Oct. 27th, 2009

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Well, this was a nice change from the general low quality of the first three Dell B5 novels. I suspect Clarke’s Law was the first of the novels to be written by someone who had actually seen episodes of the series, and it references the existing continuity very well. The story is clearly set in the wake of the fall of the Narn homeworld, and there are references to plenty of other episodes from the end of season two – a brief appearance by Lyta Alexander, a mention of Dr. Franklin still being haunted by the recent death of the Markab, a Vir storyline that’s clearly intended to follow on directly from his attempt to apologise to G’Kar. It’s a welcome change from the earlier novels, which were all rather awkwardly placed in points in the show’s timeline the authors were clearly unfamiliar with.

To summarise the plot, leaving out a lot of subplots and minor details – A recently arrived alien delegate has murdered a human while in a maddened state. President Clark recently reintroduced the death penalty for murder, and, of course, doesn’t want to look weak on crime or to let an alien get away with murdering a human. The problem is the alien first wasn’t in her right mind when she killed the human, and has since suffered brain damage due to vacuum exposure, and cannot be considered responsible – indeed, her own people now consider her to be a new individual. Sheridan tries to prevent the execution while avoiding openly opposing Clark, eventually faking the alien’s execution. The apparent failure of the courts to prevent the execution of an innocent leads to a riot on the station between anti-death penalty and anti-alien mobs in which several people die, while the demonstration of the new tough on crime policy shores up Clark’s position on Earth.

There’s some interesting characterisation of Sheridan here. I suspect this is the first novel written by an author familiar with the character, so that on its own is nice. But specifically, I think the author is taking his cues largely from “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”, which portrays Sheridan as a far more ambiguous figure than most of the rest of the show – and to me, as a more interesting character. The Sheridan shown here is someone disgusted with his government, with his situation – and also a little disgusted with himself, with what he has to do while walking the tightrope of avoiding direct confrontation with Clark or the Shadows while still trying to work against them. There’s also the subtle theme that Sheridan could be susceptible to Shadow influence under the right circumstances, that he's someone who won’t necessarily do the honest thing first off, but will instead try to manipulate and use people to get what he thinks is right. It’s a very interesting take on the character, and I think it does work in the story, and I think the tension between Sheridan’s obvious frustrations with having to solve problems using the same covert manipulative style as Clarke and his apparent willingness to still grit his teeth and do such things, even knowing there could be unexpected fallout on innocents, is one of the real strengths of the novel.

There are weaknesses in the story, though, particularly in the portrayals of G’Kar and Londo. Londo is a little too much of a straight villain here, lacking any of the complexity or internal conflict that he has on the show. Here, we have Londo casually contacting Morden to have G’Kar killed as part of a complicated plan that is not only out of character, but doesn’t seem to make much sense on its own either. It’s nice to see an author that’s noticed that Londo has moved beyond the simple comic relief role of early season one by this point in the series, but here it’s taken too far to the other extreme.

G’Kar meanwhile… well, the alien delegation in this story? They’re from one of the worlds conquered by the Narn regime, who only managed to regain independence after the fall of the Narn homeworld, and they’re on the station looking for foreign help in repairing the damage caused by the Narn occupation. That’s all well and good, and it’s nice to see consequences of the collapse of Narn power. The problem is that the book also includes a flashback to the conquest of the alien homeworld – a conquest in which G’Kar led the Narn forces, destroying their capital from orbit before landing and blaming the devastation on the Centauri, tricking the aliens into allying with Narn, an alliance that would result in a generation of brutal enslavement. Now, sure, G’Kar’s probably got a few skeletons in his closet – but portraying him as someone guilty of crimes as great or greater than Londo’s and portraying the Narn Regime as literally just as bad as the Centauri… no, that just plain doesn’t work with the characters portrayed on screen.

That’s really the problem with the novel. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a real cut above what’s come before (damning with faint praise), well written with interesting ideas and some interesting examinations of aspects of the series and characters left untouched by the show itself. On the other hand, that makes the occasional missteps just that much more glaring. Not just when it comes to characterisation, either – the book’s generally very good with series continuity and bringing in minor characters, but then there’s a couple of inexplicable errors, like asserting that Lyta is deaf or that the Centauri Emperor is called “Narleeth Jarn”. Even more bizarre is a minor character introduced in the prologue who returns in an epilogue… and for some reason now has a completely different name. I’m beginning to think these books didn’t just not have a good editor – I’m thinking they didn’t have one at all.

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David Newgreen

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