Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Scarlet Empress by: Paul Magrs

How does one describe the work of Paul Magrs (pronounced ‘Mars’ oddly enough)?  The first time he appeared in the professional sense is as a character in the Virgin New Adventure Love and War.  The Doctor Who writer began his writing career in BBC Books initial Short Trips volume and since has contributed several novels, short stories, and audio dramas to both BBC Books, Obverse Publishing, and Big Finish Productions.  This may technically be an accurate description of the work of Paul Magrs, but it doesn’t get to the wide depth on just the insane style and panache Magrs employs.  Most of his work is comedic in nature, yet with some dramatic underpinning that can bring some of the most emotional stories in the Doctor Who canon.  His first novel is the fifteenth Eighth Doctor Adventure, The Scarlet Empress, and while it is not one of the more emotional works in Magrs’ canon, shows all the elements which make Magrs such a prominent Who author in the expanded universe.  The plot of The Scarlet Empress is perhaps the novel’s weakest element, instead of being one cohesive story it’s almost a series of vignettes moving around the planet Hyspero in the quest to find the Scarlet Empresses meeting characters both good and bad, righting wrongs, and wronging rights.

It’s simple and shouldn’t necessarily work, but there’s something about Magrs’ writing style which sucks the reader in.  The prose itself almost lilts through pages so once you start reading you’ll pass through with such speed.  The setting of The Scarlet Empress, Hyspero was meant to be returned to in its own spin-off range so Margs spends much of the novel worldbuilding.  Other Doctor Who planets wish they had this much time devoted to worldbuilding, from the various cultures, to caste systems, and even religions get touched upon. Magrs takes Hyspero and differentiates it and The Scarlet Empress by making the novel a blend of Middle Eastern folklore and quintessential fairy tale style novels, specifically 1001 Arabian Nights, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  The later in particular for the structure of the book as the vignettes are essentially a fetch quest to bring together a mercenary group to the titular Scarlet Empress in return for the life of a certain Time Lord.  If they fail it’s lights out for our hero for the final time.  The task is difficult that when opportunity arises that horrid renegade only known as the Doctor is brought in to help.  Oh, you thought this was a story about the Doctor? No, the real protagonist of these adventures, Time Lady and Trans Temporal Adventuress Iris Wildthyme is on the scene and in danger.  Marcus Cotton aka SirJediSentinel aka The Sentinel accurately described Iris as the Deadpool of Doctor Who and with this novel she immediately establishes herself in the seat.  Sure the book starts with the Doctor and Sam, but the protagonist of this one is Iris Wildthyme, and while it isn’t the same incarnation as Katy Manning’s defining portrayal, the character is still the same eccentric aunt with her TARDIS bus which is smaller on the inside than it is on the outside.  There are also actual stakes with Iris, her death feels like it could easily happen and her scenes with the Doctor sparkle with every line.

The Doctor is also one area where Paul Magrs shines above every other Eighth Doctor Adventure thus far.  He is ever the breathless romantic and childish adventurer, filtered through the lenses of Iris and Sam Jones who both have keen eyes on what the Doctor is doing throughout the book.  He’s described as pouting one moment and being overly excited the next, and the TARDIS feels like a real reflection of the Eighth Doctor.  It is honestly a shame that the Doctor is almost a supporting character in this novel as Magrs could do some great work with the Eighth Doctor.  Magrs is also the first writer since Orman and Blum to address the emotional state of Samantha Jones.  There are portions from Sam’s point of view and Magrs takes time to work on the fact that she is still in love with the Doctor, and is harboring these emotions.  The emotional turmoil doesn’t go too far, but it’s enough to remind the reader that they are bubbling in the background and ready to come to the surface.  Magrs also does an excellent job giving Sam a character to play off.  Gila, an alligator man and one of the Four, gets to have some great arguments with Sam about the nature of reading.  There’s a Bearded Woman, essentially half-bear, half-woman, a prophetess, and of course the titular empress who serves the Oz the Great and Powerful purpose, except less of a humbug.  Overall, The Scarlet Empress is stuffed to bursting with good ideas and great characters.  The biggest surprise, however, is that this is just Paul Magrs’ first novel.  9/10.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Dreams of Empire by: Justin Richards

The chess master incarnation of the Doctor is always described as Sylvester McCoy’s portrayal of the Seventh Doctor.  The Seventh Doctor manipulates situations in such a way that he knows the outcome when going in, manipulating friends and enemies alike.  So, the obvious choice for a Doctor Who novel written as a large game of chess is to give it to the obvious Second Doctor, as portrayed by Patrick Troughton.  Yeah, Dreams of Empire, which proudly displays an abstract cover with chess pieces and includes chess as a major theme, is a Second Doctor novel.  This seems to be down to looking at the Doctor in The Tomb of the Cybermen, at the time one of the most popular Second Doctor stories.  The Tomb of the Cybermen has the Doctor manipulating a group of archeologists into going into the tombs on Telos to potentially seal things off.  Dreams of Empire sets the scene in the midst of Season 5 with the Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria arriving in the Haddron Empire, which is on the verge of collapse much like the Roman Republic after the assassination of Julius Caesar.  Author Justin Richards mentions this intentional parallel in his introduction to the 2013 reprint, as he attempted to tell a sort of alternate history set in the far future with characters who are analogous to historical figures.  The reader does not need any historical reference to enjoy the story, Richards does an excellent job of fleshing out this Empire while sticking close to one setting.  The chess metaphor for the novel works as Richards has the characters having a run around through this castle, being captured, released, and captured again.  Richards also excellently captures the feeling of Season 5, which is a tremendous feat as at the time this was written only The Tomb of the Cybermen was available in its entirety and Episode Two of The Abominable Snowmen, Episode Three of The Enemy of the World, and Episode Three and Episode Six of The Wheel in Space were available.  While it is never stated, I believe The Enemy of the World and its political machinations and James Bond-esque story inspired the novel.

Also in Richards introduction mention is made of the difficulty in capturing the Second Doctor in prose, which oddly enough is something Richards seems to have had little difficulty with.  Patrick Troughton’s spirit is felt throughout the novel with very few points which are out of character for this incarnation.  This is most obvious in a brick joke involving sandwiches which feels like it is attempting to be something Troughton and Frazer Hines might have snuck in, but it falls flat.  Richards also characterizes the Doctor as the version seen in The Tomb of the Cybermen, which may rub people the wrong way, but it doesn’t get in the way.  The novel does suffer slightly in its portrayal of the Doctor’s companions.  Victoria Waterfield is far too close to the stereotypical fan held belief of a young woman who cannot fend for herself, once again partially due to the lack of her best material being available to Richards.  Victoria has little presence in the novel and only feels like a springboard for dialogue between the Doctor and Jamie.  Jamie fairs slightly better as Richards gets his historical heritage and general demeanor right, but really only has him bluster into situations.  It’s really the supporting cast where Richards shines throughout the novel.  Hans Kesar is a prisoner who kind of fits the Julius Caesar role, put into prison instead of being assassinated has some great moments with the Doctor about chess.  Trayx works well as a mix of a stock comic character and ally to the Doctor and the villain himself, which is kept a mystery so I will not spoil it, is executed with aplomb.  It becomes easy to see why Dreams of Empire would be reprinted for the 50th anniversary celebrations, though it is not without its flaws.  It’s a good mystery with plenty of twists and turns to keep readers interested.  The characters are fun, and it is really the main characters who feel almost out of place as it’s one that could easily be converted to just a science fiction text.  7/10.