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Gideon: "I thought you said you didn't hold grudges!"
Galen: "I don't. I have no surviving enemies."

--"Racing the Night," Babylon 5: Crusade

The short-lived TV series Crusade, set in the Babylon 5 universe created by J. Michael Straczinsky (affectionately referred to by his initials, JMS), featured a crew of colorful characters, all of whom seemed to have something to hide. However, the itinerant technomage, Galen, stood out among them because he made no effort to hide the fact that he had something to hide. It is a curious contradiction that a magician, while he may never reveal his tricks, can't show that he is a magician without revealing that he has tricks. In order to effectively mystify onlookers, he must not only perform feats that defy explanation, he must make his persona as enigmatic as any of his deeds. On TV, this means he gets a lot of the best lines. In a novel, where readers can be given direct access to a character's thoughts, following the paths from motivation to action can provide quite a few suspenseful twists, as the plot unfolds like a magic trick.

Casting Shadows cover

In the trilogy, "The Passing of the Techno-Mages" (consisting of Casting Shadows, Summoning Light, and Invoking Darkness, the final volume of which will be available soon), all the major characters are mages. Though they appeared only briefly in the original series, and were mainly exposed through the one character in Crusade, the technomages were a hit with fans. JMS finally got around to writing up some background for them, and dropped his notes into the capable hands of Jeanne Cavelos. The layers of secrets and hidden agendas that have sprung forth from her imagination are as complicated as any on the show, but remain independent of their roots. As a B5 fan myself, I'm tempted to quip that no true SF fan could avoid being at least passingly familiar with the show that reinvented TV series screenwriting. I derived a good deal of enjoyment from the fact that these novels work effectively with the characters and plot threads from the show. That said, this trilogy is well-crafted in its own right, and could be enjoyed without any knowledge of B5 or Crusade.

The novels revolve around Galen, who is just completing his apprenticeship as the story begins. His master and mentor is Elric (who appeared in the B5 episode "The Geometry of Shadows"), a member of the ruling Circle. Galen came to live and train with Elric when he was quite young, after he was orphaned. His parents, both mages, and close friends of Elric, were, as a married couple within the order, regarded as unusual.

His training includes traditional techniques of "magic" (sleight of hand, anticipating and using an audience's expectations), and discipline in adhering to the mages' Code (which praises pursuit of knowledge, solidarity, and service over personal gain). He also has learned to interact with the symbiotic "tech," the source of the mages' extraordinary abilities. The tech, as it's described, sounds something like a combination of a jellyfish, a circuit board, and God -- it evidently taps into some kind of underlying energy of space-time, since it can generate extraordinary effects with no apparent power source. Its inexhaustibility poses some hazards; a mage's whims affect reality, and if he is too tired or undisciplined to keep his power under control, he can cause a great deal of damage without meaning to. (This danger was, of course, explored in the classic movie The Forbidden Planet.)

The tech originates with a race called the Taratimude, which became extinct shortly after the first Shadow War. In their waning days, led by the wise and powerful Wierden, they passed as much of their knowledge as they could to the younger races. Wierden created the Code in the hope that with proper discipline and solidarity, the mages could overcome the rather chaotic effects of the tech and recover the knowledge lost in her civilization's collapse.

Over their history, the mages have had varying degrees of success in fulfilling Wierden's vision. In Elric and Galen's time, a charismatic and benevolent leader, Kell, has been successful in unifying the order in their support of the Code. Still, mages are eccentric, egotistical, and impulsive. Although the occasion of Galen's promotion from apprentice to full mage is the periodic convocation, at which the entire order gathers, the mages usually spend little time in groups. Galen and Elric have often gone for months, even years at a time without seeing any of their brethren. Young mages roam the galaxy as solitary nomads, and older, more accomplished ones choose a planet and claim them as their personal domains, creating a "place of power" that connects them to, and to a degree lets them control, the natural processes -- weather, ecology, even plate tectonics -- of an entire world. Just how much control they can exert is unclear, as is the extent of the power they might have in other endeavors. Some of the mages suspect that in the distant past, before the fall of the Taratimude and the institution of Wierden's Code, the powers of the tech were tapped to far greater effect.

It is apparent from the beginning of the series that the Shadows and Vorlons, the archons of chaos and order, know that the mages can wield considerable power, and as they prepare for a new round in their ancient conflict, the Shadows send their representative Mr. Morden to attempt to recruit the mages, while Kosh observes on behalf of the Vorlons, who have considered eradicating the mages completely, and hopes that they will choose the order of the Code over the chaos of the tech's raw power. (Note for the uninitiated: this name dropping is not random; both these characters appeared frequently on Babylon 5.)

Is your head spinning yet? That's all just background! The real story is set in motion at the convocation taking place on Elric's homeworld. Galen meets up with his old friend Elizar, apprentice to Kell (and likely his eventual successor). Galen and Elizar share a grandiose vision of leading the mages into a new ascendancy, recovering their ancient power. Though Kell has united them, the mages have been fairly quiet for several hundred years, paying attention only to their private research and the local concerns of their homeworlds. Elizar arrives very disturbed, claiming knowledge of some oncoming catastrophe, which he refuses to explain fully. (Anyone familiar with B5 will assume he has gotten wind of the Shadows' plan to incite a galactic free-for-all.)

Galen meets another apprentice, Isabelle, at the demonstrations where those seeking promotion to full mage are tested. Isabelle's mentor, Burell, has come to the convocation with evidence that the Shadows are gathering near her homeworld, evidence which several members of the Circle would like to ignore. They are aware of the danger of becoming involved in a fight with forces far more powerful than themselves -- this, it seems, is the reason for their policy of staying firmly neutral.

During the demonstrations, Galen quite accidentally discovers a previously unknown spell of immense destructive power. Shortly thereafter, Galen almost kills Elizar with that spell, in an argument about the secrets Elizar is hiding. He fully expects to be expelled from the order for this intemperate act, but instead he is promoted, with the caveat (known to Elric, but not to him) that he will be tested. The Circle has realized that they cannot send senior mages to investigate Burell's theories about the Shadows, as this would draw attention. Instead they will send Isabelle, who lives in that region, and Galen, who can be passed off as a visiting friend.

From the time they begin their investigations, things go wrong. It seems someone is leaking information about the mages to the Shadows; there may be a traitor in their midst. Galen is having difficulty controlling his destructive impulses, and several factions want to exploit him. On top of that, his developing feelings for Isabelle are making it difficult for him to maintain the icy discipline required by the burden of his power.

Through a variety of twists and turns in book one, influenced by the agendas of Elizar, Kell, Elric, the Shadows, and others, the mages eventually decide that they will refuse to take sides, and retreat into hiding. (Hence the title of the series -- the mages are passing out of known space.) This resolution is not, unfortunately, reached without a cost. Book two follows the execution of the mages' plan -- revealing what went on behind the scenes in "The Geometry of Shadows" -- and Galen's continuing investigation of the Shadows, which uncovers some unsettling facts about the Taratimude and the tech.

Summoning Light cover

Both books consist of long passages of careful planning and thought mixed with background and philosophy, followed by intense, dramatic action sequences. In other words, they very much resemble a magic act. All the elements of the plot are hidden in plain sight, and you don't see the results coming 'til -- presto! -- they're right in front of your nose. Cavelos does an excellent job of keeping the set-up interesting, and writes gripping scenes of espionage, battles, and narrow escapes.

Over the course of the two books, Galen becomes something of a tragic hero. He is not deeply nuanced: almost everything about him revolves around his deep alienation from his own emotions, necessitated by both the tragedies that have befallen him, and the immense potential for harm if he loses control. Yet he is compelling, because that sort of conflict is very real in the human psyche (perhaps especially among SF fans, who seem to be, on average, more intellectual than emotional). We grow to empathize with him, and to hope that he will heal. Or rather, if we are familiar with Crusade, we want to find out how he did heal, and grew into a secure, competent man who may be a bit batty, but is clearly comfortable with himself and his place in life.

Tie-in novels run the risk of being pale imitations. Giving another author's ideas new life in a different medium is a real challenge. Jeanne Cavelos has quite definitely accomplished this task, writing a suspenseful, intelligent story which stands up on its own, while adding depth to both the world that inspired it and a favorite character from that world. Since I am a fan of Babylon 5, it's hard for me to say for sure that you'll enjoy this series regardless of whether you know anything about its setting. But I do believe you will. And it just might hook you, sending you off looking for friends who have tapes of the show -- don't say I didn't warn you.

 

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R Michael Harman is New Media Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our archive.



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