puts full emotion and weight into saying "I love you." There is a point in a relationship where the words will, at least some of the time, be said automatically and without thinking about them. It's a minor issue, but I found it annoying nonetheless. If nothing else, it violates that basic writer's caveat: "Show, Don't Tell."
A very good book, superb when dealing with its central storyline, this was probably one rewrite away from being a great book.
Next Up: The Gathering. Babylon 5 on television... what a concept!