Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #37 – Falls The Shadow by Daniel O'Mahony

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Falls The Shadow
By Daniel O'Mahony

Time for one of those New Adventures I knew nothing about beforehand.  I look forward to those: no reviews on my radar, no expectations, anything could happen.  But, once again, there's a reason I never came across this one on my research rounds.

To start with, Falls The Shadow is a bit familiar.  The TARDIS lands in a weird old house filled with crazy people.  Some echoes of Ghost Light there, which is no surprise as it was originally based on "advanced rumours" about Ghost Light's plot.  And more recently, it's like Strange England.  (Uh oh.)  As occurred in that novel, reality has indigestion; the people that inhabit the house aren’t all there; there’s lashings of violence and torture, which are becoming worryingly ever-present in these books (Strange England, Evolution, St. Anthony’s Fire – maybe give it a rest, fellas?  Shake things up a bit?), along with the messed up metaphysical what-the-effery that forms the finale (and much of the rest of it).  In the blurb, Daniel O’Mahony says he has occasionally “managed to be controversial”.  Despite all the effort, he hasn’t managed it here.  Par for the course, more like.

Falls The Shadow is plenty weird, of course.  Something in the house is killing people more or less at random, and it can look like anything.  Several of the people there are having an identity crisis.  There’s a mysterious grey man who keeps trying to get involved, keeps getting killed, and keeps coming back.  And a scientist is making forays into another realm of existence, which is what started this whole mess.

And some of the book’s ideas are intriguing, though as it often the case, more so in theory.  That other realm is “interstitial time”, which is never really explained; it’s something to do with how time travel causes other realities to wink out of being, and the book is what happens when that comes back to bite you.  In practice: beings from outside time are manipulating people, who are themselves composites of might-have-beens from other timelines.  (One of them is from a timeline where we’re all giant insects!)  Needless to say, these people are varying degrees of nuts, which can become monotonous.  Still, you can visit interstitial time via a wardrobe, which is pleasantly wacky and TARDIS-esque.  The house itself can shift and grow seemingly at random, which is a neat idea and would look great in a film, though it really doesn’t achieve very much here.  We also visit a mysterious city/alt-universe called Cathedral that’s ruled by the grey guy and is linked to the house, which is pretty neat.  It’s not a very interesting place to visit, but it was a nice break from the house.  The grey guy is about as successful as South Park's Kenny for most of it, which makes him oddly comical to behold, and we never really know what he is, but there's definitely something interesting there.  I could live to regret it, but... I think I'd want to read about him again.

Alas, we’ve been down this road before: ideas are great, actually they're essential, but they’re not the whole show.  Put them to one side and Falls The Shadow doesn’t have much story to tell.  Our heroes bumble around a madhouse where troubled people come and go.  The sadistic and all-powerful villains, Gabriel and Tanith, manipulate events and make bad things happen just for the hell of it.  Realities bump into each other.  We may delve into the psyches and histories of the house’s inhabitants at intervals, but they’re all disposed of with varying degrees of shrug.  A lot of it is disposable and forgettable; there were many moments where the remaining pages seemed to expand ad infinitum, like the corridors of the house.  At 356 pages (uh oh, he’s counting), it’s morbidly long.

But the writing is mostly... sort of good, if I’m honest, particularly the characterisation.  Bernice is a pleasure, which I refuse to take for granted.  Such a relentlessly witty character could easily become nauseating.  (There’s a bit where the Doctor notes “‘We’d be worse off without your sense of humour, Benny.’  Not half.)  Ace seems fleshed-out (oo-er – actually, she remains fully clothed!), the narrative adopting her mannerisms with sweary ease.  She’s a lot more believable without the artificial “Toe-rag!”s and “Bilge-breath!”s; it’s surprising what a difference actual swearing makes, while her natural violence takes on a very human fury near the end.  I prefer that to Ace The Cold Soldier.  With Benny and Ace, Daniel O’Mahony has a natty gift for shifting into the second person for a character’s inner thoughts, something he rather oddly drops later on.  I liked it while it lasted.  It certainly helps with the occasionally cartoonish Ace.

Less good is his Doctor.  There’s a portion of the story where it appears one of his friends has died (funny, this also happened in Strange England), and he becomes defeatist and melancholy because it’s seemingly the past repeating itself.  Fair enough, right?  Except he’s out of sorts from the moment he first appears.  The TARDIS is malfunctioning (trope!), hence its arrival in the house, and the Doctor becomes visibly weakened.  ‘Ace, I’m sorry if I’ve seemed a bit brusque,’ the Doctor said softly, close to her ear.  ‘It’s just I’m very worried about the TARDIS.’  It’s not like him to be so demonstrative, or so easily shaken.  The reader can’t be the only one to think “Here we go again” at the TARDIS breaking down, so why the doom and gloom?  Then things go from not-great to bad when, after allowing Bernice to wander off by herself (!), the Doctor and Ace decide to search an enormous and likely dangerous house from opposite ends!  Surprise, they wind up in separate baskets of trouble.  And near the end he goes a bit mad and hides in the TARDIS.  What the heck is up with him?  (Another serendipitous own goal: “Ace had gone through patches of depression in the past, but she’d been a kid and she’d grown out of it.  Watching a grown man endure the same was embarrassing.”  Yup.)

It’s hard not to suspect “We all go a little mad sometimes” is the excuse for a lot of this, and as bracing as that might be (at least the first time – which this isn't), it’s no replacement for real motivation.  Certainly it’s the best Gabriel and Tanith can come up with: pointless, proud sadists, they introduce an assassin and a pissed-off bug person into the mix just to liven things up, torturing and killing just to see what it feels like.  You can be as clever and meta as you like, and Falls The Shadow is occasionally both, but it’s hard to come up with compelling motives, and sadism is a lame replacement.  The book does eventually try to make sense of them beyond that, but said effort is not only muddled by all that universe-bothering weirdness that comes as standard now (they want to do what with the universe?), it’s also just too late to take either of them seriously as people who want something.

A first-time novelist, O’Mahony’s prose dips between careful, deliberate oddness (like much of the character introspection, and a mad character conversing with an icon around another’s neck) and sheer waffle.  There’s a tendency, especially near the start, to over-describe the hell out of things:

He was grey.  Grey coat over a grey shirt and trousers.  Grey shoes with loosely tied grey laces that never came undone.  His hat: casual, wide-brimmed, grey.  Even his skin: paper-thin, cold and bloodless, tinged grey by the cold daylight.  His hair, though, was white, but streaked with lines of pure black.  Almost grey.  So… he’s grey, then?

It was large, grey and ugly.  It squatted in the corner of the room daring anyone to come near it.  It was, simply, a wardrobe.”  How is that “simply”?  And later that paragraph: “Wardrobe was too weak a term for the sombre artefact.  It was a sarcophagus.”  So it wasn’t simply a wardrobe, then?

It can affect the dialogue, too: “‘You’re mad,’ she said simply.  There was no point in adding anything else.  Mad said it all.  Well yes, it did, two sentences ago!  And occasionally characters will ponder things in a circle.  The first line of the book is “Qxeleq would have screamed, had she a mouth,” and then, near the end of the Prologue, “Qxeleq tried to scream.  She discovered that she no longer had a mouth.”  What, again?  I know this sort of thing is picky.  Perhaps I wouldn't be stuck on it if I was swept along by the story.

O’Mahony is skilled enough elsewhere for one to suspect this is all carefully constructed.  I can imagine an editor not knowing where, or even if to start, as this guy seems to know what he’s on about even if it’s a opaque to us.  But there still must come a point where a story is either moving or it isn’t, and for great slabs of Falls The Shadow, that’s simply a negative.

What enjoyment can you derive from it?  Well, there are the ideas, but that’s almost a back-handed insult, since I feel like there must be a more compelling story to be told about worlds that never got a chance to exist, blaming the Doctor for leaving his TARDIS-shaped footprint where they could have been.  There’s the characterisation, which works very well indeed sometimes.  The supporting characters wobble in and out of the narrative, always with the clever-clever air of “Ah yes, I meant to do that,” which isn’t a substitute for giving a hoot about them, or in some cases, telling them apart.  There’s some neat-o imagery, but file that next to the ideas.  The prose is promising, but all told, it would work better if there was less of it.

I went into it with an open mind and I didn’t exactly hate it.  Unless you're hell-bent on reading absolutely every one of these things, however, it's one to skip.



  1. This is the first truly experimental book since Cat's Cradle: Crucible, excepting perhaps The Left-handed Hummingbird. The floridly descriptive yet nonsensical narrative style, the countless external references, the incomprehensible yet psychologically realistic characters, the at-times theatrical dialogue, the open-ended interpretation allowed the reader.

    I have since read the reviews at the Doctor Who Ratings Guide and the comments here. Reactions to this book vary from thrilled and awed to disgusted and bored. Not a few like myself experienced all of these reactions as well as intrigued, puzzled, tickled, outraged and deeply impressed.

    I will agree with most of them now, that the seventh Doctor is useless plot-wise but full of interesting thoughts and words; Ace reverts to brutal psychopathy but this is juxtaposed with frequent instances of camaraderie, good sense and introspection; Bernice has a hard time maintaining her contribution to the humour in such an horrific book. The secondary characters are almost all very interesting, full of flaws and personable facets, and have psychologically realistic motives. Insane, cruel, pathetic Cranleigh, obsessed, weak, brilliant Winterdawn, alien and monstrous Tanith and Gabriel, the weary, wise and foolish grey man . (I do wish though that authors stopped using the completely unrealistic cliche of a female assassin: Violet is sexy and Hit Girl is cute, but even the fantastic Leon and Clint Eastwood actually feel more psychologically real.) The overall plot is impossible to understand even with the explanations given, but it is usually compelling.

    The prose is frequently brilliant in its description and wit. There are too many repetitious scenes of capture, escape, torture, slaughter and discussion about all of these. However a more condensed version might have lessened the effect of crushing hopelessness to which the author wanted to subject the seventh Doctor and even the godlike sometime ally.

    Many reviewers have mentioned the various allusions in this book. One noticed the references to many movies. Another noticed various songs and books. One thing above all struck me: the countless references which Daniel O'Mahony makes to the more experimental works of Michael Moorcock. The entire novel is like a toned-down revision of The Cornelius Chronicles, which began as seemingly usual science-fiction/fantasy and soon turn into a psychedelic, nonsensical, allusion-rich, horrific and silly experiment. "Falls the Shadows" contains an English assassin, two destructive clowns, an Eternal Champion. The characters alternate entire personalities between heroic and monstrous. Insanity abounds. Progressive rock also features large as in The Condition of Muzak: Kate Bush was the one I noticed most. Ren and Stimpy get quoted.

    In this context the contradiction of Ace makes sense: both of her characters are purposely juxtaposed. The seventh Doctor must be simultaneously as useless and as crucially important as Jerry Cornelius was throughout his bizarre adventures. The villains and their worlds must remain inexplicable: perhaps the reader provides the answers?

    Spoiler: Reveal
    To me it is clear that the grey man is a Grey Guardian, the keeper of the Eternal Balance, the champion of rich sentient civilization (again a concept from Moorcock), persecuted but never defeated by the inflexible Black and White Guardians. However just as in Moorcock's numerous fantasy novels, the attempts to create Balance by a god go astray because of his godliness and incomprehension of true free will. If not for the Doctor, then no Bernice; if not for Bernice, the Grey Guardian would never have acted decisively to put a stop to Tanith and Gabriel.

    8/10 High marks for audacity and for making me think hard. I deduct points for the occasional tedium of the violence and horror. This was very literary, but frankly I still prefer "Timewyrm: Exodus," just as I prefer "The Chronicles of Corum" and Moorcock's other pulp fantasy works to his experimental stuff.

    1. Well, I'm glad you liked it. I don't know Thing One about Michael Moorcock, although I've got that recentish Doctor Who book he wrote. (Terrorvores?)

      I suppose the only thing I can add to my review is I found the book rather disjointed and woolly. I'm definitely in these things for the story first.

  2. Unfortunately "Terraphiles" is one of Moorcock's worst books: he just wanted to write a P.G.Wodehouse novel in space and then added a generic Doctor (it features the 11th Doctor and Amy, but was written before Matt Smith had appeared on screen).