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.