Friday, 24 September 2010

The City of the Dead by Lloyd Rose

Plot: Sinister dreams are haunting the Doctor and lead him to a peculiar murder mystery in New Orleans. In the land of death and decay he uncovers a nasty tale of murder, corruption and magic, a story, which had consequences unfolding around them. Will the Doctor finally discover the horrors that he has caused…?

Top Doc: City of the Dead lives and breathes the eighth Doctor, his fears and doubts, his strengths and weaknesses. He has a beautiful, sunny and someways, meaningless smile. Anji doesn’t understand why he inspires such loyalty and Fitz explains its because he is good, bigger than them and more full of life. He doesn’t get evil, he’s an innocent and it just doesn’t make any sense to him. He has a sense of remoteness about him; purity gangrenous with sorrow, only a life lived could produce that sort of suffering and despair. Thanks to his terrifying dreams, he has become frightened of his bed. When Rust considers the Doctor might be a criminal the Doctor simply replies, “I don’t think there is anyone left to catch me.” He doesn’t understand why humans are trying to escape their pasts, how can their short lives become unbearable so quickly? He admits he has secrets so secret even he doesn’t know them. He considers what would happen when he dies, considering his super-human ability to regenerate wounds (and has a disturbing feeling he has died once already). His memory keeps throwing teasing hints and pursuing them always leads to a wall so now he has stopped bothering. The Doctor is inured to the randomness and chaos of his existence but his manipulation in this book is the first time it has confused him. He fears the Nothing managed to reach into the TARDIS because it sensed something identical in him. He is afraid he is not an agent for life and in the long run he has created more than he has destroyed…he is afraid he is a monster. He couldn’t watch anybody harm a child and when he wraps the child he saves from the flooded plantation in his coat he reminds him of Miranda as a child. Everytime he sets the TARDIS controls he feels as though he is surrendering himself to fate. The Doctor wonders what sort of a life he used to lead that makes waking up in absurd, embarrassing and dangerous situations so familiar! The reason Rust managed to find him so easily is because the Doctor is eaten up with darkness. He has lived far too long and been battered too much to scorn peace. At the books climax he is at peace with himself again, having resolved some of these difficulties that have been plaguing him of late. His spell with Mrs Flood allows him to rest and heal and he finishes the book in the comforting glow of his friends company.

Just read this paragraph…this is some shocking, wonderful insight into the Doctor. Never before has he come across quite so vividly. This is how to power your series with a thrilling protagonist.

Scruffy Git: Anji thinks Fitz is sharp and funny but more like an irritating kid brother than anything else. He wishes Anji smoked so when she discovers Rust’s defeat he could offer her a ciggie to comfort her. He is fiercely loyal to the Doctor, following him into danger even when specifically asked not to.

Career Nazi: It’s lovely to have so many women writing for the range because they capture Anji with so much more sensitivity and realism than the blokes. She is aware of how romantic the New Orleans setting would be with the right partner and goes out of her way to find one is Rust. It is wonderful to see her relaxing into a date with him, the pair of them dancing and making out with equal gusto (she hasn’t made quite this enthusiastically since Uni). On their second date she feels she is being too pushy and wonders if their relationship could expand if she decided to stay. She tries to shrug off her feelings when Rust turns out to be the villain of the piece but Fitz can see how upset she is. She grew up with religion. Coming back to Earth is like going back to an old room you’ve lived in and smelling the Earth reminds her of the past, of Dave. She feels kind of ‘oops not quite’ with the Doctor…meaning she is waiting until he hits bang on the right time and place before she disembarks the TARDIS for good. Her chemistry with Fitz is beautiful, as they cling to each other as the Doctor goes through this crisis alone, they are really becoming close now and it is heart-warming to witness. Anji doesn’t know why she feels safe in the Doctor’s arms at the climax, but she does.

Foreboding: In a dramatic sequence the Doctor dreams of a short man in a white suit lying in a field of flowers. As the Doctor tries to approach the man wakes up and screams in a Scottish accent, “Go away! And never come back!” Just what part of the Doctor’s mind is this man with the question mark umbrella protecting? And what the hell do the flowers represent?

Twists: The Doctor’s nightmares are genuinely terrifying (“Nothing can enter the TARDIS.” Then he realised Nothing had). The opening scenes with the Doctor aiding the investigation of a magic shop owner in New Orleans is so different to the usual gubbins we usually open with you can instantly tell this going to be something special. We share the Doctor’s disgust at Dupre’s brutal, pretentious and corny decorations (hanging baby foetuses, dismembered body parts and all…), witnessing it is the first time in years he has had to sit down and take deep breaths at the sheer inhumanity of it. In a powerfully adult scene Dupre stands erect ready to lower himself onto a naked girl in a spiked corset and the Doctor drags her away and commands that they stop the ridiculous sex magic. The Doctor’s tarot reading is interesting as his past lives are spelt out before him and he is none the wiser. When he is kidnapped the Doctor is mortified that after years of defeating terrifying enemies he is going to be killed by a fool like Dupre. After carving symbols into his chest to summon a demon, the Doctor breaks the protective circle and the demon consumes Dupre. The Doctor’s discussion with the Priest about the responsibility of evil is breathtaking. In a shocking moment Rust uses the Doctor to kill the man who has stolen the water charm leading the Doctor to confront him with blood on his hands (“All the perfumes in Arabia couldn’t clean that hand!” cries Rust, fully aware of the crime the Doctor has committed and caused his amnesia. “What is it?” begs the Doctor, “What did I do?”). The gripping climax sees Rust confront Thales, finally capturing a water spirit to harness its power but the Doctor lets the Void in and it consumes Rust utterly, the Doctor only protected as Thales embraces him.

The backstory behind this book is fascinating and leads to some quite unexpected and joyful twists. Basically the bone charm was used to summon the water spirit but the ritual went wrong and it consumes the magician and his family. His son survived and went to live an abusive foster family. The son faked his own death in order to kill his foster family and performed a ritual that has them ripped to shreds. As the Doctor, Fitz and Anji investigate they realise they have to discover the whereabouts of the son to stop him trying to summon the spirit again. Imagine their surprise when it turns out to be Rust, the copper the Doctor has been helping and Anji has been dating. Rust joined the homicide department so he could have access to dead bodies and steal things from them for his magic. Thales turns out to be involved too, the elderly man who runs a small magic shop. Under their noses the entire time, he turns out to be the boy the Doctor rescues from the plantation, a second water spirit who came through. These twists are woven expertly into the plot; I have rarely been so delighted by a books outcome.

Funny bits: The Doctor eyes up a saltshaker and comments there is something sinister there. His scenes with Dupre are a continual delight, as the Doctor scorns and mocks his melodramatic attempts to scare (“You’re not going to kill me wearing something that stupid looking are you?”).

Result: Easily one of the best eighth Doctor book to this point and strong contender for the best original Doctor Who book, this is everything you could want from a novel and more. Lloyd Rose’s prose is a revelation, intelligent, sensual, evocative and risky…she brings New Orleans to life with a real sense of beauty and detail, the city of the dead opens up around you within this books pages. She plants the Doctor at the centre of the novel and allows us closer to him than ever before, his characterisation is absolutely phenomenal throughout and it is clear that although he leaps over this particular hurdle there are still more horrors to come. The plotting is airtight; the characters (even the smaller ones like Flood, Thales and Pierre Bal) come alive in unexpected ways and the levels of emotion the book expresses is extremely potent. Half the time it doesn’t read like Doctor Who at all and that can only be a good thing, this is a stunning novel that restores absolute faith in the range after a couple of clunkers: 10/10

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