Sunday, 17 December 2017

To Dream in the City of Sorrows by Kathryn M. Drennan

Jeffrey Sinclair is a soldier, a decorated fighter pilot and station commander. To his surprise, he has been reassigned to the Minbari homeworld as the Earth Alliance's first ambassador afforded permanent residence there. But his post is treated as a joke back home and the Minbari are unwilling to explain to him what is going on. Eventually he learns the truth, which will completely transform his life.

Meanwhile, Sinclair's fiancee Catherine Sakai is on a five-month surveying mission to the rim of known space, unaware of Sinclair's change in circumstance. Out on the rim she finds evidence that something very disturbing is happening, entire planets destroyed and strange shapes moving through hyperspace. One planet to fall victim to this force is a remote Earth mining colony, Arisia III. Its sole survivor, Marcus Cole, finds his way to Minbar, planning to avenge his brother's death and find out what is going on.

To Dream in the City of Sorrows is the second Babylon 5 novel (after Jeanne Cavelos's The Shadow Within) to be accepted as fully canon by franchise creator J. Michael Straczynski. He came up with the basic story arc and assigned it to the writer, who was also his then-wife, Kathryn Drennan (who also wrote the decent episode By Any Means Necessary).

Work-for-hire novels are often awful, written to tight deadlines and with little opportunity for rewrites or thorough editing. Not in this case, though. Like The Shadow Within, To Dream in the City of Sorrows fleshes out a vitally import part of the overall Babylon 5 story arc that the TV show couldn't get around to because real life interfered, in this case actor Michael O'Hare (Commander Sinclair) leaving the show due to mental health issues. In the TV show, Sinclair was sent to the Minbari homeworld to set up the Rangers whilst Captain Sheridan took command of Babylon 5 and the focus remained squarely on the station.

A novel, however, can continue this storyline and this one does with aplomb. The book works well with a tight focus on three characters: Sinclair, his lover Catherine Sakai and Marcus Cole. Fans of the TV series were mystified when Catherine Sakai was just dropped from the series, feeling that her character needed a better plot resolution. The introduction of Marcus Cole in the first episode of Season 3 also felt a bit abrupt, with a major new character introduced at a moment when there was a lot going on in the storyline. This book gives us a better understanding of his backstory and the events that led to him joining the Rangers.

Unlike The Shadow Within, To Dream in the City of Sorrows doesn't work as well as a stand-alone book. It intertwines with the second season of Babylon 5 (and flashes forwards to the end of the third) and references events from the comic books as well as the TV show, featuring cameos and mentions of characters which will be meaningless to those who haven't seen the series. This is very much a companion to the TV series rather than a self-contained prequel (like The Shadow Within), and should be read as such. Drennan is a very good writer, having worked extensively in animation as well as writing for B5, and she nails the "voices" of the characters superbly. You can imagine the actors saying this dialogue, which isn't always the case in spin-offs.

The story is pretty good and is fleshed out by a ton of new background details on Minbari culture, history and religion. The Minbari are one of the more interesting Babylon 5 races but their focus on honour did occasionally make them a bit Klingon-like. This novel gives them much more depth, especially to the very-underserved worker caste, and makes their attitudes to life, death and war a bit more understandable.

By its nature, though, the book is a little episodic. Sometimes months pass between chapters and this isn't always spelled out very well. The ending is also a little unsatisfying, lacking the resolution that is still to come in the TV story War Without End and the comic book series In Valen's Name. But the book is well-written, ties up a lot of character arcs and answers a whole host of unanswered questions from the TV show.

To Dream in the City of Sorrows (****) is a good read for established Babylon 5 fans but isn't as welcoming a place for new readers. For those invested in the story of the series, it's good stuff which expands on the background as well as tying up some niggling plot threads the series itself couldn't address. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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