Friday, 18 June 2010

Vanishing Point by Stephen Cole

Plot: In a world where you can meet your God at the end of your natural life and be judged worthy of your actions why is somebody terrorising the people with bombs, ending their lives unnaturally? The Doctor, Fitz and Anji arrive to discover some nasty experiments hiding under the surface of a seemingly idyllic world set up and a criminal who will stop at nothing to receive his Vanishing Point…

Top Doc: This is as good as the amnesiac eighth Doctor comes and it isn’t even in a book that is primarily about him, a testimont to how good his characterisation is these days. He is a ruthlessly unpredictable character, very sixth Doctor-ish but more extreme with his violence, more brutal with his condemnation and warmer with his friends. There are so many moments where he lifts the book; from his hilarious cliffhanging with Anji (“One, two, jump!”), his threats to the medic (he basically tells him if he doesn’t give him the door code he will break his arms and legs and once he has access he smashes his head against the wall and bungs him in a cupboard anyway!), howling with laughter as he realises he is on the run again, lashing out with anger when he realises he might be cut off from Fitz again. He clearly gets a kick out of breaking the rules and pushing against excepted beliefs. He admits he knows exactly what loneliness feels like and we learn he spent five days in a mental hospital raving after he woke up on the train. His horror and disgust at the climax when he sees the disfigured child Cauchemar has created is more horrifying than the creature itself. He is extremely violent in places too (which I know is the cause of much upset for many fans but I love it…when he gets pissed off he reacts and anyone who gets all weepy and says he should only get through his adventures on his wits can go and marry Paul Cornell), dishing out quite a few kickings to several henchmen. And to prove he is still the Doctor, despite all the pain he has caused, he still holds out a helping hand to Cauchemar at the climax. When Dark tells the Dark they are the only people in the universe he responds, “How sweet.” Evil whispers to the Doctor, promising adventures and flight.

Scruffy Git: A sucker for an audience apparently (oo-er). He is back in full on klutz mode, falling off a cliff, twisting his ankle and accidentally snapping a mans neck in the first few chapters! Bless him, he used to ask the kids at school to beating him up in places where the bruises wouldn’t show so his mother wouldn’t rush down to the school and complain and earn him another thrashing from the bullies. His sleeping with Vettul has the distinct impression of being both touching and disturbing at the same time but needless to say it is one of his more memorable one nighters. I guess you could say she is failed romance number…ten!

Career Nazi: Anji isn’t sure if she believes in God and has quite an allergic reaction to being told he really does exist, the idea frightening her enough to try and ridicule it and make it more manageable. She is seems to be adjusting to the whole time travelling lark and warming up to both the Doctor and Fitz, longing for something familiar in these whacky adventures and sharing warm embraces with both of them when the danger has passed. Anji admits she probably wouldn’t have been friends with Fitz back home but is starting to see there is more to him than the idiot persona he hides behind. She used to do ballet but she admits she was rubbish. Fitz thinks of her as a posh city chick and after a day working on the farm she realises she has never really done a days work in her life! She has been with older men and has three sisters she used to compete with. Her friendship with Etty is very sweet, initially cold and awkward but eventually full of warmth and affection.

Foreboding: The Doctor is described as a man who belongs in wild places…has Nathaniel Dark been reading The Year of Intelligent Tigers? Anji once plucked a hair from Dave’s head AND tells Fitz if Dave were reborn he wouldn’t know her and they couldn’t be together. Gosh, talk about tempting fate…

Twists: Fitz discovering the freaks is a moment which comes right out of the blue. So is the moment you realise Treena Sherrat was aiming the gun in the bank at her husband, a great moment that comes from some considerable build up. Etty’s condemnation of Fitz is harsh but not as painful as Vettul’s reaction to his excuses. The Doctor discovering Anji wired up to a category G experiment is sickening. The Dark/Lanna scenes are lovely, two lonely people who have lost their faith, finding each other. The whole story of Cauchemar’s criminal history comes right out of the blue. Apparently, he was en route to a prison planet when his ship collided with a meteor and irradiated. On the verge of death the crew were visited by energy beings that offered them a stab at life, to have the criminal souls of the energy race transplanted into their bodies, a symbiotic link to rehabilitate the beings. If they are deemed worthy both the human and the being feel paradise at the point of death, a mutually beneficial existence. The revelation of the baby made up from the DNA of all of Cauchemar’s victims is revolting, the image of the twisting palms of flesh puckering all over its body is enough to turn your stomach. Even more shocking is when Cauchemar accidentally shoots his creation. The names of the henchmen turn out to be grid locations to their bomb sites, a clever ploy I never guessed for one second. At the climax Anji has a moment where she is perfectly willing to smash somebody’s skull in for all the pain he has caused to her friends. The image of the Doctor and his friends holding hands together, offering to take them to new worlds is a lasting one. As is the last scene with Vettul, revealing she is pregnant.

Embarrassing bits: The occasional smutty joke that totally misses the mark…Vettul certainly caused a reaction Fitz’s jeans (groan)! Whilst the answers to the book are totally Doctor Who (and intriguing), using science to explain away magic it seems a shame that just this once it couldn’t just have been a miracle. The downside to having the answers so late is that we never get to explore them much or get to see the aliens who set up the colony.

Funny bits: And yet I found the joke about the carrot on the front of Fitz’s pants hilarious! Any moment with the Doctor and Anji on the cliff face and the Doctor and medic was brilliantly funny.

Result: Reading much fan opinion (stupid me) I expected this to be terrible so imagine my delight at discovering how good it was! My only real complaints surface at the end when you think through some of the answers that were given and realise how underdeveloped they were but considering all the other treats on offer that is hardly the greatest sin. It is surprisingly sensitive in places with some lovely character work that really draws you close to these people and starts to exploit the great potential in the engaging Doctor/Fitz/Anji team. The Doctor has rarely been this fascinating in print. There is much intelligent dialogue too, religious debate that really gets you thinking and some world building that proves quite detailed when seen through the eyes of Etty and Dark, two thoroughly convincing, flawed (in a good way!) characters. The pace of the book is great and there are some wonderfully fun set pieces. Stephen Cole might not be the most sophisticated writer on the planet but by God he can spin a good yarn and ensure that there is never a dull moment and some gob smackingly good ones allow the way: 8/10

Friday, 4 June 2010

Just War by Lance Parkin

Plot: Careless talk costs lives… a throwaway conversation with Emil Hartung sets into motion a sequence of events that sees Bernice tortured at the hands of the Nazi’s, Chris hunted behind enemy lines, the Doctor playing chess with a war criminal and Roz falling in love. The consequences could see the Nazi’s winning the Second World War…

Master Manipulator: A truly stunning use of the seventh Doctor, this is the best presentation of the Doctor since Human Nature. Just War begins with the exact same set up as Shakedown and a dozen other New Adventures of this period…the Doctor has sent all of his companions to different locations to work on part of the same plan. However Just War sees this plan unfold dangerously for his friends, to the point where he realises Bernice, his closest friend has been brutally abused at the hand of their enemy. Worse still the books suddenly forces the reader to face the fact that the whole sequence of events was caused by the Doctor.

The Doctor was the only person not to notice when Bernice is naked. He was an alien, an immortal being who resembled a scruffy middle aged man. He is described as a surgical strike, eliminating alien threats from history. Brilliantly the Doctor does not act in the least bit concerned that he has been captured by the Nazi’s. On first impression the doctor resembled nothing more than a smelly old tramp (hehehe). The trick was to look into his eyes, gaze beyond the shabby exterior into his labyrinthe brilliant mind. There you would find true genius with the cunning of a wild animal. In a moment that took my breath away the Doctor joins the Nazi party. His impersonating of a nun is very Troughton-esque. The conclusion where Benny forces the Doctor to see her bruises, for him to see that he has caused her suffering and that makes him face Wolff in a game of Russian Roulette is the most powerful way I have ever seen the Doctor’s manipulations dealt with in any of these books. Shockingly dramatic and powerful. The TARDIS scene at the end sees the Doctor sheepishly apologise to Bernice and shuffle out of the console room. ‘That’s all I wanted to hear’, she admits. When the Doctor first visited Earth it was to the French Revolution. He experienced feelings he had never felt before, so much promise, the feeling of elation at the sound of Empires falling, the old order being swept away…

‘Chris I have been doing this sort of thing for a long time. Believe it or not, I have occasionally considered my responsibilities. It has dawned on me that my actions have implications and ramifications. I am aware I’m treading a slippery slope.’

Boozy Babe: I can only think of three books that have pulled of Bernice Summerfield this well, Lucifer Rising, Sanctuary and Human Nature. If you want to know why so many people still follow the adventures of this character go and read Just War. Reading this book she broke my heart, she is threatened, tortured, starved, beaten and humiliated and throughout all of this she still manages to maintain her dignity by remaining honest (she admits how utterly terrified she is of the Nazi’s) and so human. Her reaction to the Doctor’s involvement is really interesting, initially appalled and shoving her injuries in his face then quietly punishing him for not saving her. Frankly I think she let him off lightly.

Living in Guernsey, oppressed gripped you the moment you woke and surrounded you as you fell asleep. As Celia she is blond with a wide, kind mouth. She wonders why she has been left for so long, she wondered if the Doctor had abandoned her to die. Summerfield prose features wandering punctuation, is too talky and is not about anything. She does not know how long she has been travelling and has forgotten how old she is. Without the Doctor you kept regular office hours, you had a lunch break, pension rights and holiday pay. With him you tended to find yourself driving at high speeds along muddy cliff top fields in unfamiliar military equipment being chased by heavily armed Nazi’s. Her shooting of Gerhard is gripping; she is trapped into the act because of the consequences if she doesn’t. Looking into a mirror, covered in mud, make up running down her face, Bernice does not recognise herself. After the murder of the islanders Bernice catches Marie with a German and she wants her to watch whilst she murders her lover. Bernice being tortured is far more uncomfortable that I thought it would be. Stripped, deprived of food and water and sleep, she has her wrists broken casually. It is horribly sterile and nasty. They work on her for so long and so relentlessly she begins to think of Bernice as an illusion, someone who would stand up to the villains with a quip. Her mother had been 31 when she had died and Bernice was now older than that. A weird feeling – a child older than their mother. It was a landmark she had passed without realising it.

‘I’m a strong person. I’ve faced death before. I’ve laughed in the face of fear, as they say. I’ve been surrounded by evil – not just crime and injustice but pure, stark evil. I’ve gone through a lot in the last couple of years; I’ve been stabbed, tortured, starved, blasted, mauled, betrayed, absorbed, poisoned, possessed, lacerated, bruised, conscripted, electrocuted, impregnated, drugged, abandoned, abused, battered, probed, burnt. Blown up, shot down, kicked in, thrown out. I’ve done it all. I even died once. But I always bounced back within a couple of weeks, ready for my next exciting adventure. Sticks and stones may break my bones but bones mend if you’re young enough and you’ve got a good Doctor. This time it’s different.’

Stroppy Copper: On a roll now, Roz has never been written for better. Not even in her debut. Her passages are astonishingly good; she holds her head in 1941 Britain in the face of prejudice and intolerance. She has a beautiful romance with an English intelligence officer. She reads like a living, breathing person with flaws, she has a vicious temper and in a stunning sequence she reveals how pleased she is that she is pure.

Roz is described as jolly civilised, knew so much but distant. Reed found her profoundly attractive. She had seen friends die, faced the enemy and led troops over the top. She does not look out of place in uniform. Her romance with Reed allows us to see the gentle side to her character. ‘If you ask me to marry you I’ll bit your nose off’ – she smokes, drinks and makes love to Reed. She hasn’t felt this relaxed since… She had finally gotten used to how impossibly big the console room is. She was still disconcerted by the low humming, so advanced and alien that even if she did discover its source she doubted she would be able to understand it. All you needed was money to step into another universe – Roz’s parents had lived like that, barricaded in their palaces, blaming the poor for the problems of the galaxy. She likes 1941, the rigid system, the lack of aliens, the purity of the human race. Roz realises she could actually picture herself staying here with this man. They could never have children, how could she bring half caste children into this time? She found George and his leisurely world attractive. It was sp uncomplicated a life with a clear division of good and evil. She wasn’t being nostalgic or going native, she was being practical. Roz and Reed make love powerfully and talk just as intimately. She admits she was a disappointment to her family and herself. She is so happy she is torn between staying with Reed and returning to the TARDIS. She decides to continue travelling but promises to wear her engagement ring always.

‘I’m not normally an intimate person. With you, I am. I usually go for older men and you’re young enough to be my son.’

Puppy Dog Eyes: It seems there always has to be a weak link with the regulars in the New Adventures and in this period that role belongs to Chris. He’s not offensive like Ace but he is a fairly bland character, annoyingly na├»ve and lacking motivation or any memorable characteristics.

Chris has grown a handlebar moustache ‘just like they have in the air force’ but Roz thought it made him look like a gerbil. He thinks the 40’s fashions and design was wonderful. Shockingly Chris casually murders three people in this novel without remorse. In many ways he is scarier than Ace because he sees all this horror as one big adventure.

Twists: Revealing Celia as Bernice is a terrific surprise, there are no clues that this might be the case. The first chapter of Just War has more atmosphere, tension and character than the whole of the last book. Chris is sent to France to bring back Hartung. In a moment that makes your heart leap into your mouth Bernice shoots down a German office. She steals an armoured car. In revenge for the shooting of a German officer six of the Islanders are shot. Wolff snapping the neck of the nameless girl is sickening. Pages 76-70 sees Steinmann charmingly arguing that Nazism is fact, that Nazism is the future. Bernice being strung up and tortured, brrrrr. Hugin and Munin are revealed to be birds from mythology. Pages 159-160 is a truly haunting passage that makes the Dalek/Nazi parallel as well as I have ever seen it done without ever using the name. The bombing of Granville is violent and bloody, the destruction of the bomb shelter is explicitly written. Brilliantly Bernice holds a butter knife to Kitzel’s throat and bungs her into a morgue drawer. Roz pokes Wolff’s eye out, a long deserved treat for the reader. Wolff offers a truce to the United Kingdom – or they will drop Hartung’s weapon and force a surrender In an earlier adventure with Mel, the Doctor discussed owls with Hartung which got him thinking about radar and led to the building of two planes, the first radar invisible plane, so undetectable they could end the war.. Chris and the Doctor steal Munin and have a mid air collision with a German spitfire. The Russian roulette climax made me hold my breath whilst reading.

Result: Powerful and dramatic, this is the best debut novel for an age. Lance Parkin remembers that these books can be about the regulars and he writes for them as though he has been doing it for years. Bernice undergoes the hardest trial in her life and Roz gets to enjoy a genuinely touching romance. The writing itself is very polished and flows beautifully, even the extended dialogue scenes. The first half of the novel stifles, the Nazi’s feel as though they are holding Europe in an iron grip and the shattering second half sees some fantastic twists punching the reader in the gut. I loved the Doctor in this, ruthlessly intelligent and yet surrendering to his feelings in the conclusion as he confronts Bernice’s torturer. There is some gorgeous period detail and the book is packed full of memorable moments that will take your breath away. Easily one of the best the range has offered and perfect example of how good Doctor Who novels are when they dabble in history: 10/10