Jeanne Cavelos' Techno-Mage trilogy continues with a novel that combines an entirely new plotline with a point-of-view reversal of the episode Geometry of Shadows. Summoning Light is a highly readable book. But it is far more seriously flawed than its predecessor, with the most serious flaws occurring in Cavelos' handling of the televised characters.
As the mages gather to move to their hiding place, they make a troubling discovery: the Shadows know of their plans. The traitorous Elizar has butchered the mages' leader and sent his body to the planet where the mages are making their preparations.
This calls for a change of plans. The mages split into three groups. One group goes ahead to the hiding place, to prepare. Another group, led by Elric, travels to Babylon 5 to prepare a deception for the Shadows - a deception involving Babylon 5's new C. O., John Sheridan, and the Centauri ambassador, Londo Mollari.
The final group is a group of exactly two. Galen, entrusted with Isabelle's spell to translate the Shadows' language, is sent with the austere Blaylock to the planet Thenokh, a world on the Rim on which the Shadows' servants are gathering. Their mission is to gather intelligence for the mages. But Galen has his own agenda, a determination to avenge the death of his beloved with the blood of her murderer.
Before the mission is through, Galen's agenda and a shocking revelation about the origin of the mages' power will force the young mage into a choice: between his thirst for destruction, and his desire to save the mages.
Galen's characterization continues to convince, seeming consistent both with the enigmatic and somewhat tortured man glimpsed in Crusade and the callow but intelligent youth Cavelos portrayed in Casting Shadows. Here, his emotional wounds are still very fresh. Galen is an emotional adolescent who has just received a horrific shock to his young system. Like any teenager, he lashes out: an ill-judged outburst at his father-figure, Elric, is the most notable sign of him externally lashing out. But knowing and fearing his own power, he focuses most of his hatred inward. Chapter Five sees Galen scouring himself with fire, using the pain to still his grief and anger. Cavelos' description of the process, from Galen's viewpoint, eerily parallels the kind of self-mutilation ("cutting") that has become far too common among modern teens.
Cavelos' new plotline, which sees Galen working with the austere Blaylock, is easily the stronger of the novel's two stories. Here, Galen inherits a second father-figure - and as he sought in Casting Shadows to emulate Elric, much of this novel sees him attempting to emulate Blaylock. The self-scouring is the most notable way in which this is done. But the interactions between Blaylock and Galen, in which Blaylock tests Galen's perceptions of others and criticizes him harshly, are equally notable. Elric is the friendly father figure, Blaylock the more removed and hard-to-please one. To Cavelos' credit, this fits well with the Galen we finally see in Crusade; Crusade's Galen is often cold like Blaylock, and yet has undercurrents of warmth and humor like Elric.
Adding some texture are the brief portrayals of another type of mage. On the opposite side of the spectrum from Galen and Blaylock we see mages such as Alwyn, Federico, and Carvin - extroverted and socially well-adjusted people who demonstrate that not all mages are emotionally crippled by their powers. Despite Blaylock and Galen's eagerness to blame the tech for the mages' temperament, these mages seem to indicate another possibility. Perhaps it is not the tech that makes the mages emotionally unstable; perhaps it is the emotionally unstable who are drawn to becoming mages in the first place. Just a bit of random speculation that occurred to me while reading.
Also of note is the final chapter, which effectively acts as set-up to Galen's role in the Crusade spinoff series. A key moment in the lives of both Galen and Earth Alliance Ensign Matthew Gideon is put into emotional context for Galen. We understand why the other mage ships ignored Gideon; we understand why Galen did not ignore him. And here, we begin to understand what Straczynski's brutally curtailed spinoff never got the chance to explore: exactly what it is that binds these two men together. For Galen, at his lowest emotional and spiritual ebb, Matthew Gideon's life represented the tiniest spark of good that he was still able to see in himself. A nicely-executed scene, and a worthy conclusion for this book.
In my review of Casting Shadows, I noted that Cavelos' writing had greatly improved in the time between The Shadow Within and that book. Here, I'm afraid her writing takes an enormous step backward. Several passages are repetitive, particularly the bits from Anna's viewpoint. The Anna scenes in Casting Shadows were few and brief, and did not bother me; here, her scenes are much more prevalent... and every one of Anna's scenes is more or less a rewrite of all the others. "The machine is everything. The machine is perfect. The machine is beautiful." Etc., ad nauseum. I actively read every word of Casting Shadows; by contrast, I did a lot of skimming in Summoning Light.
Cavelos also demonstrates what I had previously suspected: she writes much better for her own characters (or at the very least, for those characters who the series left with blanks to be filled) than she does for the series' regulars. She falls into her occasional habit of "telling without showing," spending several paragraphs all but eulogizing Sheridan as a "remarkable man." All very well and good, except that this misses a large part of the point behind Sheridan's introduction; Sheridan was created to specifically NOT be remarkable at the start of his journey. This is a Sheridan who is largely untested, and who is intended to seem just a bit bland and superficial. His experiences over the next few seasons are meant to make him remarkable - but he isn't meant to be anything more than a generally good man at this point. Telling us that he is "remarkable" now actively undermines the journey ahead of him (and doesn't fit with his actions to date, which frankly haven't seemed particularly remarkable).
Her handling of Londo is even worse. This is not the multi-faceted, tragic Londo Mollari of the series, but a petty caricature. To an extent, this can be excused as simply Elric's view of Londo. But in the interactions between Londo and Carvin, it is my opinion that Cavelos gets Londo dead wrong. The real Londo simply would not be so spiteful about losing to Carvin in the casino as he is at the end of Chapter 13. Nor would the real Londo ever allow Carvin to board the Ondavi when he had a good idea that Bad Things would happen to those aboard.
Indeed, I have difficulty believing that Londo would willingly entrust this situation to Morden; as early as Chrysalis, Londo has shown a sensibly wary attitude toward Morden's "help." Nor do I believe that Morden and his associates would want to use Londo as they use him here. The Shadows' deceptions in this novel cost Londo personal pride and frustration. The inevitable result would be to cause Londo to distrust Morden, and to make Londo reluctant to call in Morden's aid... and, as Coming of the Shadows will soon prove, this simply is not the case at this point in the series. If the Shadows had failed Londo in a trivial personal matter here, it is unlikely that he would have called upon them for a major situation in 6 episodes' time.
Though presenting the flip-side of Geometry of Shadows is an interesting idea, Cavelos' attempts to fit the events of that fairly lightweight episode in with her own trilogy do result in a few problems. Most notable of these is Cavelos' creation of what amounts to an entirely new and contradictory ending to The Geometry of Shadows. I am referring, of course, to the apparent destruction of the mage ship "in between scenes."
The destruction of the ship was a plot necessity, certainly. But there was a very easy way to avoid the contradiction between novel and episode. Cavelos could simply have had the ship go through the jumpgate (as seen on TV); then the ship could have detonated in hyperspace. This would have had the same effect in the plot, and would only really call for the alteration of a few paragraphs.
As it stands, we are asked to believe that between scenes, a fatal transport ship "accident" occurs - with heavy loss of life - and that Sheridan is still in a wistful, smiling mood afterwards. It just doesn't fit with Sheridan's character, or with the televised episode. Very clumsy of Cavelos to write it this way; even clumsier of her editors to allow through so easily-fixed a continuity error.
I wanted to rate it higher for the very effective scenes with Galen and Blaylock and Thenokh. But I'm afraid the clumsy handling of the Babylon 5 storyline just draws my grade for the book far downward, in my view.