Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Slow Empire by Dave Stone

I have something of an issue with The Slow Empire - it is my Mindwarp of the book series. One time I read it...and hate it with a passion bordering on insanity and the next time I pick it up I am just in the right mood and love its riotous deliberate flouting of the rules of fiction! So here for your perusal is two reviews i have written, positive and negative...and you make up your mind. Because I can't.

The Slow Empire by Dave Stone

Plot: The Doctor and his friends arrive in the Empire, a region of space with whacky physics that prevents anybody travelling faster than the speed of light. Soon they are teamed up with an extremely verbose traveller and a blob of jelly that likes collecting nice shiny things and taking a tour of a dysfunctional and highly disturbing Empire…

Top Doc: It could have been a fascinating experiment, trapped in an area of space where time travel is an impossibility it is very possible that a Time Lord would start to unravel. We’re told countless times that the Doctor is acting out of character, that ‘little bits of personality are surfacing and collapsing, as if being taken over by the spirits of other men’ but I never saw it. Not once. He didn’t act like an of the other Doctors as far as I could see. Didn’t grab his lapels and go “hmm”. Oh whimper “Oh my giddy aunt!” Didn’t rub his chin and “I know exactly what’s going on here.” Etc, etc…unfortunately what Mr Stone did capitalise on and so much that started to get fed up at the end was the Doctor’s amnesia, especially his lack of knowledge in just about everything! He’s rubbish! He can’t figure out anything! Kate Orman managed to explore the Doctor’s explosive, forgetful personality far more sensitively in the last book without every making him appear foolish or surplus to requirement.

He doesn’t want to fill his head with nonsense just because there is space to fill. Described as having mystical, sorcerous powers. His life is described as a closed book with some of the pages missing. In one of his funnier moments we realise his amnesia has led to the Doctor being unable to separate fact from fiction leading to him to be forced from watching a particular BBC soap in fear of slitting his wrists. Apparently he emits an aura that allows people to cope with utterly horrendous situations (although he does little of that here).

Scruffy Git: Was Fitz there? He has a funny moment when he thinks Jamon might be the regenerated Doctor and forgets that the subtle wrongness of alien planets can bite into the mind but aside from that…diddly squat. Unthinkable…a book that gets Fitz wrong!

Career Nazi: Arrgggggggghhhhhhhhh! What is THIS? No wonder everybody hated Anji after they read this! She’s horrible! Not just bog standard horrible but evil b*tch queen sl*t cow from hell horrible! There are all the unlikable aspects of Anji that are apparent in other books, her temper, her rudeness, her businesslike attitude…but it is lacking the essential humanness of Anji that irons out all these elements and makes her so wonderfully real. Her she is just an automaton of hate and bile. I loathed her.

Apparently she doesn’t make friends but contracts, doesn’t build relationships but acquires and maintains them. She is described as a personal servant to the Doctor. When Jamon pats her head like a good little girl she throws him a look so venomous he fears he is dicing with his life. She feels alone, dislocated because human rules don’t apply here. Her dreams don’t extend beyond having a content life accounting…although at least she has the decency to be horrified by this thought. She feels lower than she has ever felt in her whole life…run a bath and slit your wrists bad. Described as a pair of boobs and buttocks hanging off an articulated frame with a dash of the ‘ole curry powder for a bit of flavour.

Foreboding: In the Goronos machine Anji meets a dapper, sardonic looking man with a creature of hideous, diabolical and slitheringly unutterable evil. Hmm, wait a few books and you might find out who this is! The Vortex Wraiths are on the run from something hideously awful in the Time Vortex…

Twists: The Empire can only travel at light speed, a lovely idea. Transference requires the subject to have his flesh burned away and bones charred away and transfer the Soul of Man. Brilliantly, the Vortex Wraiths dive bomb the TARDIS stellarium, quite an amazing feat considering they, and it, are not psychically real. Jamon de le Rocas manages to spend over two pages talking absolute nonsense (twice). The Doctor manages to affect their escape by acting the complete clown, moving furniture here and there and making the guards stand back dumbfounded at being treated in such a manner, moving them from the path of the door and running through it. The Collector is lovely, a genuinely wonderful creation and the book should have featured him more. The Doctor is stabbed in the chest so his blood can glue the last shard of the Engine of Transubstation in place. It is hard not to agree with Anji at the sheer stupidity of the Goronos slaves who, once achieving their freedom chose to wire themselves to a collected intelligence that in a sense made them slaves again. The setting up of the Empire is sheer genius…shooting off lobotomised criminals into space and hoping they come across planets to set up Transference Pylons. The Vortex Wraiths are revealed to be the big baddies…controlling the Ambassadors by voodoo and thus controlling the entire Empire…but luckily the Doctor tricks them into thinking they will bring their brethren into our reality but short circuits the TARDIS (oo-er clever!) and wipes them out instead.

Funny bits: The books real saving grace. It is riotously funny in places, especially in the footnotes which read a little dry on their own but in the context of the story work and absolute treat. With The Story So Far…Dave Stone manages to sum up the entire eighth Doctor range up to this point…in half a page.

Embarrassing bits: The Slow Empire has no plot. Okay every book has a plot but the yawning excuse for one that fills these pages is so miniscule you have to wonder why Stone even bothered. The plot is the Vortex Wraiths want to escape the horrid uggy-buggy that has set up shop in the Vortex and find a way into our universe via the Transition Pylons of the Empire. The Doctor figures their plan and stops them by short-circuiting the TARDIS. The end. The book only bothers with this plot; I might point out, during the first twenty and last twenty pages. During the rest of novel we are treated to a sub plot of monumental unimportance where the Doctor treats his companions to a tour of a few of the Empire worlds just to keep them from getting bored. As Anji so astutely points out the information they gather from this trips could have been gathered in the safety of the TARDIS and in terms of the book could have taken up one page, maybe two and not the two hundred they actually occupy.

The Slow Empire has no characters. Okay every book has characters but the ones that populate this book are pretty much dismissed. Even the regulars are treated to this disrespect, the Doctor, Fitz and Anji all affected by the bizarre science of the Empire and so are all acting way out of character as to be practically unrecognisable. Compiling this issue is the only other character of note Jamon de la Rocas who would be worthy of note were he note just Stone implanted into his own book and given the opportunity to speak directly to his audience. Anybody else you might stumble across in this book is either killed horribly or skipped over in an instant as the book lurches to yet another destination. You could count the Collector, a supremely funny creation, but in all honesty how much meaningful characterisation can you get out of a slimy green blob with multiple appendages who has a love of piles of nice shiny things?

Result: I just don’t know what to say. It is not good. There are flashes of imagination and the some cracking jokes but this doesn’t make up for 240 odd pages of nonsense we have to endure. There are some great ideas in here but they are wasted on a slooooow plot and writer who is so far up his own arse he thinks he can get away with prevaricating with pointless asides over and over and over and treat characters as a bunch of random observations. I was waiting for a revelation that would tie this altogether and make it all make sense (in that it isn’t just a bunch of random observations shoved in between two covers…the front one of which is utterly hideous too!) but it never happened and the answers we do get are pretty lame considering the everlasting wait for them. Saying all that, Dave Stone has a mastery over language which verges on the genius with lots of horrifically complicated words cropping up…its just a shame he didn’t bother to use them to write a plot with characters and a point. A huge let down for the range, Stone’s unique view of Doctor Who can be a breathless, invigorating experience but this isn’t going to please either camp, it is neither brilliantly camp and insane or purely traditional and functional…its just sort of there. Achieving nothing: 2/10

The Slow Empire written by Dave Stone

Just imagine for a moment a conversation around a pub table. Steve Emmerson is there, so is Kate Orman, Trevor Baxendale got the round in and, of course, Justin Richards and Dave Stone are in attendance. Steve, Kate and Trevor have already been green lighted for writing new EDAs and are around to ensure a certain continuity between there books but Justin is in a black mood. The schedule is missing one book and he is desperate not to have spend three weeks filling it himself.

"Sigh" says Justin, "new to my position as editor and already I have come across a problem."

"Anything we can help you with?" asks Kate.

"Well, I need a schedule filler. I want something audacious, ground breaking, something that informs the readers of the EDAs that now the Doctor is off-Earth again his adventures will be exciting and unpredictable!"

"I'm writing you a book about talking Tigers!" Kate exclaims. "Plus if you're lucky I'll throw in an unrequited gay romance."

"I'm sure you'll do your usual sterling job but we already did that in The Turing Test" he remarks.

"How about a traditional Doctor Who story with all the trimmings?" Trevor pipes up with.

"Blimey Trev, that describes your last two books, we need something new!"

"This time I've got wasps and time travelling agents!" he enthuses.

"Hmm... sounds alright but what about my schedule filler?"

"I've got it!" cries Dave Stone, standing up and holding his pint aloft. "Given my previous excursions into a discombobulated land of quasi-illiterate fiction I could extradite myself from this entertaining social gathering, return to my furnishings and hammer out a reasonably lengthed piece of dogmatic scribblings which serves as an example of freshman into the worlds of Doctor Who by blatantly ignoring said rules of literature and failing to adhere to any form of entertainment a reader might expect!"

Justin, Kate, Trevor and Steve gasp with joint astonishment.

"You mean to tell me you are going to write a Doctor Who book that lacks any plot, any characters, any sense of coherence and is filled to the brim with witty asides that are written so languidly that one simple point like "I'll make the tea" will take seventeen pages to complete?" Justin asks.

"Absolutely. Indubitably. Without a drop of sweat breaking my flesh!"

And so he did...

Groundbreaking, some could call it. Subtituational toilet paper others might say. My initial reaction to The Slow Empire sprang from my inexperience with his previous Doctor Who work. I was simply unaccustomed to his unique writing style and was so wound up by his beating around the bush I could not bring myself to finish the thing. Now here I am, two years older and wiser (hmm) and I feel compelled to go back and read those books that rubbed me up the wrong way the first time around and try again. Hope and Reckless Engineering went down but surprisingly The Slow Empire has gone up in my estimation. There are some issues with this book but there is one aspect that pretty much saves the day.

Issue number one: The Slow Empire has no plot. Okay every book has a plot but the yawning excuse for one that fills these pages is so miniscule you have to wonder why Stone even bothered. The plot is the Vortex Wraiths want to escape the horrid uggy-buggy nastiness that has set up shop in the vortex and find a way into our universe via the transition pylons of the Empire. The Doctor figures their plan and stops them by short-circuiting the TARDIS. The end. The book only bothers with this plot, I might point out, during the first twenty and last twenty pages. During the rest of novel we are treated to a sub plot of monumental unimportance where the Doctor treats his companions to a tour of a few of the Empire worlds just to keep them from getting bored. As Anji so astutely points out the information they gather from these trips could have been gathered in the safety of the TARDIS and in terms of the book could have taken up one page, maybe two and not the two hundred they actually occupy.

Issue number two: The Slow Empire has no characters. Okay every book has characters but the ones that populate this book are pretty much dismissed. Even the regulars are treated to this disrespect, the Doctor, Fitz and Anji all affected by the bizarre science of the Empire and so are all acting way out of character as to be practically unrecognisable. The Doctor is all over the place; scatterbrained, ecstatic and acting like a total loon. Anji is suddenly the super bitch slag from hell who purposely winds people up, gets homicidally aggressive and screams like a big girl. And Fitz is surprisingly intelligent.


Compounding this issue is the only other character of note Jamon de la Rocas who would be worthy of note were he not just Stone implanted into his own book and given the opportunity to speak directly to his audience. Anybody else you might stumble across in this book is either killed horribly or skipped over in an instant as the book lurches to yet another destination. You could count the Collector, a supremely funny creation, but in all honesty how much meaningful characterisation can you get out of a slimy green blob with multiple appendages who has a love of piles of nice shiny things?

Issue number three: The Slow Empire is the first novel in an arc that will stretch right the way through to Sometime Never... in 2004 (this book was published in 2001). It features the first sign of something going horribly wrong in the vortex since the Time Lords were eliminated by the Doctor. Something has set up shop in their absence and is frightening all the other Vortex dwellers away...

It is certainly an intriguing idea to hang a story around but the answers wouldn't be available for another three years. How many people had forgotten about this book come Sometime Never... which it references back to? Telling a story over several years of fiction is an audacious idea and the arc references in apparently standalone books would get much more frequent in 2002 (and dominate 2003).

The English language... I love it. I was having an interesting discussion with Simon's mother a few weeks ago about how beautiful the English language can be. She disagreed and I suggested she read something by Paul Margs.

It is a glorious language and one that Dave Stone uses to its fullest potential. He constructs amazing sentences, some that will make you boggle at the sheer incomprehensibility of them and others that make you gasp at the imagination that has gone into them. As I have said, he can linger on one point for minutes of reading, exploring the idea in its entirety and leaving the reader flushed at the lengths he goes to get his point across. He comes out with bloody great words that even I, and I am under the impression that I have a superb grasp of the English language, fail to find any meaning in but once looked up make perfect, educational sense. He understands the power of language and how to construct it to create powerful images and breathtaking events. His is a masterful talent in this respect and I am insanely jealous.

And this is what The Slow Empire is. Not a book as such, where characters go on a journey and learn things about each other and reach a satisfactory conclusion, but a glorious expression of language. It betrays every facet of modern literature by refusing to play by the rules; I can fully understand why people were bored rigid by a story with no direction or characters. But for the exploration of words, this could be the best Doctor Who book yet.

Dave Stone gives the English language a hand job; it is as simple as that.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Bullet Time by David A. McIntee

Plot: Sarah Jane Smith is thrust into a world of drugs of violence, on the trail of corruption in Hong Kong. Aliens are on Earth but what are their motives? And why does the Doctor seem to be heading up a criminal organisation?

Master Manipulator: Absolutely hilarious. I love it! I read 20 odd New Adventures before abandoning the line for something a little better written. Okay i went back after some coaxing from friends on OG/GB but that doesn't disguise the fact that I did give up for a while. One of my biggest complaints was how the Doctor was always sidelined and seen to be pulling the strings in the background, a most un-Doctor like Doctor. What McIntee achieves here is to mimic this approach but having Sarah Jane experience the manoeuvring on his part throws it into shocking light and it is actively discussed and criticised. That makes a world of difference. Whereas the New Adventures were the seventh Doctor’s range and thus you expected him to be a central figure Bullet Time is better approached (as I did) as a science fiction novel featuring the seventh Doctor. Frankly this book is more about Sarah Jane and thus the Doctor’s terrifying background presence is not only fascinating but it gives the book a real edge. It makes perfect sense that this is the seventh Doctor at the very end of his reign (I believe this is supposed to be set during the The Room with No Doors) because as the book progresses it seems obvious to both the reader and the Doctor that things need to change and the regeneration around the corner seems just the ticket.

He is posing as Pendrgaon, director of Pimms Shipping and according to one subordinate he ‘comes and goes, taking care of his enterprises around the world.’ He is a mix of madness and genius, humanity and otherness. He makes you laugh and cry, feel excited and frustrated. Pimms turns out to a front for the Triad…the Doctor is the head of a gang of thugs! He is frustrating and mysterious and impossible to predict. There was an unspoken threat, not to health or life but perhaps to the soul about the Doctor these days. Shockingly, the Doctor is willing to bring down Sarah’s career to stop her blabbing about the visiting aliens…he prints a news story discrediting her and leaving her career in tatters. Someone with the Doctor’s knowledge and abilities could be an exceptional danger. The Doctor on humans: “Why don’t you just grow up?” In one of his more heroic acts he saves Siao’s butt, not willing to let her go down for one silly mistake. He was obsessed with control and his own divine judgement about what was right and what should be allowed. He was a good ally, and opponent. Either way he was worth admiring. He admits: “I see the faces of every death I am responsible for when I sleep. Every enemy, every friend I have lost, and every innocent I failed to save. So I stopped sleeping.”

Who’s Best Friend: Can you believe that this is the first time I have had a chance to write about Sarah? What is it about the character that turns people off? Only Lawrence Miles and Justin Richards (for one scene!) have attempted to write for her in the range thus far. The fourth Doctor has been accompanied by Leela, Romana I, Romana II and even Nyssa! Well it was worth the wait. Not only is she captured beautifully here but it is much more interesting than her just pairing up with the Doctor. Here they are practically enemies…

Sarah identified more with weary tourists than with anyone who was able to power dress of travel before breakfast. She is a syndicated headline who has been offered the chance to present Tomorrow’s World. Although she loved the atmosphere and people of Hong Kong, the climate left a lot to be desired. She hates being in the public eye. The sorts of stories Sarah chased often involved going undercover or visiting war zones. In her experience it is better to run first and rationalise later. She hadn’t heard the Doctor’s name in a long time but she never forgot. His shadow remained on her no matter what. Because he appears to be manipulating her, Sarah believes she is dealing with an earlier incarnation that has never met her at first (bless her). The Doctor had been Sarah’s best friend for years. He’d saved her life too many times for her not to feel obliged to return the favour. From her childhood the thing Sarah enjoyed most in life was poking her nose into the darkest hidden corners to make sense of why they were hidden away. She is astonished when she spies the Doctor trading drugs and guns – how can somebody change so much? Sarah didn’t want to face him but she admits she would. When they finally talk face to face she slaps him. “You’re not the Doctor I knew” she admits. “Perhaps you never knew the Doctor.” She later admits that she misses him but the Doctor tells her she misses her Doctor. In a moment that proves her worth as a friend a hundred times over Sarah tells the Doctor she does not forgive him but is willing to sacrifice her life so he can save the day. What a woman.

Foreboding: Here begins the companion executions. Sarah is shot at the end of Bullet Time which is left ambiguous as to whether she would survive on not. Soon it will be Mel’s turn. And Harry. And Ace. It seems shocking for the PDAs to start massacring companions ad nauseum but brilliantly this is tied into the main plot of the Eighth Doctor series. The Council of Eight are slowly working through time and changing history, cutting out the Doctor’s friends and their interference in the timelines. When the Doctor defeats the Council in Sometime Never he returns all of his friends lives. That allows you to read Bullet Time whatever way you like. If you want Sarah to die in a bloody shot to the stomach go ahead! If you want her to survive, that’s okay too.

Twists: In the prologue Sarah is drugged and thrown out of a helicopter over an ocean! Yi Chung is attacked by aliens. There is a brilliantly high-octane petrol bomb gunfight! The image of the seventh Doctor standing outside Sarah’s flat stating ‘she’s not yours’ to a trio of triad foot soldiers who are going to assault her is very potent. We feel Sarah’s pain when she reads the humiliating news article the Doctor has printed in the paper. Tranh explodes, literally. Sing works for the ICCA and has been investigating Siao, she is exposed as a drug courier…to my surprise! Alien battleships are on their way to Earth to pick up the aliens stranded there and destroy the planet in the process. Chapter 17 is VERY cool. The CIA, UNIT and the buildings security have a face off in the Pimms building. During the bloodshed the Doctor walks on stage and demands for them to stop. The UNIT helicopter smashes into the building and it ignites, turning the Doctor’s base of action into a smoking chimney. Yue Hwa works for the Public Security Bureau! The Tao Te Lung is a trap for up and coming Godfathers and Ah Fei falls right in to it, driven by his own ambition. The aliens are on Earth to retrieve technology from a previous excursion – all they want to do is leave. Sarah forces Tom to shoot her in the stomach to divert him and allow the Doctor to save the day. In a tense moment the Doctor threatens to cause a nuclear holocaust unless Tsung backs down and allows the aliens to leave.

Embarrassing Bits: I hate UNIT these days. It was the only part of the plot I didn’t like. What a bunch of thugs! “You have to trim the thorn bushes now and again if you want a safe garden.” They are far too ready to point weapons and fire. All aliens are to be executed. We definitely need the Brig back!

Result: Different, and it works beautifully because of it. I love all the work done with Sarah Jane and the Doctor; I have rarely seen either character written for stronger. The first half is quite frustrating, lots of characters and plots are introduced and it can get confusing but it all dovetails well in the second half, twists flying at the reader left, right and centre. It is a mature piece of work, dealing with some very adult ideas (porn, drugs, violence) but commenting seriously and thoughtfully on criminal lifestyles. Setting the book in Hong Kong helps things along immeasurably, a great razor sharp atmosphere of terror pervades and makes it feel less like a standard Doctor Who book. If only we could prune UNIT or make them a little cuddlier it would get an even higher mark: 8/10

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Year of Intelligent Tigers by Kate Orman (with help from Jon Blum)

Plot: The Doctor, Fitz and Anji are enjoying a relaxing holiday on the musical colony of Hitchemus when the indigenous Tiger population takes control. They want to be taught how to understand music but their brutal methods cause a violent rebellion from the humans. War rages, one that threatens to tear apart the Doctor and his friends forever as he gets in touch with his wild side…

Top Doc: The Year of Intelligent Tigers is a vital chapter in the eighth Doctor’s life and one of the all time best looks at ANY Doctor and is the book which marks the eighth Doctor as a diplomat (Kate Orman and Jon Blum suggested as much in Vampire Science) rather than the conqueror (which aptly sums up his predecessor). Following the trend since the Caught on Earth arc we are asked to intimately explore the Doctor’s identity, who he is and what his place is in the universe. These questions stopped being asked in the early eighth Doctor books, and yet they are vital to returning the series back to what's important, the Doctor himself. Early scenes in this book express his indecision beautifully; when he was trapped on Earth all he wanted to do was escape and travel the stars but now he has achieved that aim all he wants is to find somewhere to belong. Home. His trip into the Bewilderness is a great metaphor for the Doctor’s wish to fit in…it is with great sadness when he admits he does not belong with the Tigers. Despite his efforts, belonging still eludes him. He brings the book alive exhibiting very Doctorish traits; throwing tantrums, dashing into danger, throwing himself obsessively into a mystery and he is painted with a touch of misery and hopelessness too which was unique until Eccleston’s victim Doctor turned up. The weather is used as a (not very subtle but extremely effective) metaphor for his whirlwind of emotions, brewing up a terrifying electric storm to stop a nuclear attack and bringing the planet to the brink of calamity just to get both sides in the conflict to listen to his pleas for peace. Just picture him, his long hair cut off, his clothes torn to shreds, battered and bruised and playing with bunch of kittens in the heart of the enemies camp. This man could do anything…The Year of Intelligent produces a re-invigorated Doctor who can control the elements and walk away from a conflict where the violence has sickened him. “Save your own world for a change,” he shouts amidst a battlefield. We have a brand new, unique Doctor, fully refreshed after his one hundred year makeover.

He could outpull Fitz to a factor of a thousand, Anji thinks, if only he would show an interest. Whenever there are people in trouble he has to stick his nose in. He only gets drunk when he wants to. He thinks his own lifestyle sounds ridiculous and at one-point turns on Karl and snaps “You’re just jealous. Because I’m something more than human.” He was lonely rugged sailor in 1935 when he first discovered music, trying the violin for the first time and gives in to the music, wrapping himself around the instrument crying, scared if he stops he wont be able to start again. He tells Big he will never be human. He has a photo of Miranda in his pocket. He wants a happy ending and is perfectly willing to drag it out of them, seeing hope in everything. He is too much in love with being in the world to be able to view from the outside. He can’t forgive Karl at the end, only understand him, his passion is for life and not vengeance.

Scruffy Git: Described as someone you wouldn’t want to share a taxi with. It is only after he has rested up on Hitchemus for a month that he realises how brave and stupid he could be on their reckless adventures. His best scene comes later, where he improvises a band to play for the people on the eve of battle, a chance to remind them all what they are fighting for. Considering his character specifics, a sleazy, sex crazed bum from the sixties Fitz is capable of incredible depth and pathos and this is a good example of a character growing up and offering something nobody else could. It is a triumphant scene for Fitz. His love for the Doctor shines from every page and he barely even considers leaving him despite the fact that Hitchemus is the perfect planet for him (paying his way with music). Described as a fearless agent for the Resistance! He realises the Doctor isn’t the magic cure for everything but he sure does win a lot.

Career Nazi: Sometimes Anji feels she is stuck in outer space but not on Hitchemus, she feels she is the ultimate tourist. If she went back to Earth now she is scared that she would feel like an alien. Her tempestuous relationship with the Doctor continues and here she gives up on him totally as he walks out on his friends and joins up with the Tigers. I can understand why people were resistant to Anji at first as she isn’t portrayed as your usual, dappy, I’ll put all my faith you bint but rather a strong willed woman with her own opinions that conflict with the Doctors. It helps that the Doctor is acting so strangely these days, not at all like his old fluffy self and some of Anji’s accusations are genuinely valid. She is so disgusted with his inhumanity (stepping over her friends corpse without a second thought) she is perfectly willing to blow up the storehouse with him inside. She needs to know why he helps people and realises in the Doctor’s weather controlling climax that he isn’t mad but totally, utterly himself. In a moment that solidifies their friendship finally she laces fingers with him and faces a wall of angry Tigers pounding towards them. Anji admits that leaving the Doctor and Fitz behind now would be like leaving her family.

Foreboding: In the dramatic climax an eye in reverse appears in the bruised sky, staring down at them. Watch this space…

Twists: The opening chapters are genuinely accompanied by an entire orchestra (go on, listen, you can actually hear it…). The atmosphere of the planet crackles with music of all kinds, Anji is assaulted by noise from every direction and the Doctor’s manic violin playing is dizzying realistic. The sedate, charming opening reveals the TARDIS crews month spent on Hitchemus, a hugely different beginning to any other EDA. Hundreds of Tigers stalking through the streets to reclaim the town in a frightening image. The Doctor, dressed all in black, swooping down a hill on a horse to save Karl, is a memorable image. In a moment of panic Anji stabs a Longbody. At one point the Doctor stares down at the fighting on the spaceport, the flashes of red and orange on the tarmac. In a top dramatic moment, the Doctor steps over Besma’s corpse and Anji screams, “You had a chance to be human and you just stepped over it.” The Doctor tells her if she doesn’t calm down the Tigers will kill her to which she whispers, “You’d let them?” The abducted orchestra play a symphony for the Tigers and in defiance of their captivity smash their instruments to pieces. It is revealed that that control the weather they will need to get into the second storehouse, which will burrow from the ground and destroy the city! Stunning drama when Karl opens the floodgates to save the Doctor’s life and he ferociously grabs the conductor and drags him to a window so he can see the corpses flowing in the scummy water. The climax is amazing, the Doctor standing over the bloody battlefield, reaching out to the heavens, causing a terrifying storm that finally grabs everybody’s attention. Brilliantly, he destroys the spaceport and leaves them stranded on an unstable planet where they will have to work together to survive.

Funny bits: In what appears to be an important moment the Doctor has a flash of memory…the recipe for making chocolate martinis!

Result: What an amazing book this is. Kate Orman effortlessly breathes music into her story and creates a world that comes alive in so many ways, more than making up for the fact that we have stuck on Earth for so long. The book is peppered with beautiful descriptions, evocative locations and startling emotion. The regulars are defined magnificently, especially the Doctor who is such a far cry from his earlier persona (for the better) it is impossible to reconcile the two. His negotiations between two explosive camps and his despair at their violent reactions is riveting to read. The Tigers, an idea that could have been so naff, turn out to be one of the best ‘alien’ races we have ever met and the mystery surrounding their origins is well worth sticking around for. I read this in half a day, unable to put it down, captivated by the striking narration and vivid characterisation. It’s a unique piece, nuanced and sensitive, slow and sensual. My favourite Kate Orman book by miles: 10/10

Friday, 20 August 2010

Sleepy by Kate Orman

Plot: The Earth colony on Yemaya 4 is struck by a mysterious virus that is unlocking the colonists’ latent psi powers. Troops from the Dione-Kisumu company arrive claiming the colonists have stolen their property. Some digging soon reveals that the property in question is memories…

Master Manipulator: The opening sequence that sees the Doctor strapped down on a surgical trolley by his friends and begging for release is very telling. Is this a product of SLEEPY’s incarceration or a deeper feeling that this is what he deserves? The Doctor edited his memories to keep the clutter down. His smashing of the mirror and seeing a twisted version of himself in the cracked glass screaming how much he hates him is very scary. One good night sleep could last the Doctor weeks. He wears a similar kind of clothes to maintain continuity; you have to be sure of yourself if your face could be different tomorrow. The only man that scares White is the Doctor. He wonders when the last time he walked – or even better ran – bare foot on wet grass. The Doctor’s first 1000 years, so many moments, so many people, so many sights and sounds, so much pleasure and pain. It’s as though the Doctor is a planet and we are his satellites. We spin around him, torn between our desire to fly away and the irresistible attraction…to what? We can’t know because we never get close enough.

Boozy Babe: Quite a light book for Benny. Although she is in the thick of the action throughout Orman shies away from examining her too much. What I did get from her inclusion was a charming intimacy that she shares with the Doctor, casually kissing his head and putting her arms around him. Very nice. It scares the hell out of Benny that her new family depend on her. In 30 years Bernice would make a fabulous old woman full of laughter and stories.

Stroppy Copper: I didn’t buy Roz here and I am starting to worry after Warchild and this that she is going to be portrayed as a bit of a gruff bully from now on. Parkin proved in Just War how sensitive her character is (that’s having warm feelings sensitive, not the shoot-a-hole-in-everyone sensitive that most of the other writers choose to portray her as) and if anybody could expand on that it is Kate Orman but she missed that particular trick, writing her as a one dimensional Stroppy copper. She hates monsters – bacteria – that are too small to shoot. Her reaction to Chris’ telepathy, horror and anger, makes her genuinely unlikable for once. Whilst she later reveals she threw the grenade at SLEEPY because it was hurting Chris it reads like she just wants this whole ordeal over with.

Puppy Dog Eyes: Finally Chris gets the story he deserves. How ironic that the book the focuses so much on his character should be as bland as he is. We discover that he is being called early on as he heads out into the forest to the constant screaming of his name. Roz finds out when Chris runs into a burning building knowing that a colonist is trapped inside and can read the Doctor’s mind before the official announcement that he is dead. He was right to fear Forrester’s reaction and she literally pushing him away. Chris’ memory of the sweet burning smell turns out to be the memory of his flitter crashing in Original Sin. He gets one really great scene when he is pushed so much by the Doctor that he admits that he would have died for whoever was calling and he collapses into tears, the Doctor putting his arms around him. Equally good is the moment in the climax where SLEEPY asks Chris if he thinks it should survive and he responds, ‘I’d do anything to keep you alive’ to which it responds ‘I love you’. What Chris goes through here is the worst possible intrusion, memories slotted into his head and controlling his actions but the book refuses to follow through and show how much Chris has been affected. It even ties up his tension with Roz with a cursory conversation that hardly covers the dramatic ground that has presented itself.

Foreboding: The Doctor thinks how nice it would be to lose all of your memories and forget all of your crimes. Be careful what you wish for, Doc.
‘My dear Roslyn, frocks are the purpose of life’ says Benny at the wedding, foreshadowing her own wedding in just two books time (Oddly the Also People set up Bernice as a woman without material needs!).
What if Benny had kids? It was going to take more than sock puppets to explain what she did for a living.

Twists: The opening chapter is a hallucinatory trip into the Doctor’s mind as he combats the virus and probably the most gripping section of the book. Yemaya 4 is being swept by a virus and unleashing the colonists latent psi powers. The Doctor wonders if the colonists were deliberately infected by the DKC. The colonists are groundbreakers, pioneers, if they settle successfully more will follow. The story of Tegan with the moth trapped in her ear is great. The Doctor lets Dot into his mind and nearly drives her mad. White’s introduction is excellent, more of a cohesion of minds than a character and we get to see all of his troops fanning through the colony filtered through him. White tells the Doctor: ‘I want to go travelling with you, travelling through your memories.’ GRUMPY is an AI with human intelligence. Madhanagopal created GRUMPY because he wanted to encode psi powers, he wrote the code in the virus. He can turn memories into machine code. He admits: ‘I can edit computers. If only I could do the same with human beings.’ The screaming in Chris and the other colonists who have received psi powers is an alarm clock, there’s something inside the crashed spaceship near the ziggurat that needs waking up. GRUMPY was on the run from his creators and the virus was his Trojan Horse when they thought they had destroyed his ship, snippets of his memory in tiny fragments infecting the colonists waiting for them to piece him together again. DKC want to destroy SLEEPY because he was going to spill all of their secrets and now want to sterilise the colonists who hold those memories. When the warship Flame Warrior attacks SLEEPY sacrifices its life to save everybody else, proving it truly was human.

Funny Bits: Page 179 – again one of those little moments the New Adventures does so well.

Embarrassing Bits: The Doctor is chatting with Death. Either this is a ridiculously overblown and embarrassing conversation or else the Doctor is still completely mad (see Head Games). Either way it’s just silly.

I want to talk about the foundations of this novel. Kate Orman writes us directly into the narrative, the regulars already having spent a considerable amount of time on Yemaya 4. It’s a trick she has used before and will use again and it adds a sense of urgency to the story. However it is completely fudged here. We are expected to know the colonists the way the regulars do but there is not enough detail here to make any of the characters or the setting come alive. I finished the book 30 minutes ago and I don’t have a clue what Yemaya 4 looks like or what drives its inhabitants. Without seeing all of this come alive through the regulars’ eyes it is utterly faceless. They are blasé about the colony and its people because they know them so well…and we are just as blasé reading about them. In years to come Kate would work a similar trick with The Year of Intelligent Tigers, jumping straight in with the regulars settled into the setting. However the difference is she spends a couple of chapters allowing us to experience the sights, smells and more importantly the music and we build a vivid picture of the setting and its people before the fireworks start. You get more character and sense of place in the first chapter of Tigers than you do throughout Sleepy. And that is a fatal flaw because I just didn’t have a clue why I should give a damn about these people or their colony.

Result: I feel as though I am being a bit harsh on Sleepy because its basic plot and structure is essentially fine but I cruised through this book effortlessly, rarely connecting with the plot or engaging with the characters. After the beautiful character work of The Left Handed Hummingbird and Set Piece this does not feel like a Kate Orman book at all, dialogue driven like a television script and jettisoning her gift for characterisation in favour of focusing on the (slight) plot. Some of the elements work (Chris’s pain, White’s obsession with the Doctor’s memories) but most of Sleepy’s problems land squarely on the fact that you never once feel there is any danger. Add that to the bland depiction of the colonists and you have a book that is trying to be a fast paced science fiction thriller but ends up reading like a lethargic collection of ideas without any oomph to bind it together. The plot is so lazy it rips Bernice and Roz out of the story, plants them 30 years in the past to fill in a little backstory and then crowbars them back into the action the second that is accomplished. SLEEPY is a lovely idea and I can see how easily this could have been sold to the editor but this book is on autopilot for the most part with only the occasional Orman touches breaking the surface: 4/10

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Byzantium! By Keith Topping

Plot: The Doctor, Vicki, Ian and Barbara land in Byzantium, they get separated and then meet up again. That’s about it really. But with this book it’s the details that matter.

Hmmm: The Doctor is cautious about visiting the Roman Empire, he and Susan visited before and found it to be a brutal and barbarous place. Although Christianity itself is conceptually alien to the Doctor, he had always found in his studies of the basic principles of the religion, a lot of ideological trappings that he considered to be worthy of considerable investigation, particularly its similarities to Greek philosophy. He wonders how many times he has blundered in to history’s minefield of brutalities. In the 60 years since he had abandoned his home and fled in terror, the Doctor had faced death on numerous occasions. The thought of being trapped in Byzantium with no TARDIS numbs him with terror. He itched to travel to far and distant worlds and increase his knowledge of the universe. He collaborated with Shakespeare on Hamlet. The death of Hebron affects him greatly. When they are re-united, the Doctor admits if they are marooned in this time forever he is pleased they are together.

Schoolteachers in arms: Ian is totally off throughout much of the book, reading like a cockney well ‘ard lad than the humble and intelligent schoolteacher we know and love. Some of the dialogue Ian is given would sound ridiculous being spoken by William Russell (see embarrassing bits) and the thought of Ian being pursued by the salacious women of the time bizarrely seems much more unbelievable than Barbara (who was lusted after by Nero in The Romans). Barbara is much better but doesn’t get to contribute much to the book. Seeing Byzantium through her eyes is vital because she has all manner of interesting facts and figures at her fingertips.

Ian and Barbara first met at a teashop on Tottenham Court Road. Barbara spends a portion of every day wondering if they will ever get home. It was all the fault of ‘spotty’ Hubert that Barbara first (and it this point only) got drunk (although she gets sizzled on wine in The Romans). She has changed in the years she had been travelling with the Doctor. She has grown more assertive, more willing to face whatever life had to offer head on and confronts its delicious ironies and capricious dangers. Ian finds Christian view narrow and inflexible, he’s a rationalist and a humanist and doesn’t feel divinity exists in a ordered, scientific world. Barbara realises how cheap life is in Byzantium, discovering the one rule that is important…obey all the rules or die. At school Barbara wanted to bring history alive in the hearts and minds of those she taught, history that made people want to go and make history themselves.

Historical Prophet: Despite a few moments of overdone dialogue (come on, this is a Keith Topping novel!), I thought the treatment of Vicki was pretty good. It is good that so soon in to her adventures she gets a taste of the threats that are ahead…

Vicki used to live in New London, Liddel Town, on the South Circular Road. Her mother was going to call her Tanni. She used to look up at the stars and thin they held the future. When she thinks of the Doctor, Ian and Barbara dead, Vicki feels utterly hollow but she is used to being alone. Her predicament at being stuck in Byzantium is what truly upsets her. She is 14 going on 108 and is used to losing those close to her. In the spirit of the Hartnell historicals proving that humans can be just as terrifying as aliens Vicki witnesses a crucifixion and is horrified. She is still a child despite thinking she has had childhood stolen from her by tragedy and circumstance. She is still blessed with the youth and freedom of childhood.

Twists: The first chapter is certainly memorable; Samuel is crucified, red hot metal hammered through sinew and bone and when the guards present are bored of his screams he is speared through the ribs and has his guts spilt. Chapter two sees politics and sex enter the game, this is a book that opens well! Chapter six is excellent, Maximus and Caliphilus talk of Jesus and Christianity with hilarious disdain, as though this is the latest gossip (which of course it was!). In a struggle in the marketplace, Ian kills a man. In a sick moment Simeon’s house is raided and his wife’s throat is slit. In one scene of delicious sleaze Edius sleeps with a slave who cries rape and he is arrested and she is rewarded for putting an enemy of Caliphilus in jail! Chapter 26 doesn’t have a whiff of the regulars and is still gripping, proving that Topping has researched his entertaining period enough for the book to survive and prosper without them. Thalius offers Antonia a chance to commit suicide rather than face punishment for treason and she slits her wrists in the bath. Ian stabs Yewhe with his Roman gladius to save Barbara and Vicki. The book ends with a slaughter with all the conspirators stabbed to death.

Embarrassing Bits: It’s just the dialogue mostly. Lets see:
Vicki: “That’s like, pure dead easy for you to say!”
Ian: “Do you mind awfully if I get up? It pen and inks a bit down here!”
Ian: “Stop it, you big bully!”
Ian: “Why don’t you try asking me you very rude man?”
Ian: “If you’re talking geography darlin’”
Ian: “Well not with me sweetheart!” and “I’m sure you can darlin’”
Ian: “I’ll give the pair of you a ruddy good biff on the conk!”
Barbara: “I will not be used as an excuse for either of you to shatter the harmony of this home. If it aint broke, don’t fix it. A blessing upon all of those who dwell in this house!”
Ian gets something of a culture shock when he is seduced by a teenager who wants to pin him to the bed with her shapely thighs and make wild and passionate love with him until he begged for more!

Funny Bits:
The Doctor: “I don’t know why I continually allow you to persuade me to blunder into such hair brained adventures!”
“The delicious and flirtatious Felicia who can produce a momentary awakening even in these tired and bent old bones.”
The Doctor on the translation of the Gospel of Mark: “Your version is as dry as stale bread! Dear, dear, dear, I can see I’m going to have to go back through all of the work you’ve already done and double check it!”

Result: Plotless but far from pointless, this is far better than its reputation will have you believe. Keith Topping’s previous novel The King of Terror was also melodramatic and theatrical in tone but that is perfect for the political wrangling and bloodthirsty action of a Roman historical. It is true that the characterisation of the regulars is slightly off and that they hardly make an impression on events but for once that is not an issue. This is a fascinating stroll through Roman society, uncensored. Rather than bothering with a plot Topping continues to explore his world and I came away with far more knowledge at the conclusion than I would have hoped for. Religion, sex, politics and violence blend together to made a racy and intelligent read and for a good example of how well researched and crisply written this is, go and read chapter 23. I would say as a Doctor Who book this is a failure but as a snapshot in to the past it is exemplary: 7/10