By Christopher Bulis
What's that ominous note of thunder? Ah yes, Shadowmind: presenting yet another New Adventure that fans generally do not like. Consensus is never going to account for everybody, of course, but we're basically talking Time-Flight or The Invisible Enemy here – in Doctor Who terms, it might as well give off stink-lines.
As it happens, I've read one of Christopher Bulis's later books, or should I say tried to read as I literally couldn't finish The Sorcerer's Apprentice. A mixture of sci-fi and fantasy every bit as bog-standard as Witch Mark, studded with flat characters boasting godawful names like Nyborg, it did not make a good first impression. And he wrote Shadowmind years earlier. I read this one peeking through my fingers.
About a third of the way through, I wondered if I was reading the same book I'd been hearing about. Over halfway, I was in a near-constant state of alarm that any minute now it would all turn to mush. By the end, I assumed I'd gone completely mad and dreamt the whole thing. This is Shadowmind, right? Godawful, out-of-character, stab-it-stab-it-make-it-die Shadowmind? Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle: it's actually pretty good.
The first thing to strike me in a positive way was the pace. It's Ace's birthday, and along with the Doctor and Bernice, she wants a holiday. A proper one this time. They settle on the bright, clement world of Tairngaire, and to my surprise as well as theirs, Ace and co. holiday their brains out for an entire day before trouble (inevitably) starts. Tairngaire, or more specifically the city of New Byzantium, is nicely realised. It calms Ace in particular, who now seems well adjusted to life with the Doctor and Bernice. Her rapport with the latter is coming along quite organically; at one point, they both agree that the TARDIS is their home. Quite right. After the tumult of Lucifer Rising and the violence of White Darkness, it's good to see Ace mesh with friends. And it's nice to have characters exit the TARDIS without stumbling immediately on a pile of corpses. (Like in the previous novel, for example.) The first 40-page chunk is fun. The characters breathe.
But this is not What The TARDIS Team Did On Their Holidays, nor should it be, and trouble shows up in the form of a man being chased. Ace intervenes too late to save him, but discovers he is not a person at all: there's something smaller living inside him. Something that made a duplicate of the man she's seeing. There are more duplicates on Tairngaire, and that's putting it mildly. A full-scale coup is staged, as duplicates in key positions sabotage and steal technology, and even a few spaceships. Suddenly there's a tremendous feeling of oh-my-god-what-just-happened?!, and the pace roars up a gear. Moments before it all goes nuclear, there's a splendid scene where the Doctor deduces which of his colleagues are duplicates – it's like Agatha Christie with a stun gun. Then, when the fun starts, Ace is ambushed by duplicates and ends up fleeing naked except for a Dalek-style helmet. (Hmm. There's your mental image for the day.)
There are quite a few exciting and very visual scenes in this. Bulis is a designer and illustrator, which no doubt helps. He's also a massive Doctor Who fan, evidenced by the brilliant bit where the Doctor is cleared of all the usual (tedious) suspicion heaped on him when he's only trying to help by, er, getting them to look him up. And hence find loads of records on how helpful and face-change-y he is. Brilliant! Good lord, why doesn't he do that every week?
After the duplicates make their move, there's another change of pace – a calm between storms, as the Doctor and the Tairngaire survivors figure out their next move. I enjoyed the ebb and flow of the book. I was aware, just from glancing at the cover, that it would take on a fully militaristic bent at some point, but there is plenty of lead-up to that, and the enormous-yet-intangible threat of the duplicates totally earns it. And it's here I want to address one of the criticisms I've come across for Shadowmind: that the book, in particular the Doctor, takes on a pro-military slant. Ahem: no. The Doctor goes to considerable lengths to clarify his position on that. Here he is on war:
'Oh no, Lieutenant,' the Doctor interrupted bitterly. 'You do not understand at all.' He sighed. 'I wish I was as pure as that. My problem is that I have used entirely too many weapons ... I once triggered a weapon that destroyed an entire world. And knowing it "had to be done" does not make the memory any easier to bear.'”
In a nutshell, Shadowmind is a violent story and its heroes must be violent in it, but it's about people struggling against a sudden, horribly expanding force that absolutely does not want to co-exist. To borrow a line from Aliens, what were they supposed to use? Harsh language?
As for the people themselves, there are a lot of characters – and to get the critic ball rolling, characterisation is a bit thin on the ground. But the action spans several planets and spaceships, so it makes sense to cast a wide net. That's not to excuse spotty characters like Santony, a man Ace connects with whose sad past comes via info-dump, or the rather odd Robson, one of the "main" duplicates who spends most of his time hanging around with a marsupial. But I get why there are a lot of people here, and I didn't have as much trouble remembering who they all were as in White Darkness. Everyone has some element of interest to them. You feel for the Marshal and his bright starship-captain granddaughter, you can't help sympathising with duplicates like Gerry who are more or less innocent in all this, and of course there's Sorren. A colonist unwittingly trapped within the duplicates' plans, she doesn't really connect with many other characters, but she reflects poignantly on what this all means for her, and to the fallen pastoral world of Arden:
And anyway, there is some moral greyness here. An irresponsible creature wants to expand, so it convinces a lot of harmless creatures with no individual values to steal and murder to achieve that. The whole thing comes off with a disquieting lack of understanding, particularly as the duplicates blank whenever they try to understand why they're killing (or worse, why they shouldn't kill), and that makes the violent reaction from Tairngaire all the more understandable. You cannot reason with shadows.
I'm probably making it sound like a heavy and miserable book. It isn't, although there are moments like that and swathes of action once we reach Arden. More importantly the Doctor, Ace and Bernice are well captured. Bulis has a knack for the companions in particular; I’ve no qualms with the Doctor's morals, but he does spend a lot of time helpfully spouting exposition. Meanwhile Ace and Benny have fun, funny moments. Benny's astute and learned wit is just right. Ace's sense of responsibility, re violence, is well-earned and judged; she feels just as dangerous as Ace 1.0 (is that a thing?), but lacks the sheer recklessness. I loved her self-reproachful running commentary on armament:
Honestly though, I'm drawing a blank. I flat-out liked it. This is neatly paced, and its so-called villains had enough layers to keep me curious and entertained. The prose bobbed along, alternately reflective and exciting, and at least one of its main characters had what you'd call a life-altering experience. That goes a long way to making Shadowmind, for my money, a substantial and exciting read.