Keith Topping is an author whose absolute best work had been with cowriter Martin Day. The Devil Goblins of Neptune was the perfect way to open the Past Doctor Adventures and The Hollow Men is a fascinating horror story, but after those two books he stopped working with Martin Day and his first solo novel, The King of Terror, was incredibly forgettable, building itself around one particular cliché joke from Douglas Adams and playing it straight. His second solo novel, Byzantium!, has a similar premise, taking a fairly comedic story and turning it into a more serious riff. The Romans is Dennis Spooner’s second Doctor Who story and the first story to be played as an all out farce. While there is certainly danger, Ian is sold into slavery and Barbara accidentally catches the eye of the lecherous Emperor Nero, it is all presented with this air of bawdy comedy so Keith Topping decides to do a serious take on the Roman Empire under Nero, sets the story in Byzantium, and plays it essentially straight while still being a prequel to The Romans. Where Byzantium! perhaps falls down the most is the fact that it is a prequel to The Romans and so is inextricably linked to that story’s format, structure, and tone while Topping makes the novel a novel with very little humor. Topping has clearly put in a lot of time to research Byzantium circa 64 CE and the rise and spread of Christianity specifically surrounding the Gospel of Mark, the first of the Gospels in the current Biblical canon to be written. He splits up the characters into their own subplots, just like in The Romans, though here everyone is on their own and there isn’t the comedic sequences of the just misses of characters meeting each other. The cover is especially evocative with the crucifixion as a form of punishment being something Topping attempts to analyze.
As this is a book full of subplots, it’s one that is essentially held together by how the point of view characters are characterized, and sadly that is a mixed bag. There is a scene in the TARDIS very early on where this is exemplified, Ian and Barbara are pretty okay in the scene, slowly simmering the sexual tension between them while Ian makes an odd joke, but the Doctor and Vicki are both almost flanderized. The Doctor is incredibly crochety, brushing off Vicki’s concerns and outright attempting to leave the time period out of fear that Barbara might try to change things, despite having gone on other adventures with Ian and Barbara, both of whom understand they cannot change history. Vicki on the other hand is portrayed as a petulant child, definitely younger than the 15-year-old age typically inferred from the casting documents and reflection on the character as a replacement for Susan. Here for a lot of the book she feels too young and too unintelligent, with Topping thinking that because she’s from the future it means she must not have common sense about history, despite the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara all mentioning how they teach each other about the places they visit. Byzantium! is a book that really does take advantage of its historical setting which is really where the book shines, it’s an examination of a culture from a purely historical viewpoint while attempting to distance itself from its farcical predecessor.
There is this especially beautiful scene where Ian shows Vicki several constellations and they have this amazing discussion about life and pollution. That’s also what follows the Doctor’s plot in the book as he deals with the translation of the Gospel of Mark, where Topping doesn’t have the Doctor take a religious stance so to speak, but a stance towards the artistic value of the gospel which I think is perhaps the best approach. It’s also here where the closest Topping gets to the more mischievous First Doctor, as he delights in running circles around others. Meanwhile Ian is also put into a situation where he comes into contact with early Christians so we explore his view of religion which is one of tolerance to deal with some of the fear of persecution that could happen in this historical setting. Though this doesn’t last with his best bits in the book being whenever we explore his past along with the prologue and epilogue which reveals he and Barbara have married and had a son which is equally nice. Barbara also is really well characterized, however, she doesn’t actually get a whole lot to do in the book.
Overall, Byzantium! is a book that has a lot to love about it. Keith Topping has done a lot of research and really spends much of the book using the TARDIS team to explore the history in often brutal detail. It may be a book that rub some the wrong way but unlike say Rags, there isn’t this contempt from the author for the era it is in, just instances of poor characterization perhaps due to Topping’s own writing style and personal preferences. It’s certainly a good read though it doesn’t quite go to that threshold of being a great read. 7/10.