By Steve Lyons
Be careful what you wish for. Looking at The Left-Handed Hummingbird, I said "I'm not about to give up on books that side-step linear storytelling. Keep it varied and don't be afraid to go odd, I say." Then along comes Conundrum, which is narrated by the villain and almost completely removes the fourth wall. I'm loving that these books feel able to do this stuff: mess about with time, re-imagine familiar worlds for the worse, or (in this case) virtually deconstruct what it means to be a Doctor Who New Adventure, or even a novel, full stop. And make it look easy. My hat's not so much off to Steve Lyons as it is wrapped up and mailed to him.
What, you need more? Okay. Whilst it is a sequel to one of the more popular (and odd) Doctor Who stories, Conundrum avoids the route of repetition. That's no small feat. Having heard Big Finish's The Queen Of Time, which virtually sequelizes The Celestial Toymaker (which is, when all's said and done, pretty much the same format as The Mind Robber – albeit less good), it's alarmingly easy to fall back into the pattern of "Arrive in fantasy realm, go through trials and tribulations, win, leave." The actual number of trials and tribulations has no particular effect on the overall story in these three cases; love The Mind Robber as I do, it could hardly be said to have a massively coherent story so much as a get-from-A-to-B narrative. Conundrum doesn't even go there, stranding the Doctor and co. in a coherent novel (aka the one you're reading) with one major setting and a plot to resolve. It allows for a great many pokes and prods at the format, and oh, the in-jokes. Such in-jokes. (No surprise there: I'm primarily familiar with Steve Lyons from his co-authoring of The Completely Useless Encyclopaedia.)
Arandale is a quaint country village not a million miles away from Witch Mark or Nightshade. (I doubt the familiarity is a coincidence.) Its denizens are in the midst of a series of murders, as quaint country villagers are wont to be, only there's something odd about these people: they're very obviously characters in a book. There's a retired superhero, a prowling supervillain, a paranormal investigator, a private investigator, a figure in the criminal underworld, a witch, a troubled vicar, and a band of Enid Blyton-esque Adventure Kids. Under different circumstances, half of them could be the lead character, and indeed they seem to think so. The Adventure Kids scarcely seem to interact with anybody, so determined are they to get on with their plot; paranormal investigator Matthew Shade lurks on the side-lines, his allegiance an intriguing grey area; P.I. Jack Corrigan is terrible at his job and suspiciously bad at his American accent, but his entire criminal-underworld bit seems, well, like it walked in from another novel. As for the superhero bit, as shown on the front cover, that's in the wrong medium. Conundrum feels like a sneaky commentary on all these types of story, and Doctor Who's ability to plonk its lead character(s) down in the middle of any of them.
The Doctor, Ace and Bernice each get a fair share of the action, although they're rarely in it together. The Doctor keeps to himself: the Master of the Land Of Fiction can't hear his thoughts so there's no inner monologue for him, which is good a reason as any to delay a few revelations, but also ensures that in such a crowded story the Doctor stands out. Bernice is seriously contemplating a life out of the TARDIS; Ace, as ever, goes through the same thing, only angrily. The dialogue is pretty fabulous for all of them, although the reliably witty Bernice is in her element. "Norman sighed, and turned his attention back to the sky above. 'Anyway,' he said softly, 'you really wouldn't understand. You couldn't know what it's like to have been out there.' Benny followed his gaze. 'Out where?' 'Out there!' Norman's finger stabbed upwards. 'Out amongst the stars, visiting new planets, new galaxies...' 'Oh, out there!' Benny inspected her fingernails nonchalantly. 'Just came back from there a few hours ago, actually.'"
As for Ace, eyebrows will raise. There's a dream sequence (well, of course there is!) wherein shadowy figures question not just her bad language ("...in a book deemed suitable for consumption by minors!"), but her continued relevance. "...modified for your new genre, and granted with a limited potential that you have long since outlived ... You are no longer of interest. Your audience are bored." For good measure, she is able to glimpse her journey over a few book spines – Dragonfire, Love And War and Deceit being the main landmarks. I'm not sure if any of this means the writers of the New Adventures feel like I do about Ace (some good stuff, but we're done here, right?), but it's lovely validation to see it written down, even in jest.
And what of the Doctor? Well, the scenes which cheerfully canonise TV Comics' John and Gillian, including a reference to preferring "the real McCoy", were so audacious that I burst out laughing at the sheer nerve. And that's just the completely on-the-nose stuff: see also this timely and sly nudge-wink to Nightshade. "You know, when there was that big 'Nightshade' nostalgia thing, the videos, the books and the repeats and all that." Happy 1993, everybody!
It would be wrong, however, to paint Conundrum as merely a wicked smart spoof. Those are in-jokes, not the whole show. When the book is really flying, it's playing with your understanding of narrative structure: "'Even time doesn't move right here,' she said as he rushed to catch her up. 'You whacked Mel over the head about ten minutes ago, and suddenly it's morning and I don't know what happened in between.' 'We were at the station...' 'Bollocks we were! I don't remember any of that. I know it – but it's like I've just heard about it somewhere, like somebody's just decided that that's happened and written it down in my memory or something.'" Spot the spectral form of Steven Moffat, once again taking notes. (Mind you, spectral Russell T Davies is here too, when Ace points out a floating village in space can't be what it looks like or all the air would be sucked out.)
I love to see a narrative skilfully mucked about with. Sometimes it's just audacious fun: "The significance of all this I don't yet know, but as we hadn't seen that particular character since chapter one, I thought I'd better remind you that he existed." And sometimes it's thrillingly unconventional: "'Go ahead,' [the Doctor] said, jerking his thumb to indicate the corridor behind him. 'He's down there.' Wait a minute... I didn't write that! 'No, said the Doctor. 'I did!'"
It's easy to take this sort of narrative conceit and not make very much of it. The movie Stranger Than Fiction fell short of its eccentric potential, never really capitalising on the author and the creation having a dialogue, and revolving around a novel-within-a-movie that actually sounds utterly tedious. Conundrum is simply a great example of this: what with the already malleable format of Doctor Who, the medium of a novel and the setting of the Land of Fiction, it's such a mind-bogglingly right idea that it almost seems inevitable. Nonetheless, we're lucky Steve Lyons wrote it.
But before I get completely carried away, a quick word on Conundrum as a New Adventure, with its feet on the ground and continuing the arc plot of someone interfering with the Doctor's past. How does it fare? Does the plot progress at last? At last, yes.
With the narrator talking to a mysterious Big Bad all the way through (with no response, of course), it's sort of like the prologue and coda to The Dimension Riders, only it's not tacked on. It feels like the concept isn't being taken for granted this time, with this plot in particular coming about because someone wants to ensnare the Doctor. The previous parts of this saga were all entertaining in their own right, but could still be adventures that happened to the Doctor without much deliberate interference. Conundrum is a trap, plain and simple – well, it's neither of those things! – so it felt like an escalation.
The characters are also going places, trying to find time to talk to one another and get things out in the open. Even the Doctor, though he hasn't got anything like enough free time for that. None of them really succeed, with Ace in particular seemingly doomed to go in angry circles. But with a few nudges and winks to past novel events, and even a few moments to catch their breath and chat about things, Conundrum adds to the feeling of the New Adventures as an ongoing universe. I'm intrigued to see where their relationships, as well as that pesky arc baddie, go from here.
Conundrum is a novel after my own heart, but as with many of the really good New Adventures – and the really bad ones, come to think of it – reviewing it comes dangerously close to just photocopying huge chunks of it. So before I end up locating a PDF and lamely pointing at it: I loved it. If you haven't read it, do.