Tuesday 7 November 2023

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #125 – Twilight Of The Gods by Mark Clapham and Jon De Burgh Miller

The New Adventures
Twilight Of The Gods
By Mark Clapham and Jon De Burgh Miller

NB: This review contains spoilers for how the Bernice Summerfield New Adventures ended. The book's quite old, but forewarned is forearmed, eh? I've coloured in the spoiler bits, so just highlight them to read.

NB (2): This book has nothing to do with the Doctor Who Missing Adventure Twilight Of The Gods, it's just an unfortunate repeated title. 

It’s the end – for real this time. Virgin lost the Doctor Who license in 1997 and, after a 23-book run, they knocked the Bernice Summerfield range on the head as well. It was a good effort, telling stories about someone other than what’s-his-name and making use of new authors where possible. I think it’s apparent by now that I wasn’t bowled over by the spin-off, which retreated to the warm embrace of a murder mystery as frequently as Doctor Who did to quarries, but it’s no less an achievement that they went and did it.

Which brings us to the finale – for real this time. (Sorry, Tears Of The Oracle.) You might expect a bit of a “name” to handle this one, but Gary Russell wasn’t available (no, seriously, that was the plan) so we’re going with lesser-knowns instead. A bold choice. Enter Mark Clapham, who had co-written a couple of novels (starting with Benny’s Beige Planet Mars) and Jon de Burgh Miller, who hadn’t. Like Richards and Stone before them they had been given a ridiculous timeframe to get it done. (“Six weeks from pitch to print” according to Miller.) I wouldn’t envy anyone that, especially if they were relatively untested, but it helps to know what they were up against when reading the finished result. Because the finished result absolutely reads like someone with little experience didn’t have long to put it together.

Yeah, it’s going to be that kind of review. Twilight Of The Gods is bad. With surprisingly little competition (which is nice, really), this is comfortably the worst book of the run. And this is the one they went out on. Good lord.

Let’s start with the good. Continuity. Justin Richards thought he was writing the last Bernice book in Tears Of The Oracle – so someone clearly let him think that, great editorial oversight there guys – and to accommodate that, he put in an ending for the Dellah gods arc: a spaceship containing a force that feeds on belief crashes onto the planet of the obsessive believers. Job done. Return To The Fractured Planet ignored it, or Stone just didn’t know about it (editors?), and now it’s time to go back to Dellah. Surprisingly, Clapham and Miller don’t ignore it: they incorporate it into the plot. The crash caused “a wave of unbelief” across Dellah which has destabilised the factions of worshippers and made the “gods” compete to the death to keep what they have. At least one has set up a device to keep all this going artificially. At the end of the day it would have been neater to let Richards take it home, but using it is at least better than pretending he didn’t try.

Next, the setup. The Time Lords (unnamed as per) and the People have had enough of the gods and are sending a device to detonate Dellah, and its entire sector of space, once and for all. Bernice and co have a plan B: send Dellah back to the universe where the gods came from. But they’ve got to get it done in time to stop the bomb. Okay, it’s quite similar to Walking To Babylon in some respects, and without diving into the other wonders of this sector it’s a bit difficult to buy the appeal of sending Dellah and everyone on it to the gods’ realm instead of blowing it up – either way the locals are screwed – but hey, it’s a decent ticking clock.

Okay, so what’s wrong with it? Well, let’s pick up where we left off. Continuity. Yes, it’s nice that we’re picking up plot threads from previous books – not all of them, with Bernice’s memory loss crisis only warranting a brief mention – but the authors get a bit carried away near the end and it doesn’t end well. The magical universe that spawned the gods sounds awfully familiar, and sure enough it’s the one mentioned in Cold Fusion. In order to have someone recognise this they quickly resolve Chris’s corrupted memories from Dead Romance, which again is nice – he had been trained to hate the Doctor! Boo! – but as there’s been no mention of it since Dead Romance, or any recognition of it by other characters, or any exploration of how else it changed him, it makes no material difference to his character to undo it now. Worse, the Cold Fusion link undoes the whole Tears Of The Oracle thing they just set up. Now the gods aren’t killing each other to compete for worshippers: Tehke, the Worst One apparently (?), is doing it “knowing that they were planning to create a universe where he would be one of many rather than the ruler of many.” Motivations aren’t even kept straight during the book! (For a bonus point Clapham and Miller undo Chris’s new appearance, probably in the hope that more books will eventually happen. Fair enough. Making him short, bald and fat has been an example of what Ken Campbell used to call a jokoid: something with the shape of a joke that isn’t in any way actually funny. Ditch it by all means.)

Next, ah what the hell, the setup. Yes, it’s a reasonable ticking clock, but it has some issues. One of the group’s aims is to rescue a diplomat to solve a crisis on the planet Vremnya. A crisis we don’t see. No offence then… but who cares? I kept forgetting his importance in all of this because, against the destruction of an entire sector, which is already a little abstract, and the certain doom of this planet either way, which is philosophically more complicated than anyone writing the book appears to have noticed, an unseen problem feels all too slippery. Then, on the destruction, when they resolve it all – and we’ll get there – no biggie, but the book doesn’t actually say what happened with the bomb. Right. Okay then. Great stuff. (I am guessing it didn’t go off.)

The wider problem with that setup is one of tone. Twilight Of The Gods is all action. That’s not to say it’s constantly exciting; more that the book is, beat for beat, mostly just incident happening. This is a problem for a series of books that has largely got by on the interesting personalities of its characters. They don’t exactly come alive during spaceship entanglements that move one of them to say “They’re closing on us fast” or “Be ready with the weapons … I think we’re going to need them.” Then again, sometimes it’s action in the Terry Nation these-seven-episodes-won’t-fill-themselves sense, with Benny and Jason trekking through dreary desert and drearier caves to meet standard sci-fi filler people with great names like Gruat and Meil. It’s just pages of stuff.

When it comes to the climactic moments the authors then get very excited and try to make everyone sound cool, so everyone’s equipped with quips, such as Jason’s entirely believable response to a friend’s imminent execution of “It’s clobberin’ time!” Or Clarence, that thoughtful and unknowable character who has only recently learned some basic tenets of humanity, telling a group of unconscious people after a successful brawl: “Thanks for the workout … We must do it again sometime.” Or Clarence, again, that unfathomable being who barely understands himself, squaring off against a fighty god with – and I’m embarrassed even typing this out – “Are you a god, or just a big girl?” They don’t sound cool. They don’t, if you want to get into it, sound much like themselves at all. Because the New Adventures are not, on the whole, cheesy SF action movies. There’s an unhealthy amount of swearing sprinkled over all of the above just to make sure it all sounds mega grown up and not, absolutely not at all, like an embarrassing teenager’s early attempt at a SF fantasy epic that should perhaps have remained on their hard drive.

I think we’ve arrived at the key problem here. It’s the writing. And before we get into it, there is something accidentally reassuring about a book like this, because it makes you realise the standard you’ve been used to beforehand. Have all the Bernice NAs been brilliant? No. But the writers tended to have a good handle on the characters, a recognisable authorial voice and quite simply, an aptitude for prose. On the whole we’ve been fortunate. Twilight Of The Gods is over a cliff with all of that. We’re right back at the early New Adventures now, with youthful authors and still-learning editors putting out some hot, steaming whatever. I can’t imagine any of their fellow NA authors reading this book without having to peek through their fingers at it.

Want to know what a character is thinking and feeling? Okay, Clapham and Miller are here to list it out for you. “Benny felt sad…” “Benny found herself frustrated…” “Benny felt terrible…” Curious how one character is reacting to the dramatic actions of another? Okay, but don’t get your hopes up for any variety. “Benny had never seen anyone fight so hard.” “Benny saw a look of determination and pure anger unlike any she had ever seen on him.” “She had never seen him looking so bad.” (See also some of those half-hearted, quite repetitive quips. “‘This is all very fascinating,’ said Clarence … ‘But could you guys please choose a vehicle so we can get out of here?’” And then not long after, “‘Look, this is all very pleasant,’ [Bernice] said, ‘but we really need to hurry up and get out of this cold.’”) Want a hint about how a character feels when they’re delivering, or hearing dialogue? Here, have constant descriptions of their smiles or half-smiles or smiles-inwardly so we all know this is witty or apt, which I guess is easier than actually writing things that are witty or apt. Six weeks from pitch to print. How much of that do you reckon was allocated to somebody with a red pen?

Some of it’s embarrassing even on a technical level. “He used the back of his hand to slap aside a woman with an axe, then kicked a man with a gun in the gut.” (A man with a what? Doesn’t he have enough problems without you hitting him?) “‘I completely understand, Jason,’ Benny told him.” (What is the point of inserting names into dialogue all the time if you’re going to say who is saying what and in which direction afterwards? Never mind how laughable that line is for Bernice.) And loads of it is just dry and lifeless. We get reams of inward character reactions to things that are just acknowledgements. “She couldn’t help feeling slightly disappointed at his reaction.” What is that sentence achieving? Everyone, even Benny, has a running commentary instead of an inner life.

So much of it is just unpolished, unambitious chaff. And in amongst it all are the characters we’ve been following through the series. They haven’t a hope. Chris, whom the authors refer to either as that or Cwej seemingly at random, is in a particularly foul mood throughout. Or he’s just a really crass guy now. It’s hard to tell. (It‘s even harder to picture him as a former actually-good policeman when he’s battering people or encouraging Clarence to do so or reflecting on how much he’s disgusted by people.) Clarence, all with the quips here, now has all the intriguing mystery of a joke on a Penguin wrapper. He forms a bond with a young abused woman, Palma, who at one point murders a fellow almost-identically-spunky female character to rid her of a possessive god, which it turns out would have been removed in the next scene anyway had she not shot her. (No comment from Clarence or anyone else.) Jason, at the best of times a little too much like Chris only with rougher edges, is much the same as him here, when he’s not asking Bernice dippy questions or dropping non sequitur pop culture references about The Simpsons or Star Wars or The Fantastic Four in lieu of characterisation. He does at least get to rail against all the quasi-religious forces in one scene, in which the authors soapbox so hard they’re liable to fall off and break something, and they pat him on the back for his incredible logic even though he’s talking to a brainwashed victim and not a rational bad guy.

As for the tenuous do-they-don’t-they Jason/Benny relationship that was continued by proxy in The Joy Device, forget it, as Clapham and Miller are here to bluntly force “I love you”s out of Jason and Bernice, making the former sound uncharacteristically needy and the latter uncharacteristically naïve in the process. At this point, we know it’s not as simple as Just Get Back Together. It rings utterly false to go, “Oh Yes It Is.”

They don’t, of course, but only because of the plot and what it does with Bernice. She is facing up against gods – not even the ones we started with, who are of course reduced to lame colloquial quips along with everyone else here (my favourite was “Sorry, girlfriend!” Seriously WTF) but the “Time Lords” of that Cold Fusion universe who wobble between benevolence and muahaha evil on a random, cheesy whim. Benny must choose between fighting to save Jason and getting back to her universe. She has faced similar choices throughout the book, and in all but one example she went with the greater good. So what does she do here? (Highlight for spoiler.) Greater good, again. Which isn’t terribly dramatic as she’s already let bunched of people die several times, but in this case it means leaving Jason alone on a ruined planet in a dying universe before buggering off to a cushy new university job, and all after suddenly professing her undying love for him. That’s how we leave these two. Meanwhile, Chris has been de-aged into a (blonde) child and Clarence is dead, which weighs on Bernice’s mind for two entire paragraphs. The last chapter is supposed to be a gentle reset after all that, a fond (and not subtle) farewell to the New Adventures. I did not feel fond reading it.

I can’t quite believe any of this. All this time and we end on an absolute hash of a piece of writing that trundles along like they’ll fill in the character stuff later, which ends by setting up a new status quo built on (highlight for spoilerthe death or doom of two main characters, and it’s supposed to be hopeful. In what way is any of this better than just crashing the damn spaceship in Tears Of The Oracle? Bernice, needless to say, has few opportunities to shine – I know, why break the habit of a lifetime, but any attempt at a final statement on who she is and what these adventures have meant to her is lost in all that dreck.

As for the series, it had its ups and not too many downs. I’d trade a lot of Doctor Who books for Walking To Babylon or Dead Romance, and there have been very few serious misses here. Bernice was certainly worth the gamble, because in almost anyone’s hands, she sings. I wish she’d had more adventures in print. (She had some at Big Finish, albeit more as novelties between audio plays.) She’s a truly great creation, and her literary life deserves a better remembrance than Twilight Of The Gods. Luckily there’s plenty to choose from.


Tuesday 31 October 2023

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #124 – The Joy Device by Justin Richards

The New Adventures
The Joy Device
By Justin Richards

The New Adventures were at an awkward stage when this one rolled around. We’ve introduced a major arc, run with it more consistently than the range has done before, then appeared to resolve it, but introduced a new arc element anyway, then knocked that one off that in the next book. The main arc is over or merely paused, depending on who you ask, and we’re just… still here. It’s like waiting for a bus. They’ve brought Justin Richards back one book after his quasi-finale (did they even let him leave the building?), probably in the hope that at least he’ll know what to do.

By all accounts he didn’t, because The Joy Device is anything but a decisive next step. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Bernice needs a holiday. Before long she becomes entangled in a crime and a murder due to a Hitchcockian wrong-place-wrong-time contrivance. Various parties seek a mysterious artefact. No one seems remotely interested in what is or isn’t happening on Dellah. It’s as if they all collectively picked up a script that fell down the back of the sofa ten books ago.

None of that is by mistake. Per Richards: “[They] came to me … and said ‘We need another Benny book and we need it in a month.’ I said, ‘Well, to be honest I've written the last-ever Benny book. Doing some more is a shame from a narrative point of view.’” As a stopgap, he came up with something even he didn’t think would sustain a novel, and probably no one would think of as essential to read, but which might pass the time amiably enough. Think, average Benny novel, but as a farce. (“So, average Benny novel then?” you might say. No comment.)

Bernice’s need for a holiday does at least come via the arc plot. She is no longer dying, but chunks of her memory have gone for good. She doesn’t know how to cope with that – having copious journals isn’t the quick win you might think, partly because she rewrites them all the time. So she wants to make new memories. The best way to do that, she reckons, is to live dangerously, which horrifies all her closest friends. (It’s worth mentioning here that she isn’t 100% committed to this and expects them to talk her round, but Jason makes such a balls up of it that off she goes. (It is also worth mentioning that all her closest friends are men. Isn’t that weird?)) So Braxiatel, Chris, Jason and Clarence decide to keep a close eye on her activities and swoop in – literally viz Clarence – to remove any dangerous obstacles. Bernice is going to Mr Magoo it, in other words, whether she likes it or not.

I’d be lying if I said this approach reaps a lot of rewards (as would Richards: “I don't think that's a book. It might be a short story but it won't sustain a novel”), but I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. The entire conceit is based on how much the characters care for Bernice, and that appeals to me enormously. One of the major issues I’ve had with Jason as a character is that he butts heads with Bernice, usually as a tired prelude to the old “they fancy each other really” routine, but often with a real unpleasantness that makes you think, well why bother adding him in then? Since Beige Planet Mars though, he’s kept the twattishness to a gentle sarcasm and by all accounts he actually wants to be here. Suddenly the bullish uselessness is endearing, and the concern - though not enough to sustain a marriage between two unstoppable forces - is genuine. (As I said about another Dave Stone protagonist in Return To The Fractured Planet, I wish they’d reached this point sooner. I’d read more books about this guy.) To a lesser extent, concern for Bernice makes Clarence a better character too: he has identity crises for days, but one thing he’s sure of is his platonic love for our scrappy archaeologist. It anchors him, which is no mean feat for an artificial life form with giant angel wings. In short, these two running around to make sure Bernice is okay made me smile a lot.

It’s also quite funny, although your mileage may vary. I’ve watched enough Frasier to rub my hands with glee at the thought of a comical misunderstanding, and there’s tons of that here, with Bernice being assured of danger at every corner by her well-travelled guide Dent Harper only to see nothing of the sort. “I appreciate your tales of danger and mystery and intrigue, really I do. But everyone here is just as nice as pie.” This slowly drives Harper to distraction, which is quite fun in itself. Later, when the two of them are tasked with finding Dorpfeld’s Prism – our mysterious object du jour – they narrowly escape execution only because, unknown to them, Jason is jabbing a knife against the mob boss in question, so she suddenly becomes courteous.

Some of the writing is just downright good, like this bit of unseen slapstick: “‘The genuine ones are incredibly strong and emit a perfect C-flat when you tap the lip of the opening on something.’ She carefully lifted it up again. ‘Here, like this.’ The embarrassed silence was broken by the sound of the lift arriving. Dent followed Benny in without a word. Benny coughed. ‘Sorry about that,’ she muttered. ‘Do you have someone who clears up?’” And I’d direct anyone in need of perking up to Chapter 2 – the comedy of errors as Bernice makes her mind up and her friends panic is a thing of bliss.

How far any of the above will take you probably depends on your tolerance for frothy comedy and gentle character beats. I was clearly in the mood for it, and even then I found the story almost aggressively lightweight. The whole debacle around Dorpfeld’s Prism feels like it should be interesting, but it isn’t. The artefact causes whoever holds it to be happy, but only because they are oblivious to danger. That’s a thematic link to what Jason and Clarence are doing for Bernice, but even then it’s just the same thing again, except more literal and more obviously a bad idea. So bad you sort of wonder what the local crime boss thinks she’ll get out of stealing it. But even then, Bernice eventually gets hold of the thing and is fine actually, so I don’t really know what Richards is saying. It doesn’t do much to enhance the action; narratively all it does is defuse situations or get people killed by proxy. As for the idea that real happiness can’t be as easy as holding a magic gem, I’m struggling to even take the piss out of such a basic concept, but Bernice does pretty much have a nice time with or without it, so…

Most of the non-regular characters are similar non-starters. The crime boss, Mrs Winther, shows promise as a weary and potentially reasonable fixture of the underworld, but firstly it’s hard to root for someone with such a patently daft retirement plan, and secondly Richards won’t stop making references to her weight, as if that has any bearing on her characterisation. (Technically it could do, but it doesn’t, so it just seems cruel.) Her number 2, Nikole, thinks her boss is old and weak and is itching to bump her off and take over the business - but first of all, how bog standard is that, and second of all, that was Mrs Winther’s plan for her anyway. Chill, love, the promotion’s in the post.

Perhaps wonkiest of all is Dent Harper, Bernice’s famous guide, who just doesn’t quite add up. He’s an adventurer who keeps journals and rewrites them – okay, there’s a parallel with Bernice. (Again, it ain’t subtle.) But he’s a little different in that his rewrites exist to sensationalise his life and make him sound better. (Bernice’s rewrites also come from a place of insecurity but there’s no pomposity there, and she keeps the original versions.) After we’re introduced to Dent and the concept that he embellishes things, he then appears to believe his own hype, which makes for good comic fodder. But then, with Jason and Clarence taking care of business all around him, it’s not really possible to show that his (overhyped) worldview is wrong – because it isn’t, if external forces need to get in the way to make it safer than it really is. You could show him being surprised at more real life danger happening than is normal, and then bafflement when it’s taken away before Bernice can spot it, but that’s a layer of complication that just isn’t happening. As with Dorpfeld’s Prism then, I ended up wondering what Richards was trying to achieve here. A comic buffoon who can’t tell reality from aggrandisement? Probably, but he’d have had exactly the same journey if he really was the danger-loving guy he purports to be, and that doesn’t seem right.

Probably the only material gain from The Joy Device is Bernice’s perspective on memory loss: she eventually decides that not knowing how she got out of this scrape or that disaster is no bad thing really, so long as she knows that she did. This is not as much of a boon as getting her memories back - and I still think that was a weird, mean thing to do to your protagonist in her surely soon-to-end series - but it gives her something of a restorative to be getting on with. (And it probably would have felt a bit pat anyway if she got them back right after she cured her terminal illness. Here’s an idea, just don’t fire these random life-altering horrors at her if you don’t want to keep them around.) Apart from all that, The Joy Device is knowingly just a runaround, destined to be enjoyable in the moment or irritating as part of a series. I got through it very quickly, which ought to count for something, and like Benny I really did have a nice time, whilst sort of wishing more would happen.


Thursday 26 October 2023

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #123 – Return To The Fractured Planet by Dave Stone

The New Adventures
Return To The Fractured Planet
By Dave Stone

Well, that’s this range of books over with. Cheers, Tears Of The Oracle. On the whole then, I thought it went – wait, what? We’re still going? Argh! Does anyone have a book ready to go, like right now?

Lucky for us, Dave Stone did. Return To The Fractured Planet was written mostly as an original novel, or at least “not entirely disconnected from the world of Benny … with the intention of going back over it and detaching it entirely.” (Bernice Summerfield — The Inside Story.) I don’t know whether Stone intended to spin off the adventures of his unnamed hero from The Mary-Sue Extrusion, but what we end up with here is enough of its own thing, even with that sequel element, to imagine that might have worked. The Stratum Seven operative (a fictional version of him was once called Flint, so I’ll use that here) learns in the course of Mary-Sue that his memories are not his own, just as he is not really human. He’s not entirely artificial either, leaving us with a fairly complicated and generally pissed off intergalactic wetwork guy. I’m not saying he’s endlessly fascinating or anything, but it’s perhaps a shame Stone didn’t hit upon this idea sooner. You could have had him work alongside Benny and Chris a few times, and you could probably spin him off too if that was an option.

All of which is to say, Return To The Fractured Planet being intended as its own unrelated thing? Knock me down with a feather… I don’t think. Regardless of its merits as a novel, you might reasonably feel a bit narked reading a book like that at this point in the series. Quite simply: are we arc-ing or aren’t we?

“Ah,” you might say. “But it’s all been tied up now, hasn’t it? That Justin Richards doesn’t muck about.” Well, yes and no. The Gods arc has – nominally, if you want – been given a resolution. We didn’t go and watch it play out, but it’s there. And Stone… just doesn’t appear to know about that, with Bernice and Brax investigating what they think is another escaped Godlike entity from Dellah. Even though they’re all stuffed. (It turns out it isn’t one. But then, it is? Sorry if I’m spoiling the twist here, but then again the “twist” is that yes, this book is part of this series. Even if the author didn’t get a very important memo from one book ago.)

So we have continuity, even if it’s of the “I wasn’t really listening but I think I got the gist of it” kind. More importantly, we carry on with Bernice’s condition: she found out she was dying in the previous book, likely thanks to a botched temporary memory wipe in The Mary-Sue Extrusion (thanks a lot, Dave!) and that is picked up again here. Again though, he misses some specifics: Tears Of The Oracle ends with a hopeful lead on the Fountain Of Forever, which might save Bernice. No mention of that here, although a still-game Benny appears to have longer left to live than when we last saw her. (Months, instead of weeks. Is that progress… or another memo gone astray?) In the last 20 pages or so, when it is hurriedly revealed that something-something-Dellah-I-guess after all, the plot contrives to get Bernice out of her illness too.

I’ve got to give Stone plaudits here for fitting that so neatly into his plot, but good heavens, it would be nice if that sort of thing happened to her in a book where she could aspire to be even second billed. “Flint” grows to like Bernice (whom you may remember he barely met last time), and he becomes concerned about her both subtly and visibly deteriorating state. That’s nice, but it would be nicer (since it is part of an actual y’know ongoing series type thing) if I knew what the actual sufferer of said condition was going through. She does at least get to strike the critical blow against the baddie at the end, which – as well as being handy for her salvation – might be a sweetener to any Benny fans wondering just who they’ve got to knock off to get a solid heroine in this town.

Hey ho, Flint’s our man whether you like it or not, so what kind of jaunt is he on this time? Well, picking up on threads (and literally some of the text) from Mary-Sue, we dive back into his past to his awakening as an Artificial Personality Embodiment – a sort of cyborg with another person’s memories – and his first mission. Alongside Kara, another APE that he instantly likes more than the rest, he is sent to investigate Sharabeth, the fractured planet of the title. The fractures refer to time, but there’s little in the text to round that out. Sharabeth is just an unpleasant and out of control hellscape, with crazed surgeons and roaming metallic creatures. It’s suitably ’orrible but not very interesting; the interesting bit is Flint’s time spent with Kara. Or at least as far as it informs the other half of the book – because, surprise, it’s two books running alongside each other! (This isn’t as confusing as you might expect, with handy different fonts to keep your head right.) The second, main chunk is Flint now, assigned by Braxiatel to investigate the possibly-sorta-arc-relevant murder of Kara.

The interesting-but-also-frustrating thing about The Mary-Sue Extrusion was that a seemingly unrelated adventure (that happened to involve Bernice) took up most of the book, only to turn out to be right in the thick of the series arc by the end. Return To The Fractured Planet is, for reasons that should be obvious if you’ve read this far, even more of the former and less of the latter. As we cut between Flint’s would-be suicide mission on Sharabeth and his investigative vengeance back home on the Proximan Chain (another bit of world building that just doesn’t come off, and he’s had two books for this one), there’s at least more of a grip on the main character this time around. That’s what I meant about how it would have been good to discover this guy sooner: he is emotionally invested in the story this time, cut up about the death of someone he more or less cared about and not now caught by surprise regarding his origins. (I can’t remember – ho, ho – whether the reason for his amnesia was in Mary-Sue. There’s no sign of it here, just a past and a present where he’s aware of what he is.) He can cut a bloody swathe about the place, in other words, for what feels like an actual character-driven reason.

Does that help if you’re here to read another New Adventure featuring Bernice Summerfield? (And would you even be here if you weren’t?) Probably not. To briefly draw an unfair comparison, Dead Romance didn’t feature our fave archaeologist at all, but it did matter to the arc and the established New Adventures world. The only established bits here (apart from Chris Cwej appearing fairly late in the game – Stone got that memo) are care of Mary-Sue. When you take out the last-gasp arc bits, and do the same with Mary-Sue, I think this story is the stronger. The dual narratives idea is quite effective, although all Operation: Sharabeth really does is give us more time with Kara and (eventually) set up our villain, who we finally discover does stereotypical things that don’t always make sense because *checks notes* he can’t help himself. Huh. I don’t know whether the sudden parachuting in of Dellah mythology weakened the villainy Stone already had planned, but what’s left seems awfully like a lot of mean-minded, vaguely satirical busywork. It’s not much of a pay off. Still, Flint’s investigations in the present have a pulpy, enjoyable quality to them, like a less eyeroll-deserving Mean Streets. The prose never dawdles off down an alleyway like a lot of Stone’s novels. You might actually miss that, of course.

Crucially, Fractured Planet doesn’t change our perspective at the end like Stone’s previous, perhaps less emotionally invested book did. So if you’re going to compare them – as I can’t help doing – you have a weaker novel with an ending that means something more to the series, followed by a more rounded book that tosses in a critical plot point as if it’s working on a computer battery that’s about to go. I think, on balance, Mary-Sue has more reason to be a New Adventure, whereas it’s downright strange for a series now in its twilight volumes to provide literally random manuscripts to be getting on with. You can probably put that one on the management more than on Stone himself, who just wanted to write about his cyborg guy, I guess. It’s best looked at in that light.


Sunday 22 October 2023

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #122 – Tears Of The Oracle by Justin Richards

The New Adventures
Tears Of The Oracle
By Justin Richards


Look, I know every book can’t be Dead Romance, and that a sideways nightmare not even featuring Bernice Summerfield won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But for the very next instalment to not only jump back into the structurally sound embrace of Justin Richards, but also make things far more traditional overall, feels like an over-correction to me.

Still, there might be reasons for that besides “that’s just how he do.” During my customary post-book visit to Simon Guerrier’s Bernice Summerfield — The Inside Story I learned that Richards believed he was writing the final Benny book. (There was a lot of that about at the time: Where Angels Fear was assumed by some to be the end.) That certainly might explain why a series that has just spent the last few books pushing further and further away from its conventions should suddenly find Bernice – oh, lord – on an archaeological dig that turns into a murder mystery. It’s probably supposed to be a victory lap. You don’t do those in completely uncharted territory.

It also explains why Richards delves into recent continuity more than you’d expect for just another one-off trope jolly. For a while I thought he was just being thorough, but the significance piles up: the treaty between the People and Time Lords, established in Dead Romance, is front and centre, and we pick up Chris’s story from there; the events and characters of Walking To Babylon get a mention; Clarence’s mysterious origins are given some more fuel; The Mary-Sue Extrusion is potentially still important to Bernice; a character arc I didn’t know was a character arc is resolved from Dragons’ Wrath; characters from The Medusa Effect are seen again as Bernice and Braxiatel revisit Dellah, which then shoves us right back into Where Angels Fear; hell, one of the book’s sub-sub plots is setting up the Braxiatel Collection from Richards’ (and Braxiatel’s) debut, Theatre Of War. (Said back-when-they-had-the-license book also forms a critical plot point near the end.) There’s even a flashback to Happy Endings! Plus Richards canonises, as much as you can without the license, Brax being the Doctor’s brother. This stuff isn’t continuity box-ticking, it’s “don’t forget to turn out the lights when you go.” You can even read one of the book’s final flourishes as a neat resolution to the Gods arc. I know hindsight is wonderful, but Richards has just made it rather awkward for that idea to keep going for three more books, one of them his. (And to think, I was only just marvelling at how well the editors and authors had been keeping it together.)

You’ve got to admire – and I do – the effort it takes to tie this all together. But a lot of that stuff comes quite near the end, or becomes clear at that point, with Tears Of The Oracle feeling in the main like a decent meat and potatoes dig of the week. The main concern of the plot, as well as being a riff on The Thing (and perhaps a riff on riffs on The Thing), even feels like suspiciously similar territory to The Medusa Effect (also by Richards), as a series of historic deaths threaten to happen again to Bernice and friends. In this case a trip to The Oracle, a fortune-telling statue long thought lost, goes better than expected until an unexplained shape-shifter starts offing the expedition. Is this what happened to the previous expedition? Paranoia increases, naturally, and Bernice hurtles ever closer to the book’s framing device, which sees her preparing to complete a murder-suicide bid.

It’s good, solid stuff, as you would rightly expect from Richards, though if anything I thought the team would be more paranoid. (It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the killer must be one of them. Goodness knows who they thought dunnit.) The paranoia angle is very specifically tied to having contact with the killer, and it mainly manifests in Bernice going on a panicked rampage at the end, which is rather frustrating to read as we’ve got very little reason to believe she’s right and everyone else is wrong.

What with all the continuity affecting Braxiatel, the People and even – significantly but also just as a means to have him show up – Chris, who regenerates in this one, Bernice comes close to being a silent partner in the book, especially when she starts drifting along with the antagonistic folie a deux. (Bernice not being entirely herself is also one of the range’s tropes, while we’re at it.) It’s an odd one to end on, in theory at least, since it also lobs a terminal illness into the mix. Yes, we end on a note of hope and a spirit of adventure. You know in your gut that she’s going to zoom off and beat this thing, with or without further adventures. But if you know the range is wrapping up now or even soon, “she’s dying” could seem like a tasteless footnote.

As ever, you’re in safe hands with Richards, and this is definitely a tighter effort than The Medusa Effect. I think I’m just not the most receptive audience for his puzzle-solving narratives; the tendency throughout Tears Of The Oracle to present information in journal entries, confessions or other forms of data seems oddly antiquated, like Victorian novels that are all diaries. That form of storytelling also ironically minimises Bernice, unless she’s writing all the journals, which might seem a rather choosy criticism after flying through Dead Romance without her, but if you’re going to send her specifically on a last hoorah with trowels and crime scenes then she really ought to run away with it.


Tuesday 17 October 2023

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #121 – Dead Romance by Lawrence Miles

The New Adventures
Dead Romance
By Lawrence Miles

Things have been looking bleak for the universe since Where Angels Fear unleashed its godlike entities on Dellah. Now along comes Lawrence Miles to ask the important question: what about other universes? Can they be screwed, too?

I’m getting ahead of myself, but that’s in keeping with Dead Romance, a novel told in first person by a distinctly unreliable narrator named Christine. Her notebooks full of memories are not always in the right order.

First person is just better, in my experience. Obviously it needs to be done well – it is done very well here – and third person can be better written, but first person just gets a story into your brain faster, or gets you into the story faster. Christine’s direct and unpretentious reactions to the weirdness and horror that stalks London, and later space at large, grounds Dead Romance in a way that would have helped plenty of other New Adventures to get their ideas across. (That includes ones by Lawrence Miles. Early parts of Dead Romance recall gnarly NAs like Christmas On A Rational Planet or The Death Of Art – all spooky WTF imagery and gross body horror. But this time there’s a clear purpose from start to finish, and nothing feels like it’s happening just to sprinkle on a bit of atmosphere.) The occasional bit of information arriving too early, like a wound in Christine’s leg or an as-yet-unmentioned character named Khiste, really only serves to make you rethink what you’ve already read and want to know more. I was never confused by Dead Romance, but the gulf between what had been revealed and what was very quietly still a mystery often fluctuated.

Here’s the gist: Christine, who tells us from the start that the world ended in October 1970, is having a terrible time thanks to rather too much cocaine and some kind of cannibalistic creature attacking her. She also has a run in with Chris Cwej, who later rescues her and recruits her to the cause. He is here on a mission from his employers (hold that thought) and as Christine knows too much, she’ll go along with him. She travels to other worlds and between universes as Chris tries to do something about the Entities.

As with The Mary-Sue Extrusion, we’re seeing this conflict from an unusual perspective, once again with Bernice Summerfield more as a concept than a character. An interesting editorial decision there. (I sympathise with anyone wondering when the hell we’re going to get on with it, Bernice-vs-the-Gods wise, or even where-is-Brax wise. But I’m not having a bad time waiting for it.) Christine, not a native of the twenty-sixth century, has even less idea what all this means that Dave Stone’s protagonist du jour. But I think both authors approach their outsider perspectives differently. Christine’s lack of preconceptions about the Time Lords are especially helpful when framing the good and the bad in this conflict.

Because ah yes, Chris’s employers – referred to here as “the time travellers” – stand no chance of anonymity behind Miles’s barely-trying air quotes. And they do not come out of this well. Some of their questionable practices are likely just the worst-case-scenario inventions of Christine, such as a murder-regeneration cycle that gradually causes more agony in the recipient. But at least one is on full display in front of her, as Chris foggily remembers his time with an “Evil Renegade” who went around ruining everything, which handily makes him more compliant around said renegade’s big collared betters. When they’re not brainwashing the friendliest character in this series, they’re experimenting on him and others in the front lines, causing mutations into things that will fight better, perhaps survive a little longer. Perhaps this isn’t really “our” Chris – we’ll see what he has to say for himself if he crops up again – but maybe that’s just me hoping, because good grief, the damage to Chris in this, both physical and mental.

And what’s it all for? The time travellers (why not) aren’t actively fighting the Entities in this: they’re retreating, possibly to think of a better idea later on in relative safety. Either way it’s not going to get rid of the problem. This fits, in a rather twisted way, with their policy of non-intervention. They retreated quite openly in Where Angels Fear, so it’s really just an escalation of that. Even the creatures they are most keen to negotiate with – the sphinxes, dimension-expanding monsters that originally worked with the Entities – aren’t directly interested in the conflict. Even the Entities aren’t uniform on the matter. (The Mary-Sue Extrusion highlighted that different “gods” have their own interests, and we are reminded of that here.) After a while it begins to feel like this is more about them being challenged than a genuine assessment of the threat they are facing. Later, when things kick off in this much-maligned 1970, they arguably have even less to do with the arc plot and more to do with the time travellers themselves and their warped monopoly on the worlds they observe.

(I have heard it said that Dead Romance feels like a novel apart from the series, and this bit of plot supports that. But the central question of what will be done in the name of defeating monsters slots perfectly into what the books are doing right now. And besides, no writer could create Dead Romance without being fundamentally interested in Doctor Who and the New Adventures. This one is too broad and too deep for BBC Books by a long shot, but it still finds time to casually throw in a sequel to Shada.)

Underneath all this is Christine, gazing in wonder at the weird worlds where Chris must make treaties with monsters, before – or during – finding herself back in her flat. Again with that out-of-sequence storytelling: she can never entirely hold on to a sense of where she is in the story, or even in her relationship with Chris, which seems to happen mostly when we’re not looking. All of this creates a tantalising sense of the story being both enormous and room-sized, as much itself in a cavernous realm of space as it is in a ruined magic shop. This fits entirely with the story itself, where monsters bigger than human imagination can be reasoned with and huge decisions can be made as simply as tossing a coin. It’s a novel that shrinks and expands throughout, as if sphinxes had settled in between the words.

It’s tempting to dive more into the plot and what it all means for Christine and Chris, but perhaps it’s better to tear those pages out of the notebook. Dead Romance holds together more confidently than I’m used to, and despite its earnest Doctor Who nerdiness – because this is the guy who wrote Alien Bodies, which barely seems bleak at all now – it feels like it ought to appear on sci-fi bookshelves on its own merits, a nightmare you want to share with others. You should go and read it, in other words, despite how gloomy I’ve made it sound. If Christine can stare all this stuff right in the face, so can you.


Saturday 14 October 2023

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #120 – The Mary-Sue Extrusion by Dave Stone

The New Adventures
The Mary-Sue Extrusion
By Dave Stone

We’re in uncharted territory now, folks. All of a sudden and against all known laws of the Bennyverse, we’ve got continuity and we’re sticking to it.

That’s not to say there have been loads of continuity errors in this series. It’s more that these books have rarely seemed all that interested in what came before or in what’s coming next. With the advent of Where Angels Fear we have a fully fledged plot arc to be getting on with, and right from the prologue we’re reminded of those events – in a roundabout sort of way, it transpires. It immediately feels more like reading the New Adventures of old. (Granted, some of their arcs were a total mess, if not most of them, but it was great to feel like it mattered that you had read the one before and would stick around for more.)

All that said, it’s an interesting choice to take the next big step of this arc with Dave Stone. He’s mostly into surreal comedy and the idea of nailing him down for a bit of serious plot feels like a contradiction in terms. But I’ve got a pet theory about his writing that I think holds up here: if there is a clear enough assignment at the heart of it, be it a genre to take the piss out of or the next step of an arc, then he can focus his wackiness in a way that either helps or won’t hurt the story. If there isn’t, you’re left with wackiness that just sort of congeals. (I think his swings-and-misses are Burning Heart and Oblivion: a mean Judge Dredd imitator and a vague trip through the multiverse respectively.)

The Mary-Sue Extrusion takes a while getting to the point, but that’s par for the course with Stone. We follow (in first person) the adventures of an intergalactic mercenary/hit man/occasional time traveller who may or may not be named Flint McCrae. He has been tasked with finding Bernice Summerfield and he is being pursued by a couple of inept assassins, which doesn’t bother him much. He’s highly capable and less than pleasant, but there are numerous hints and cutaways throughout of a grim upbringing that may have toughened him into this. Anyway, he talks too much, or narrates too much, or however you want to put it. There are blobs of text which seem to underline the joke that if you hire Dave Stone, you might drown before the end of a sentence. “If I kept on going into the minor details of every little thing that flashes through my mind upon seeing a garbage canister and the possibly dangerous things it might contain, we’re going to be here all night and no further on by the end of it.” Quite. He throws in automatically ironic little qualifiers like “simple as that” and “what I’m trying to get across here is” after some exorbitant tangents, making me wonder how consciously he’s taking the piss. See his character’s reaction when faced with an acquaintance who has an aggressively long name: “Almost all of that’s mere extraneous bollocks, of course.” Really, Dave?!

I found myself skipping to the end of particularly self-serving chunks in Ship Of Fools and I was going that way in the first third or so of this. That’s not to say it’s never fun to read in and of itself. Stone is a very funny writer if you don’t mind settling in for the end of a thought. For instance this description of a grossly overweight crime lord: “A capable and effective man with eyes that missed nothing, secure enough in his own abilities to relax into them, to suffer fools to a precise and particular point and then no more, like a steel trap buried in lard.” It’s just that you start to notice how for every long and winding paragraph, there is maybe one concrete fact of the matter buried near the end of it. If you were so inclined you could probably speed run a Dave Stone book.

The action starts to get concise when he arrives on Thanaxos, the planet nearest to Dellah, and receives some scraps of information on what happened to Bernice after the exodus. He thinks she’s dead for a while because of a confused first hand account of her being carried away by an angel. (We know that was Clarence.) Then he gets genuinely trapped on the prison he has infiltrated, and only escapes when a reporter friend happens along and spots him in a crowd. At around the page 150 mark he ends up on a mission to Dellah – ostensibly to set up diplomatic relations between the two planets after Dellah’s mysterious transformation, really to look for clues re Bernice – and I wondered if you could just start the book there, or at least thereabouts. I’ve only just read the thing and I genuinely am not sure what Flint even got up to before Thanaxos.

That’s a situation made even more murky by Stone’s tendency to cut away, often to weird Elseworlds versions of his story or characters. Oblivion featured side characters slipping between entirely different lives; Ship Of Fools kept cutting to a strange pulp adventure. The Mary-Sue Extrusion falls somewhere in the middle, cutting in-universe to the fictionalised adventures of Bernice, called The New Frontier Adventures. Heightened and silly, Stone is here able to get in on some of that Beige Planet Mars ribbing of the series so far: “They couldn’t seem to make up their minds whether they were adventure stories, murder-mystery stories or some half-baked bastard hybrid of the two.” More pertinently we get occasional back-story on Flint (?) building to the reveal that he’s not an entirely organic life form, and these may be inherited memories. All of which is quite interesting – just as the New Frontier Adventures are quite funny – but when you start your book with a reminder of the ongoing arc and then veer off towards this instead, it’s tempting to ask what it’s in aid of and where the hell it’s going.

It’s all theme, I guess. (And hey, at least it’s not as meta as the title, provided by Kate Orman, makes it sound.) The trip to Dellah yields only secondary answers: he now knows that Bernice went back after her escape and left her diary behind which is a) unthinkable and b) confusing because the diary seems wrong, full of references to Benny’s apparent real life friend Rebecca. (Rebecca was her childhood doll, inexorably tied to parental trauma.) This is a clue that all is not as it appears – just as Flint is not – and Bernice is now in hiding, physically and mentally, on another world. She has used the titular Mary-Sue device to overwrite her mind and block the influence of the godlike Entities. All is pretty much well at this point (it was only a temporary override) except that Flint’s trip has inadvertently allowed the Entities to spread to Thanaxos. Benny, Flint, as well as Jason, his telepathic friend Mira (she was in Ship Of Fools apparently) and Emile (who we learn was possessed by an Entity in the previous book, and also went into hiding) rush back to Thanaxos to stem the tide.

And, well, that’s a hell of a lot of plot for a last act. It does an impressive job of putting the rest of it in perspective, a seemingly unrelated adventure subtly highlighting the gravity of the Gods situation: you don’t have to write a book directly set on Dellah or focusing on the Entities to show their influence, or the change happening in their wake. You can show the planet next door slowly and awkwardly adjusting to the new status quo. The very real possibility exists that Bernice has gone a bit potty with grief (although I didn’t buy that), and the lack of immediate closure on say, Braxiatel just makes you wonder even more how he’s getting on. (Getting an immediate answer to What Happened To Emile was a definite surprise, but it’s not as if his situation is resolved here.) Flint’s overall disinterest in Dellah and its upheaval somehow makes it feel more real, like a news story you’re sick of hearing about even though it’s still terrible. Even the victory won against the Entities feels temporary and entirely lucky, because he happened to be looking for Benny and that happened to lead him to a telepath. (Dave Stone-y sidestep: how’s this for an Elseworld? This entire “Gods” setup would have been a great pay-off for the Psi-Powers arc. You could keep all the morally grey stuff because it’s all done to stop a problem even the Time Lords and the People can’t solve. Ah well!)

The Mary-Sue Extrusion seems like a good use of Dave Stone’s talents, or bad habits if you’re so inclined. He can ramble and sidestep and not even write a book about Bernice per se, and still service the ongoing story in the end. (When we finally do get to Bernice she’s on reliably good form. “‘It’s a stupid grenade … It’s thrown into a room and, once primed, it hunts down the stupidest person in it and detonates…’ ‘Well, I personally think that certain tropes and themes to be found in Finnegan’s Wake were rather overdone,’ said Bernice, instantly and brightly.”) Flint is a decent enough protagonist, though I’m not sure he really evolves through the telling: he is neither as organic nor as artificial as he appears, but he already seemed comfortable with that knowledge. The main issue here is that the really satisfying stuff doesn’t occur until you’re a ways in already, and some of the really Dave Stone-y chaff is liable to fall away from memory entirely after that. It’s marginally more fun to think about than it is to read, then, but it’s at least a close race. I’m glad he’s got another assignment coming up. I hope it agrees with him.


Saturday 7 October 2023

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #119 – Where Angels Fear by Rebecca Levene and Simon Winstone

The New Adventures
Where Angels Fear
By Rebecca Levene and Simon Winstone

I’ve only myself to blame, really. I’ve complained a few times that the New Adventures aren’t going anywhere, preferring to play their meagre hits (mainly murder mysteries) instead – a problem cheerfully underlined and to be honest, exacerbated in Beige Planet Mars. And though I am 20+ years late, I feel like someone out there has heard me. A monkey’s paw has clenched a finger.

Where Angels Fear starts with a flash-forward: St. Oscar’s University is in ruins. Implicitly Dellah as a whole is in the same situation, but it is the Uni – Benny’s sanctum sanctorum, the heart of the series – that best symbolises the planet’s ruin. This is before we even get to the prologue. They might as well have put “certain doom” in the Acknowledgements.

The prologue is heartily grizzled as well, with an as-yet-undetermined number of random slayings committed on a spaceship. Chapter One then includes a random death by traffic accident. Things, once-editor Rebecca Levene and now-editor Simon Winstone (co-writers) seem overjoyed to tell us, are not okay. And from the first page alone, we know things will not improve.

That flash-forward fascinates me because apart from that, and despite those other early deaths, Where Angels Fear is not a gloomy book – or at least it’s one that takes its time getting there. Clearly a situation is happening on Dellah with all the planet’s religions, specifically the gods, suddenly coming to life. An influential Sultan is creating rules to enforce religion – of any sort – and discourage “immoral” behaviour, which at one point involves scaring a couple of stoners straight. It all seems faintly silly, with Bernice jetting off to investigate a local god with the aid of some Grel – readers will automatically know them as Funny Aliens, obsessed with facts. Irving Braxiatel, of all people, seems to be living through a comedy of errors as he dodges the affections of a voluptuous fellow professor. And that’s after he tells Bernice that his people (the you-know-what Lords) have run away and raised the draw-bridges, evidently terrified of an imminent threat. The book seems slightly crazed in tone, being upfront about a catastrophe and then insisting on playing as the Titanic goes down, entirely unaware.

That dissonance made it a bit hard for me to invest in the story. Well, is it a big deal or not? But I appreciated the idea behind it: religious fanaticism, which is surely the only way things can go when gods legit walk among us, probably would start small. Dangerous beliefs can take hold in little ways that may be easy to laugh off at first, and the gentle absurdity of Where Angels Fear, with New Moral Army soldiers wagging their fingers at non-believers who then end up at faith boot camp, makes it all the more horrifying when you realise there is no way to stop it escalating and – for this book at least – no coming back. Take the god Bernice goes to investigate, Maa’lon, who seems quite charming at first, until a local historical conflict flares up and then he leads a holy war. It is made very clear that Bernice isn’t going to snark her way out of this one, particularly in a creepy scene where she sees Maa’lon smiling on the battlefield and, despite being observed through binoculars, he turns to look at her.

Probably a bigger issue for me was the writing style – or to be more specific, that old favourite of mine, short sections. To be fair, it would be difficult to imagine Where Angels Fear without them as there is so much ground to cover. We’ve got Bernice and the Grel investigating Maa’lon, and then following (and hopefully surviving) his crusade. Emile, tasked by Bernice with investigating those prologue murders by inveigling his way into a local cult, at great personal risk. Renée, a music tutor at St. Oscar’s and a believer in a rather low-key religion, being drafted into the New Moral Army while orbiting the machinations of Braxiatel and a shadowy figure known only as John. A couple of medics/stoners, Fec and Kalten, also getting drafted. James, a Maa’lon preacher, going along with Bernice while terrified that his lapsed faith will be found out. And Clarence, angelic figure from the Worldsphere and friend of Bernice, whose people – like Braxiatel’s – have retreated from all this for reasons that can’t be good. He agonises throughout the book about what to do (still haunted by his significant inaction re Bernice in Walking To Babylon), not to mention his own mysterious past which God, aka the Worldsphere computer, keeps from him.

It’d be a very long novel if you didn’t chop and change between that lot, but all the same, changing the channel up to twice per page is hell for my attention span. And in amongst all of that, inevitably, Where Angels Fear doesn’t really have a protagonist. All of it just happens to everybody. It’s arguable whether this is A Bad Thing, but it’s puzzling for a series that revolves around a familiar character. One of the authors (Levene) purposefully didn’t write any of the Benny bits, as she didn’t feel she could capture her voice. This gives you some idea how regularly Bernice “The Reason We Are All Here” Summerfield is in it.

In some ways this is a nice problem to have, as it means any character can be granted depth as if they were the main focus. Braxiatel has never seemed more down to Earth, being almost frenziedly interested in Renée and passionately committed to staying on Dellah, his adopted home. He almost dies for it. (He refuses the call to we-legally-can’t-name-his-planet and his spaceship-you-might-know-the-name-of is taken away.) Emile – still a wearyingly self-deprecating teen riddled with familial psychological abuse – jumps through his usual gay panics, but also knowingly engages with fundamentalism while knowing the risks only too well. (And he dies! Or he doesn’t. I’m hoping further books will explain the ending.) James, the preacher, gives perhaps the best boots-on-the-ground view of the bubbling zealotry on Dellah, as his sense of guilt allows Maa’lon to flip his mind entirely to his cause, with murderous results. Renée, conversely, goes from a figure of fun caught in an absurd military role to someone who can seriously look Braxiatel in the eye. Even the silly old Grel come out of this richer and more real, from an amusing vignette about the birth of their fact-based society to what happens when they are confronted with proof of divinity – which isn’t even the same for every Grel.

It is perhaps Clarence, though, that comes closest to protagonist if-not-Bernice. He quests for knowledge, goes against his programming, confronts his feelings for Bernice and then rescues her, ending up in exile. (Though that may have been what God intended all along.) Bernice, it must be said, needs rescuing in this fashion twice, which I’m not too thrilled about. But then it’s a book determined to tell us the rules have changed, and there’s hardly a clearer way to do that than to have Benny out of her depth. (Blowing up the main hub of the New Adventures will admittedly also suffice.)

Where does this leave the New Adventures? Well, somewhere else, at the very least. (Which is a pity as I thought more books should have been set on Dellah.) There’s some significant arc stuff in Where Angels Fear, giving Clarence plenty to chew on about his past, and spelling out for us the working relationship between Bernice and God – which puts all those adventures with the Worldsphere in a new light. It’s what I wanted, at least on a moving-the-series-along level, and it’s undeniably very interesting when you dig into all the moving parts. (Some of which are still not entirely clear. See, what happened to Emile. And the strange murderer from Tyler’s Folly. And to be frank, what’s going on in general. Bernice only really vocalises the problem around Page 193.)

Where Angels Fear was still not the most readable book for me, for a couple of fairly semantic reasons, and it’s definitely a bummer overall. But perhaps that’s why they put the flash-forward in there: rip off the plaster right away so you can focus on the rest of it. I have no idea what the series will look like after this point, which is automatically an improvement. Hopefully it can answer my next question: is there a middle ground between bubbly mysteries of the week and Armageddon?


Wednesday 27 September 2023

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #118 – Beige Planet Mars by Lance Parkin and Mark Clapham

The New Adventures
Beige Planet Mars
By Lance Parkin and Mark Clapham

Honestly, what are these books?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with unconnected adventures (say, have you ever heard of Doctor Who?) but, perhaps because I’ve read all those earlier, Doctor-ier New Adventures, I can’t help expecting this series to have a destination in mind. So far it’s mostly been a lot of monkeying about with murder mysteries. Lance Parkin co-writes this latest entry; if I know anything about him it’s that one of his earlier books, The One With The Nazi Interrogation, still resonates for Bernice Summerfield. Destination, here we come?

Not quite. Beige Planet Mars seems acutely interested in the “where are we going” question, but it’s more into wry asides than actual answers. Surprisingly for Parkin, it’s almost aggressively irreverent.

Bernice goes to Mars. About time, right? It’s her specialist subject! She is there to give a lecture which, naturally, she has barely started writing. She gazes about the buildings with awe, undeterred by the planet’s status as a giant retirement home.

This all feels like a treat, and the pacing would seem to reflect that, dithering wittily on subjects such as Earth’s attitude to Mars: “If [mankind] thought of Mars at all, they did so only in daydreams and stories: idle fancies allowing an escape from the real world, that brightened the time between renewing their car insurance via direct debit, arranging to open a current account with a building society or fretting about the rising price of unleaded petrol.” Much mirth is also had at the expense of the ageing Earth ex-pats. Old people in Bernice’s way are “a conspiracy of duffers”; she at one point waits for some turnstiles to “process their elderly blockage.” Perhaps these thoughts are there because Bernice, like Doctor Who at the time, is turning 35.

But she’s not the only one fixating on wrinkles, as several youthful, low-paid Welcomers to Mars comment internally on the incoming clientele: “[Bernice] was also the first woman through here for a week who could be described without using the word ‘sagging’ somewhere.” There’s a certain male-oriented humour to parts of the book which gets a little irksome. See also a propensity for squarely 1990s references that make very little sense in this context. (Parkin has owned up to these, at least. For good measure there are also more “okay, yes, we get it” references to Daleks than you can shake a plunger at, and a couple of carefully vague allusions to people who might star in a popular BBC sci-fi series.)

The oddly noticeable horniness on display does at least go both ways, with a randy female Pakhar (large rodent) also on the prowl; she is roundly mocked in the prose for her appearance and species, so I wouldn’t exactly call it feminism. Better is Bernice’s guilty gawping at young men on Mars, and her guttural hankering for Jason Kane who is also in this book. Hooray, etc. Is it my imagination or has he mellowed? He seems less of an outright wanker in this one, internally and openly professing his wish to have Bernice back. He’s an author now, albeit of autobiographical erotica. (Side note: the reminder of his gigolo past upsets Bernice, despite her enlightened attitude to future sexuality and sex-work in Walking To Babylon. An annoying incongruity or just people containing multitudes? I wonder.) He’s rather haplessly pathetic at times, which goes some way to making him more tolerable. I still don’t much see the appeal here, or what Benny sees: they fancy each other, they’re bad for each other, rinse, repeat. Can it really change? I doubt it. I doubt Jason even realises he’s sleeping with the Pakhar lady while he’s trying to win Bernice back.

But bumping into Jason, and then doing all sorts of other things with Jason, is just sort of normal for Bernice, isn’t it? And Beige Planet Mars will be damned if it’s the book to break the cycle. So we acknowledge the ongoing thing they have, indulge it, sidestep – almost for the entire book – Jason’s almost genetic inability to keep it in the pants and then just sort of move on. Bernice never seems seriously to entertain the idea of getting back together, just as she mostly doesn’t entertain engaging with the mystery going on around her. Because ah yes, the plot.

This, too, comes with a lampshade attachment, as a Welcomer with the hots for Benny makes her aware that danger follows in her wake and (as the back cover describes) “[her] very presence here has raised this hotel’s insurance premiums by seven point two per cent.” We glance wryly at her recent adventures, noting that “other details, such as that business with the Bane Corporation, had actually been toned down for the sake of plausibility.” He speaks for us all when he asks “What type of jaunt do you reckon this is going to be, then?” Another one seems inevitable since “it’s the classic set-up. Professor Bernice Summerfield arrives intending to have a quiet couple of days in which she can finally do some academic work, and she finds herself in a luxurious and glamorous setting … The question is… who is going to be the first guest to get murdered?

Sure enough, here be murders – or a murder at least, that of a likeable old war vet Benny meets hours before his death. The official investigation seems determined to end before it begins, which saves us the usual tired suspicions fired at our hero, and also hints at the book’s general shrugging attitude. Bernice is determined to help, but she is marginally more determined to write that bloody speech, instead palming the murder work onto a lethargic Jason and two jolly odd-job slackers, Seez and Soaz. (I hate the names.) Trying to wriggle out of the rigidly familiar Benny structure is the closest the book comes to not just shoving a lampshade on it, but it’s amusing (and yes, meta) to note that the plot doesn’t truly kick off, taking the pace with it, until Bernice makes a critical leap during her eventual off-the-cuff speech and finally abandons academia for plot instead. (Deciding once and for all, you might say, what type of jaunt this is.)

The last chunk of Beige Planet Mars is breathlessly exciting, opting for planet-shaking chaos and a countdown to destruction. But is it all just a big concession to formula, since messrs Parkin and Clapham apparently didn’t know the ending when they started writing? Indeed, I’m not sure they even got it all down, since one character – key to the human history of Mars and with a complicated past – slips through the final pages unnoticed, possibly forgotten. The motive of the villains, hastily retrofitted to seem not so bad after all, is about as convincing as Bernice when she gets to the end of the week and hastily pulls a speech out of her bum. And really, after all the prose about humans and what they’ve done to Mars and was it a good thing or a bad thing – a seemingly central conflict set up early when Bernice befriends a rival scholar – there are no prominent Martian characters to have their say. They don’t even lampshade their absence! Bizarre.

If my train of thought has been a little all over the place, that’s largely down to the book. Beige Planet Mars isn’t The Sword Of Forever weird, but it’s weird, delighting in mockery of local tropes and keen to play with the idea of escaping them, but not having anything concrete to say about where we are, whether that’s any good, where to next, or if it has any better ideas about all of the above. Still, it’s undeniably funny and exciting – with the one giving way rather bluntly to the other by the end, before the book inevitably shrugs and buggers off to the pub.


Thursday 14 September 2023

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #117 – Another Girl, Another Planet by Martin Day and Len Beech

The New Adventures
Another Girl, Another Planet
By Martin Day and Len Beech

Sort of a prophetic title, really. Another Girl, Another Planet. This latest Bernice Summerfield New Adventure is definitely… another one.

I only know Martin Day from The Menagerie, which had some astute character writing embedded in some generic fantasy mulch. It was his first novel; since then he’s landed the inaugural Past Doctor Adventure with BBC Books, plus a further entry in that range. Both were co-written, so he’s no doubt gained a few experience points there. With him this time is Len Beech, aka Stephen Bowkett, whose only Who work so far appears to be in Decalog 3; however, he is a seasoned author. (The blurb says this is his twentieth novel.) Between them, I had no idea what to expect, but I think with a combined back catalogue of 23 novels it ought to be pretty good.

It doesn’t have the most auspicious start. Bernice is “getting tired of Dellah, resentful of the grinding routine of seminars and tutorials.” And I mean – really? That’s perhaps a reasonable view in itself, but at this point it really ought to be held in the context of the series, which is notably not named Bernice Summerfield: Exam Marker. The last three books alone have seen her dice with death, lose new but meaningful friends and then actually die herself – twice! – one time on yer actual crucifixion cross. It would give you an unusual perspective on the monotony of academia, would it not? I appreciate that the communication wasn’t perfect between these disparate authors and the range editors (although given how long Virgin had been publishing books at this point, why is that?) but it too often feels like a novelist (or duo) turns up and acts like this is Benny’s first exciting trip off world. Such inattention to Benny’s ongoing life makes it feel like an elastic band that will always snap back. We’re 15 books in. Are we building something or not?*

Sorry – it’s a bit irrational to be pissed off about something that is, if I’m honest, endemic of the series as a whole and not the fault of messrs Day or Beech. (Jim Mortimore has also said that nobody told him the continuity ins and outs, which is probably why The Sword Of Forever is an acid trip.) But I’m reviewing the series as well as the books here, and it adds to that “another” feeling right from the get go: here is a book that isn’t going to buck trends.

Bernice is enticed off world by a note of alarm from a friend. Lizbeth Fulgate is really more of a pen pal/archaeology acquaintance, despite Benny being her emergency contact, and of course this is the first we’re hearing of her. The authors never quite nail the incongruity there, as Bernice herself notes that she hardly knows Lizbeth, yet Lizbeth feels very close to Bernice and even “loves” her, hence – presumably – trusting her with this. As a series reader it’s hard to suddenly invest in an ongoing friendship. (See the long lost heartbreak in Sword Of Forever.) Perhaps the wobbly friendship level is the authors trying to convince us, but not fully comparing each other’s notes first.

Lizbeth, herself, hardly seems worth the effort. Bernice makes occasional note of her attractiveness and thinks she has the gumption of a younger Benny, but in practice she’s a wet lettuce. Lizbeth doesn’t have a lot of agency: her thoughts mostly seem to revolve around her ex, and latterly she commits the awful trope of dating a villain and, when his honour is questioned by her dearest friends, siding with the new beau. Oh, Lizzy, no.

The authors (and Bernice) seem much more interested in her ex. Alex Mphahlele is a striking, attractive, seemingly-good-at-everything sort of chap and is soon chaperoning Bernice on her investigations. A romance is hinted at between the two, and of course there’s still the question of reconciliation with Lizbeth, but none of that is resolved. (Ordinarily I wouldn’t mind – I’m not normally one for seeking out romance in novels – but if you’re going to bang on about it, even to the extent of a mildly racist comment on the size of his manhood, then you’ve obviously got it on the brain so might as well reach some conclusion with it.)

Alex, or Mphahlele, or Alex Mphahlele – the prose is annoyingly inconsistent on what to call him, as if there are lots of Alexes running about on this alien world, and it’s not helped by a frankly amateurish reliance on characters repeating the name of the person they’re speaking to just like nobody does in real life – is at least more of a presence than Lizbeth, but he’s similarly thin on dimensions. Even his longing for Lizbeth isn’t terribly convincing, with such heart-rending dialogue as “The bitch was always headstrong” and “That’s twice I’ve tried to save your beautiful ass in as many hours.” Aww! But the really important thing here is how smokin’ hot the guy is, although you’ll have to squint to pick up on it in subtle lines like “[he] scanned the distance, looking tall and strong, like some magnificent antelope gazing over the plains.

The investigation is the crux of the novel, not that dizzy Lizbeth has noticed, so what about that? Well, Lizbeth is on a dig on the planet Dimetos and she’s being stalked. Not, you might think, something a pen pal can do much about, but on arrival it turns out the dig is in trouble too: Lizbeth is receiving threats about accidents. Pretty soon somebody literally fills in the dig, burying the digging machines. Something sinister is afoot in Dimetos all right.

We don’t have much basis for comparison. The authors seem fascinated by Dimetos, particularly all the hover cars, but there’s nothing here you haven’t come across in the Roz and Chris novels (Original Sin) or the Benny ones (Mean Streets). A mix of glamour and squalor, some of it futuristic and some not, dodgy government types and shady business dealings. Mean Streets was one of the few Bernice books Martin Day had read and you can tell, what with the streets – though sadly not the parody – bleeding through here. There isn’t enough actual intrigue to make hanging around in Dimetos worth the page count, with the default level of excitement being: that hover car is chasing us! (What, another one?)

As for what’s going on, I had to read page 147 twice to be sure I’d read correctly: some land is being built on, but it’s actually unsafe and improperly catalogued; however some crooked types really want that development dollah so they’re hushing it up. I mean, it’s not much is it? Smacks of a daytime detective mystery, with your Poirot of choice being brought in when people start to die on a seemingly unassuming golf course.

There’s a bit more to it – a shapeshifting character with confused race memories is part of a weapons deal, and what’s underground is evidence of a heinous crime the dodgy types would also like to keep quiet – but by the time these bits are clarified, you’ve already spent too much book traipsing around a dreary land scandal that’s arguably less notable than Benny’s term papers.

Which brings us to Bernice, the linchpin. On the surface they do a good job here, with plenty of diary entries and some withering sarcasm. Tick! However, I’m not altogether convinced. That is-she-or-isn’t-she bond with Lizbeth sets the whole thing off on a wobbly footing; the diary entries often seem arbitrary and interchangeable with the third person prose; and the writing is of a generally flat standard which doesn’t bring out her best. One critical flashback is followed by “The symbolism of her memory had dropped like a jigsaw puzzle piece with uncanny precision into the current events of her life.” Oof. She is gifted with natty, definitely-Benny-ish-I-swear thoughts like “she was pleased to be able to agree unequivocally. It helped salve the effects of her earlier musings.” And quite often her feelings – and those of others – come out in great lumpy lists: “Bernice felt dreadfully sorry for all this … She was saddened by the fact that her own assistance had been anything but effective.” Eugh. Needs more zing, and needs a lot less of the rest of it. (If you’ve read this far, you’ve unlocked a bonus gripe: Benny continuity! There’s a surprising callback to her Nazi torturer in Just War, but the direct comparison drawn between that incident and being chased by some heavies here is downright laughable. Really, this is the worst thing that’s happened to her since then? Come on. If you’re going to pull triggers like that, you’d better not miss.)

You’ll have no difficulty following the action, at least. Once again Bernice gets sick of marking, answers a distress call, is embroiled in a sinister plot, gets in a few car chases and goes home. I might not mind a less funny retread of Mean Streets if it was at least well executed, but this is altogether fizzle-free stuff. It would be unlikely to hook a visiting reader. Regulars, at least, know (or may be unsurprised by) what they’re getting: another book, another runaround.


*Disclaimer: there are hints in the epilogue towards an over-arching threat that I believe we’ll see in future books. But I know this because I read about Another Girl, Another Planet afterwards – in context, it seems self-contained.

Thursday 7 September 2023

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #116 – The Sword Of Forever by Jim Mortimore

The New Adventures
The Sword Of Forever
By Jim Mortimore

Oooookay then.

I’m tempted to say you never know what you’re getting with a Jim Mortimore book, but that wouldn’t be accurate. You know you’ll get something spectacular. There will be memorable, perhaps gut-wrenching set pieces and there will be world building. It will be eloquently written and, like certain really cool but slightly odd bands – Super Furry Animals come to mind – you’ll sense that, if they do something you don’t entirely get, hard luck, but they meant to do that.

I have no doubt that Jim Mortimore meant to do The Sword Of Forever, so to speak. I’m sure it was worked out within an inch of its life. But I’m nevertheless in the camp of people who put the book down only to gaze into space afterwards and go… you wha’?

A certain feeling of “normal service has been interrupted” occurs early on during a prequel chapter about a young Benny Summerfield. (Sidebar: that combination looks wrong, doesn’t it? Benny and Summerfield, both fine, but together: yuck. Still, it’s a useful way to tell us it’s a different version of the character.) Benny is on a dig with her current love, a man who will haunt her future: Daniel. And because this guy is brand new information, I immediately assumed something was deliberately and cleverly amiss. If Bernice had had a tragic love affair – or rather, had had another one – she’d have said, right? Not famously tight-lipped is our erstwhile archaeologist.

Something else seems to be up with the dates, which start us off with a 22-year-old Benny and then resume 30+ years later. Present day Bernice isn’t in her 50s, is she? Is this all a time-jump? Is it future Bernice? (Mind you, some of this might be editorial error. There’s one chapter that kills off Daniel 2 years before his arrival. On Terminus Reviews, Mortimore seems to suggest that an editor placed a gap here to suggest the time spent travelling with the Doctor, which of course we can’t speak of, and if so that’s got me thinking along the lines of bloody UNIT Dating. Sort of wish there were no dates, it might be neater.)

This feeling was compounded by the situation on Earth, where much of the action takes place. It’s riddled with radioactive fallout from a war (do we know which?) and all life is at constant risk of mutation. There are tree-people, mutant animals, you name it. Reading this I realised how few Benny books had actually visited Earth (wait, is it none?) and, to be fair, maybe Mortimore is just setting a new (horrid) status quo here since no one else has. But equally, what with the Daniel thing, and what with me being a softie who wants nicer things for Earth, on some level I was thinking: don’t worry, this isn’t really happening, wait for it, wait for iiiit. (I mean, I know it isn’t really happening, but… you know what I mean.)

Long story short, whether I’m right or wrong, I think the best way to enjoy The Sword Of Forever is to ignore that thought and just embrace the thing that it is, because if Bernice isn’t actively saying “This isn’t right” then no one is likely to. You might as well settle in. Then again, the book backs up that nagging Elseworlds feeling to an extent. (By which I mean, that’s literally the plot of the book, but… well you know, how much of it is this thing and how much is that thing?) The titular sword is a means to create time, and life, and hence reboot the world. And this happens, after Bernice is crucified. (Hold that thought.) So there’s a good chance this whole time we’ve been reading about an alternate Earth. But how much of it is supposed to be alternate, given the lack of an objective observer, I don’t know, so now I’m not sure all over again.

(Release that thought.) As in literally crucified. There’s a ton of biblical mythology in this, some of which could turn heads more sharply than The Da Vinci Code, and none of it, in my opinion, really makes it make sense to do this to Bernice. It’s… a lot, you know? The fact that she goes along with this, and her “friends” (Patience at least) help, and then in the Epilogue she has successfully been recreated and is satisfied that The Important Thing Has Been Done and then the book ends – is almost, but not quite as bizarre as doing it in the first place. Like I said, she is as enmeshed in the slightly off kilter atmosphere of this book as anyone else in it. For better or worse. (Which again makes me wonder how much of this is supposed to ring false.)

There is much violence and body horror in The Sword Of Forever, and to be fair, plenty of excitement and a couple of car chases as well. It is a RIDE. There is also the aforementioned eloquent prose, as the action chops between different times such as post-Crusades France, 80 million BC and then, right at the end, probably all of human history for the second (third?) time. I’m not sure the breadth of scope here really helped me follow along, though. At one point I was distracted from reading for more than a day and when I started the next chapter, I had no idea how we’d got there. There are basic pieces of information that I just felt too stupid to grasp, like why we discovered adult Bernice in media res, nearly frozen to death clutching the remains of a dinosaur. (The importance of the dinosaur is made clear soon after, but that still didn’t quite loop back and explain the original situation to me. I’ve probably missed a bit. Was she doing it all over again? Christ, I feel thick.)

Said dinosaur – Patience, a Utah raptor who reincarnates, meets Bernice and learns sign language – features in some of the book’s best bits, as she and other unnaturally intelligent dinosaurs deal with some nearby humans, probably on one of (?) humanity’s subsequent run-throughs but this time with dinos, and this time they’re smarter etc. The end of the book suggests she could return, which I’m all for. (I’m still not 100% sure the book justifies having an intelligent dinosaur in the cast, but be honest, it wouldn’t hurt most books, would it?)

It’s tough to review a book or even say anything useful about it when you’re struggling to get two and two to meet at a nice coffee shop. It’s really hot this week, maybe my brain just didn’t engage like it should have. To keep my critical hat affixed, then, I’m fairly certain that (time loops or ersatz Earths or no) introducing a brand new old heartbreak for Bernice is at best a risky move, and mining it for emotion is like drilling for oil in a crash mat. Also, the basic design of the book – already complex and reticent with answers even before you chop it up – worked against it, for me. Again, maybe it’s the heat. Something about the whole atmosphere of this book, though, just did not work for me.

I know others really enjoyed it, some of whom even with that sense of bafflement. The Sword Of Forever may well be your thing, just as previous Mortimores have been mine, and if so: brilliant! It contains thrills and wonders, but for me the lasting effect was of climbing out of an uncanny valley and feeling well out of there.