Monday, November 25, 2019

The Empire of Glass by: Andy Lane - A Re-Review

In deciding to look back on some previous novels that I have already reviewed, I took a moment to reread some of my older reviews to see which ones I may not have been entirely happy with.  The Empire of Glass was one of those reviews which upon giving it a look, a reread went right to the top of my list.  The novel is Andy Lane’s fourth for Virgin Books and at the time what I believed to be his weakest, giving it a lower score than it deserved for rather weak reasons.  At the time I hadn’t experienced the TARDIS team of the First Doctor, Steven, and Vicki, and as such was really unable to analyze just what made Lane’s work great.  The Empire of Glass is a pseudo-historical concerning Irving Braxiatel inviting the Doctor to mediate a peace conference against several different alien races in a floating city above Venice in 1609.  Andy Lane writes this with about the same grasp on history as stories such as The Gunfighters, as historical figures such as Galileo Galilei, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare all appear in Venice at this point, even though Marlowe is supposed to be dead at this point, Shakespeare is supposed to be London and not finishing Macbeth (which was written years earlier).  Also of course, there wasn’t a giant floating city that appeared above Venice at the time.  This isn’t a criticism by any means, the absurdity of the novel helps set the tone for proceedings and just contributes to the fun nature of Lane’s work.

Much of the first half of the novel involves Braxiatel’s efforts to get the Doctor to the conference: he’s working with aliens who grab a random Cardinal of the Catholic Church come to Venice to try Galileo and just so happens to look like the Doctor.  The Cardinal rationalizes his abduction as being abducted by angels who take him to heaven, Lane making use of Biblical descriptions of angels to great effect.  The Doctor doesn’t realize Braxiatel is looking for him, as before this novel he took his place in The Three Doctors and had his memories of events erased by the Time Lords.  This allows for a comedy of errors while the Doctor and Vicki make friends with Galileo in the disguise of Cardinal Bellarmine while Steven is repeatedly accused of murder, and then is stabbed.  Also he gets drunk with Galileo which simply is a treat for readers, as it makes the character stumble over several words and phrases throughout which only adds to the absurd nature of the book.  That isn’t to say all of the first half of this book is absurdism, quite the contrary.  Lane devotes large portions of the book to delving into the relationship between the Doctor and Vicki.  Vicki describes the feelings she gets from the Doctor like the feelings she had for Sandy the Sand Beast in The Rescue.  She feels that he does love her, but as one would love a pet: an interest but could easily survive without them.  The Doctor also has to combat this idea and admit that Vicki was invited because she reminded the Doctor of Susan Foreman.

The second half of the novel gets ever so slightly convoluted with the introduction of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare.  Marlowe, who is supposed to be dead (which is lampshaded), is set up as almost a spy for the British Empire while Shakespeare has come to Venice to investigate and find inspiration for future works.  He also ends up gaining knowledge of the future and taking it back to England, which leads to an infiltration of the staging of Macbeth.  The climax of the book is genuinely hilarious with Shakespeare in the role of Lady Macbeth performing the sleepwalking scene with interruptions from the Doctor and Vicki.  Of course, as Vicki is from the future and doesn’t know the play and the First Doctor has a tendency to fluff, hilarity ensues.  This is also a novel where the cool, calm, calculating, and conniving exterior of Irving Braxiatel breaks as the genuinely good scheme is ruined by those who work with him.  While he hadn’t been cast in the role at this point, Miles Richardson’s portrayal of Braxiatel fits perfectly here and if you’ve listened to anything with the character there’s a chance you’ll put his delivery into this book.  The epilogue with Braxiatel also adds some nice little connections to other books, showing that like Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor, this Time Lord has had his hand in several other stories.  Christopher Marlowe is also an interesting character here, as he immediately stands out to the reader and you can’t help be charmed.  It makes his eventual fate incredibly impactful as one of the really serious moments in the story.  Overall, The Empire of Glass is a novel which sparkles and could easily fit within the era with the types of historicals being done at the time.  9/10.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Time of Contempt by: Andrzej Sapkowski translated by: David French

The Time of Contempt is the shortest of the Witcher Saga for what seems to be the simple reason is the author Andrzej Sapkowski used this installment to build up where the series is going to eventually conclude.  The book ends with characters in various places around the world searching for one another and putting into place the politics of war as battles break out between forces.  Much like Blood of Elves, The Time of Contempt is most definitely the story of Ciri instead of Geralt, who doesn’t appear in the final third of the book and is sent into exile with a group of dryads about halfway through.  The same can be said of Yennefer who disappears once the council of sorcerers is attacked at the midpoint of the novel.  This isn’t an issue with the novel, as the rest of the characters make up for the main characters’ absence.  The most interesting portion of the book is when Geralt is in exile and Dandelion has to fill him, and by extension the audience, into the goings on of the wider world.  This segment of the novel reads incredibly like a scene in a stage play where Dandelion narrates while the flashbacks start to show what exactly happens.  Dandelion also serves as a nice source of comic relief as the entire book deals with the emerging war between Nilfgaard and the rest of the world, which somehow feels just as dangerous even though Sapkowski leaves much of the bloody battles in this book off-screen.

This is also the novel where Rience’s master, Vilgefortz, a sorcerer at the council, is revealed to be a major player in this war and working behind the scenes for his own benefit.  The entire sequence of the novel at the Council is where we get most of Geralt’s appearances in the book occur, and several other characters attempt to get Geralt on their side.  One point of Geralt’s core philosophy is that he only works for himself, despite the attitude he gives to others that Yennefer has him around her finger, and attempting to buy him and his allegiance is interesting to say the least.  These other characters try to get Geralt on their side and somehow he is unable to read between the lines to see that everything is going to come crumbling down.  This is extended to the audience as we are only privy to Geralt’s mind throughout these scenes and we cannot see it coming, which allows the slow disintegration of stability to hit incredibly hard.  Geralt also begins to patch up his relationship with Yennefer through these segments, as Ciri runs away from Yennefer to Geralt which brings them together.  The two characters have to face each other to see just what they wish to do with Ciri, which of course evolves into the beginning of rekindling sparks in the relationship.  Sapkowski also avoids writing an unnecessary love triangle, at least in this book, as the character of Triss Merigold appears and has shown an attraction to the Witcher in the past.  She’s oddly more of a background character here, only serving as a messenger to explain why Dandelion can find Geralt later in the book.

Sapkowski also gives Emperor of Nilfgaard Emyr van Emries as the breaking up of the council is his doing, and this is what starts the entire war.  Emries is also one of those interesting characters who is intent on marrying Ciri due to the fact that she is the Child of the Elder Blood, and Sapkowski allows this to give us some depth into just what the prophecy states.  The idea is that Ciri’s son will destroy this age and usher in a new age, something that everyone fears.  Emries wishes to marry Ciri just to confirm his place as Emperor, and goes so far as to finding an imposter to use as a bride.  Sapkowski makes the character utterly despicable throughout the book in his few segments.  The last third of the novel focuses exclusively on Ciri’s attempts to survive in desert and mountains where she comes upon a unicorn.  This section of the book shows just how much the character has grown into her own, finding a way to use magic to survive and falling into a group of bandits known as the Rats which work as a place of safety and give her a new name, Falka, which coincidentally refers to one of her ancestors also of the Elder Blood.  The biggest issue of the novel is here, however, as the book really doesn’t conclude, instead it just stops where it is.  Clearly, Sapkowski intended each installment in the saga to be just one part, but unlike Blood of Elves which ended on a definite note, The Time of Contempt leaves the reader with many dangling threads which works as a double-edged sword.  It entices the reader to return, but just leaves with slight notes of confusion.  8/10.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Demontage by: Justin Richards

When writing these reviews, I usually begin with an idea of where I am going.  I’ve always read the book, or listened to the audio, or seen the story, and got a general idea of what the final score is going to be.  This is one of those cases where I genuinely have little idea as to how this review is going to go.  Demontage is the twentieth Eighth Doctor Adventure published by BBC Books and the second to be written by Justin Richards.  The cover of the novel doesn’t actually relate to much of what happens in the novel, as the style of the day only allowed one centralized image to intrigue readers and Justin Richards wished to dispel rumors that the Eighth Doctor couldn’t appear on the cover.  The design looks like a stock photo from the TV Movie with a Snapchat filter applied to make it look like a painting because the work of an artist plays a major role in the story.  If I wasn’t attempting to review the entire Eighth Doctor Adventures range, very little would make me wish to pick up the book based on the quality of this cover.  The description on the back cover fares much better, describing the three plot threads of the Doctor and his companions as they get into shenanigans on the planet Vega dealing a murder mystery, an assassination plot, and various other investigations.

Justin Richards writes a novel with a description which promises three distinct plotlines set on this planet, yet with his writing style they all mesh into one mostly coherent story.  Richards’ style of writing is one that is incredibly easy to become invested in, bringing the readers into the story with the characters and letting them experience the world.  It makes the plot, which is a pretty standard Doctor Who story, stand out among the crowd at least a little bit.  Richards’ best ideas here are the stuff with the missing painting “Murdering Art”.  The painting is one which intentionally changes in a manner similar to the Weeping Angels in the New Series, shifting position and becoming closer.  Richards plays this off as if the painting is being replaced with several forgeries as Martinique is one of those dead artists who became incredibly popular in the event of their death.  To someone reading before Blink, that line of reasoning is incredibly credible, as this is Doctor Who, not some fantasy show where anything can happen so the third act twist works on a structural level.  There is also an anti-discrimination and a cultural integration storyline present in Demontage which isn’t handled nearly as well as the art storyline.  The Vega Station, the setting of this novel, is mostly home to the Battrulians while the Canvine (a race which isn’t quite described, but implied to be canine in nature) are allowed to live and are nearly equal, but there is this sense of separation between the two races.  Richards just fails to do anything interesting with the storyline and almost drops it half way through.

This is also the first novel where Fitz Kreiner is actually a companion and Richards makes him the highlight of the novel.  Vega is a station where a large portion is devoted to gambling and the Doctor and Fitz have made a bet as to how well they do at a week of gambling.  On the first night, Fitz loses all his money and spends the rest of the novel trying to avoid the fact that he lost while the Doctor remains clueless. Sam realizes just how much Fitz is all talk, but no real bluster which is hilarious, as the character means well.  Fitz also has to deal with the fact that as a man from the 1960s he kind of has a low key smoking addiction which he must overcome.  Richards is also incredibly fun at writing the Eighth Doctor, as Richards realizes just how much fun the Doctor has at gambling.  The Doctor has accrued enough money to buy up Vega Station if he ever were to cash in on his winnings, but as this is the Doctor: he wouldn’t attempt to gain money, just continue to gamble for fun and to win the bet.  Demontage overall is a novel with great ideas, some fun characters, and a plot that is at least interesting, but it can only be said that overall it is only slightly more interesting than its bland cover.  Much of it I enjoyed, much of it dragged, and some of it was hilarious, I think I’ve come to a decision for the score.   6/10.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Blood of Elves by: Andrzej Sapkowski translated by Danusia Stok

Shifting a series from short stories to feature length novels are not an easy feat due to the different styles of writing that must happen when writing these different types of prose.  Short stories can only facilitate a few characters and tell a whole story meant to be experienced in one sitting while novels facilitate a much longer page count.  The plot of a novel by its very nature must be more complex than that of a short story and almost always features more characters and plots.  Blood of Elves is the first full length novel of The Witcher series and shifts away from collecting short stories into a five-part story arc which runs deeply through each of the books.  When opening Blood of Elves, what the reader will immediately notice is that the story begins during the events of “Something More” from Sword of Destiny, yet not told from the perspective of Geralt of Rivia, but as a nightmare had by Ciri.  While Sapkowski seems to be using this as a recap, it isn’t as effective as it could have been made more effective if “Something More” was included as a prologue to this novel.  It is further compounded by the fact that Sword of Destiny was not published in the English speaking world until 2015.  Luckily any damage to the story because of this is made up for due to the fact that now all readers can read in order, but there is still a sense that something is missing from the beginning of this book.  It is also interesting to note that this book was translated by Danusia Stok and published in the English speaking world just after The Last Wish, so the style of translation throughout reading is slightly different with small portions of the book feeling like metaphors that only work in the original Polish.

Blood of Elves is also a book where the “main” character is not Geralt of Rivia, this story is not the story of the Witcher, but the story of Ciri.  Yes, Geralt heavily features in the book and is a major player, but after the halfway point his appearance and contribution to the plot is minimal.  The later half spends its time with Geralt setting up his own plotline for future events.  During the first half of the novel there is quite a bit of time spent developing the subtle caring relationship he has with Ciri.  At the beginning of the novel, Ciri is training with other Witchers at Kaer Morhen and while Geralt never takes it easy when it comes to Ciri, there are these subtle moments which show that he cares and that he is proud of her for coming this far and persevering.

The scenes at Kaer Morhen also introduce another enchantress character, Triss Merigold, who is a fierce woman unabashed at challenging the Witchers for what they plan to do for Ciri.  The Witcher’s elixers which allow them to become witchers have damaging effects on their bodies and it is Triss who stops them from using them on Ciri.  She becomes protective of allowing Ciri to grow into a woman, as the effects would be harsher for women than men.  Sapkowski uses Triss to give the reader good inclinations at the other Witchers of Geralt’s order including Vesemir and Lambert.  Vesemir was Geralt’s mentor and is several centuries old, but due to being a Witcher only looks middle aged.  Sapkowski characterizes him as incredibly intelligent, yet lacking some slight common sense as how to teach a young girl such as Ciri.  Lambert is the most antagonistic of the Witcher’s presence, hating the fact that she is impressed with Ciri’s skills and the one it takes the longest to be impressed by.

The second half of the novel deals with Ciri being sent to the temple of Melitele from The Last Wish and being trained by Yennefer to be a magician.  The dynamic between Ciri and Yennefer is one that almost forms to a mother/daughter bond.  It isn’t a typical bond as such, but the mentoring force of Yennefer shows that the sorceress grows to care for the child.  She is a character who has this influence and almost godlike calm when dealing with Ciri, who believes she doesn’t have the ability to use magic.  Yennefer spends much of the later half of the book giving Ciri a mix of encouragement and stern guidance to coax out Ciri’s best possible self.  There is also teaching of emotional maturity given to the young princess, as she is teased for remaining a virgin at the incredibly high age of 13.

Outside of Ciri’s plotline, the background of the novel is devoted to a brewing war between the Scoia’tael (Squirrel) elves and the kingdom of Nilfgaard.  There are forces working behind the scenes attempting to make the prophecies about Ciri come through including a wizard called Rience who serves a higher power, Vilgefortz of Roggeveen.  Vilgefortz is clearly being set up to be one of the big bad’s behind as he is shrouded in mystery.  Rience is immediately introduced as a threat as he lulls Dandelion into a false sense of security and proceeds to torture him for information on Geralt and Ciri.  This is Dandelion’s only appearance in this novel and he is saved by Yennefer before he can actually give up his friend’s location.  Sapkowski writes the scene excellently, showing just how strong the normally comic relief character actually is.  He holds out in the face of torture and Yennefer being an absolute badass, scarring the villain is also excellent.  There’s also a lot of this early book showing just how the tensions are building and how neither the elves nor the humans really have valid claims for war, but war is definitely coming and dwarven friends of Geralt seem to be caught in the middle.  Overall, Sapkowski does an excellent job setting the stage for the coming saga and putting plots into motion which will eventually be paid off in future books.  The book has a slow start, yet leaves the reader wanting more.  9/10.

Dreamers of Death by: Steve Moore with art by: Dave Gibbons

Dreamers of Death is written by Steve Moore with art by Dave Gibbons.  It was released in Doctor Who Monthly issues 47-48 (December 1980-January 1981) and is reprinted in its original form in Doctor Who: Dragon’s Claw by Panini Books.

Writing out Sharon Davies as a character was a necessity for Steve Moore once switching over to the monthly release schedule as he couldn’t have too many characters in a story which only lasted between 8 and 16 pages.  Dreamers of Death is the comic strip which has been used to accomplish this.  It is one of those departures that Doctor Who is famous for doing when it must be done quickly as the story doesn’t build up to a departure, but springs it upon the reader in the last few panels of the story.  The setting of this story is Uniceptor IV, a utopia planet which the Doctor has visited before and due to Sharon being aged in Doctor Who and the Time Witch, she decides once the events are over that this would be a good place to settle down in.  While not the best exit for a companion, it at least has Sharon settling into a new society instead of the weird standard companion falls in love like Susan in The Dalek Invasion of Earth and Leela in The Invasion of Time.  The Doctor’s reaction to Sharon’s exit is also interesting, as Moore does a good thing in not attempting to make it some sad event.  The Doctor just says goodbye, they leave each other on good terms and suggest maybe they’ll see each other again in the future.

The story of Dreamers of Death plays quite a bit with a really nice and potentially ahead of its time science fiction ideas.  The planet Uniceptor IV, as stated above, is a utopia and for entertainment has turned away from television and turned towards shared dreaming.  Through virtual reality helmets, friends and family can share dreams together and tell different types of stories where they take part in the action.  This is an interesting projection as to where the future of video games were to go.  Remember that this was published in late 1980, three years before the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in Japan, and five years before its release in the United States bringing home video games to the western world.  Having them a group experience with deep stories with completely different story potential to other forms of media is quite accurate.  It is also excellent to see a story about video games going wrong which is still optimistic.  The threat come from the psychic creatures used to link dreams together going haywire and eventually growing to kaiju levels in size.  The solution in this story does come out of nowhere but considering how short this comic actually is that isn’t really a problem.

Dave Gibbons continues as artist for the comic strip and as always his artwork is excellent, and his design for the forms of the creatures in this story shift from cute and cuddly to harsh and threatening while still recognizably being the same creature.  The style of thick linework is well suited for these types of adventures and he manages to elevate every strip read.  Overall, Dreamers of Death shows that the shorter format can still tell great slices of Doctor Who despite its limitations and if the rest of Moore’s run continues in this vain the magazine will reach great heights of quality.  9/10.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Sword of Destiny by: Andrzej Sapkowski and translated by: David French

Sword of Destiny is the second of two short story collections in The Witcher series and unlike The Last Wish, which collected stories with a similar theme through a framing device, simply presents the six short stories as is, in chronological order.  That makes Sword of Destiny overall feel less cohesive of a book, and more of the anthology style of many short story collection.  This is further compounded with the odd nature of the final two stories in the collection being direct setups for the series proper which begins in the next book.

“The Sword of Destiny” and “Something More” are essentially sequels to “A Question of Price” and introduce the character of Ciri, the granddaughter of Queen Calanthe and the promised child to Geralt.  It is interesting to note that through both stories Geralt is resistant to allowing her to become a witcher due to the mutations one undergoes in the process.  They reveal a caring side to Geralt as throughout he keeps up the stoic façade of his normal characterization, but there are these little moments where the reader can tell he is in physical pain.  Of the two, “The Sword of Destiny” is of a higher quality, as it sees Geralt cross paths with Ciri as she is being brought to a group of dryads to essentially give him an out.  It is a story where he accidentally breaks the young girl’s trust while still allowing her to wish to stay with the Witcher.  The dryads will wipe her memory and sap her will to leave their domain.  The dryads are an interesting race of characters, reflecting older stories of faeries who abduct children and raise them to become like them.  Overall this isn’t a story about some great villain to fight or a monster to defeat, and not one to impart a specific moral, but one where the characters deal with character drama.  It is something that Sapkowski does marvelously and writes a highly engaging short story.  8/10.

“Something More” is the darker, yet slightly weaker of the two, as unlike “The Sword of Destiny”, it is there purely for setup.  It’s a story about how the rest of Ciri’s family was killed and her land was taken over by the forces of Nilfgaard, all done off-page as the story follows Geralt on his way to Cintra.  There is some buildup of character for Geralt here as the title refers to the final line of the story as Geralt realizes what Ciri means to him and almost promises to himself that he will care for her.  The plot itself essentially has Geralt putting himself completely by accident into caring for Ciri after creating a similar deal with a different character as he did in “A Question of Price”.  The story itself while enjoyable and ending the collection on a brilliant note, feels very much like Sapkowski is quickly attempting a prologue to get his characters ready for where they begin in Blood of Elves.  Sword of Destiny as an anthology would have been much stronger had “Something More” been placed as prologue instead of the culmination of the short story collection, as it is necessary for the overall story arc but doesn’t entirely end on a solid note.  6/10.

The rest of Sword of Destiny’s stories are essentially stand alone and keeping more in line with those in The Last Wish, as four little morality plays playing out.  The collection opens strong with “The Bounds of Reason” which is perhaps the best story in the collection.  It tells of Geralt and Yennifer hunting for a dragon with a ragtag team including a shoemaker.  The opening of the story is a great reintroduction to Geralt and just how the world thinks of him, told from the point of view of people contracting him for a paltry sum to kill a basilisk.  The reaction to Geralt surviving and accepting his small sum is priceless and a great way for Sapkowski to reestablish just who Geralt is as a character.  He fights monsters and is not in it for the money.  Once again every scene between Geralt and Yennifer are a joy to watch as they verbally spar in a manner only those deeply in love understand which is surprising how well it translates.  Much of the enjoyment from this story for English readers should be shared with translator David French.  This is a difficult story to translate and the lighter tone of the story and humor of the tale highlights what can make The Witcher work as a franchise.  10/10.

Sword of Destiny’s weakest element is the fact that there isn’t as much enjoyable character development or a character through line for the book.  “A Shard of Ice”, the second story of the book, is the one that feels like it is meant for developing the relationship of Geralt and Yennefer, and showing how it works as an on again, off again relationship.  This story is one where Geralt has to deal with another lover of Yennefer’s, dealing with the saying ‘truth is like a shard of ice’.  It is telling about Yennefer that she first and foremost has to keep her own goals above Geralt’s when dealing with her past.  Sapkowski also explores the idea of love over sex: Yennifer has sex with Istredd, her sorcerer friend and ex-lover, and with Geralt, but she truly loves Geralt.  Geralt also proves in this story that above his mutations, he does feel emotions and ends the story with the moral high ground by walking away from a fight.  This may actually be the first story where Geralt feels true emotions and has to go through a wide range of experiences.  His final actions in this story are telling for what depths the character will go for the story.  Istredd is also an interesting character as he has this innate prejudice for the Witcher yet still tries to connect with Yennifer despite the fact that she is a sorceress.  He and Geralt are part of classes which are discriminated against, which makes it all the more interesting that he hates Geralt for his nature.  Overall, another hit for Sword of Destiny.  8/10.

The weak link of this collection is “Eternal Flame”.  This is a story about a religious order and the world’s discrimination against dwarves, halflings, and other magical creatures, yet has one major issue that brings it down.  The pacing of this story is incredibly weird as it’s a story that includes a lot of ideas but doesn’t have enough time to flesh them all out.  The most interesting thing about the story is the ‘doppler’ which is a shapeshifter which Geralt has to hunt down but oddly this is a story where the ending is almost entirely positive.  This sticks out like a sore thumb as the rest of the stories end up feeling like they have a point where this one is just worldbuilding.  After reading, much of the story is pretty forgettable and only worthwhile for the banter between Geralt and Dandelion.  It’s also kind of a mystery story, but that mystery just doesn’t really land well creating just a mediocre time.  4/10.

“A Little Sacrifice” is basically The Witcher does The Little Mermaid, which is lampshaded within the story.  The title refers to what each partner of a star-crossed trans-species pair of lovers is not willing to give up when Geralt attempts to broker a love.  A mermaid wishes her human lover to be given a fish tail (forgetting the fact that he cannot breathe underwater) while the human prince wishes the mermaid to grow legs to live on land.  Sapkowski is intentional in crafting a relationship where one party actually needs to sacrifice something and is hypocritical for avoiding it.  It’s a parallel for the relationship between Geralt and Yennefer, which Geralt reflects upon for a large portion of this story, as a rival of Dandelion grows feelings for the Witcher.  Geralt, of course, has no real way of reciprocating those feelings or explaining why he doesn’t reciprocate the feelings.  It makes for an interesting character study for Geralt and genuinely a heartbreaking tale.  Essi Daven is Dandelion’s rival and Geralt’s “love interest” for this tale and Sapkowski makes her one of the most memorable side characters with a fully developed arc.  Once again “A Little Sacrifice” is a story elevated by some amazing final moments, which is a trend of Sapkowski.  7/10.

Overall, Sword of Destiny is a varied short story collection with less consistency than The Last Wish.  While it has some highs, it also has some genuine lows for the book and feels at times more like an extended prologue instead of an independent collection in its own right.  7.17/10.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Collector by: Steve Moore with art by: Dave Gibbons

The Collector is written by Steve Moore with art by Dave Gibbons.  It was released in Doctor Who Monthly issue 46 and is reprinted in its original form in Doctor Who: Dragon’s Claw by Panini Books.

The transition from Doctor Who Weekly to Doctor Who Monthly was an interesting one for the comic strip due to what a change in format does for how the comic was being written.  Throughout the Doctor Who Weekly run for the strip were multi-part eight week runs for each of the stories under Mills and Wagner, and slightly shorter, yet still multi issue stories under Steve Moore’s hand.  Changing to a monthly release schedule brought a challenge to Moore and Doctor Who Monthly’s publishers as the fear became what would happen if longer stories were told on a monthly format.  Only releasing one issue of a magazine per month in 1980 was only really feasible for long form narratives in the eyes of the publishers for an actual comic book, fully devoted to that.  Doctor Who Monthly was not marketed to those types of readers, but to younger children who the publishers believed would not necessarily be able to follow a long running monthly story.  This perhaps goes to explain why beginning with The Collector and running until the end of the Fourth Doctor’s run the stories would only span at most two issues.  The Collector is the first single issue story for Doctor Who Monthly and has an interesting format.

Steve Moore takes full advantage of the fact that there is now an eight page run to each issue so The Collector can tell a simple, yet engaging story over a simple eight pages.  The Collector deals with a ship held in stasis over the Earth where a man is essentially in a Stockholm syndrome situation with a robot, and is collecting human specimens just to pass the time.  He isn’t a villain, but is doing some villainous things basically so he can keep his sanity in space which makes this small little story have some depth in what is easily just a light bit of fluff.  One of the biggest complaints here is that Sharon has very little to do within this story, kind of only being there as a holdover from the previous stories.  It is clear that Moore is ready to write the character out of the strip for the only reason of making it easier to write short form stories with only necessary characters.  Moore just doesn’t have anything for her to do except ask one or two questions while the Doctor is the one to take quite a bit of time to ask questions.  The robotic antagonist is interesting and Moore almost comes upon an artificial intelligence taking over story aimed at children and it is quite admirable to begin to expose kids to these complex views.  As always Dave Gibbons’ artwork is excellent and makes these comics incredibly easy to follow and enjoy.  Overall, The Collector is a fun enough bit of fluff bringing in a new style for Doctor Who Monthly, but isn’t going to be remembered as one of the greats.  7/10.

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Wages of Sin by: David A. McIntee

If there’s one type of story that the Jon Pertwee era is never associated with is the historical, much less the pure historical.  Of the 24 stories from Pertwee’s run as the Doctor only one took place in the past and that was The Time Warrior, a story that doesn’t really use any historical elements outside of the basic setting.  This makes it odd that the Past Doctor Adventures gives the Third Doctor his very own historical, and a pure historical at that as his fourth novel.  The Wages of Sin takes the Third Doctor and Jo Grant, reuniting them with Liz Shaw, and taking them back in time to St. Petersburg in December 1916.  Europe is in the clutches of the First World War, Russia is on the brink of Revolution, the final Tsar is in power, and men are plotting the downfall of the mad monk Rasputin.  This being a pure historical it is only fitting that David A. McIntee authors after his excellent work on the Virgin New Adventure Sanctuary.  The novel has a clear mission statement, explore the history and attempt to make some sort of sense out of the mysterious circumstances of the death of Rasputin.  There are several contradicting accounts of how the man died, but what is known is that he died on December 30, 1916 of three gunshot wounds.  A trio of men: Felix Yusupov, Dmitri Pavlovich, and Vladimir Purishkevich are responsible for the plot and murder, but nobody quite knows the circumstances of the man’s death.  McIntee himself claims in his Author’s Note that he “tried to use the different sources to construct the most feasible person possible”.  It is because of this that the ending of the novel is a bit too convoluted and not as satisfying as it perhaps could have been, but that’s history isn’t it?

There is little artistic license when portraying Russia as a setting.  McIntee imbues the novel with this sense of mistrust.  The Doctor cannot believe that there isn’t some alien running around in early portions of the novel, members of the predecessor to the KGB are a constant threat, and many of the conversations between every character have this tense undercurrent to them.  As this is a pure historical there must be an action which keeps the Doctor and company in Russia at this time as early in the novel the Doctor implies that this was only meant to be a quick trip to prove to Liz especially what the TARDIS could do.  He has just gotten back control of the ship after all so he was always going to show off.  McIntee has certain Russian agents following the TARDIS crew believing them to be spies for the British so they steal the TARDIS.  The actual plot is the Doctor, Liz, and Jo each in their own way attempting to find the TARDIS while history is occurring around them.  The characterization of Liz Shaw is interesting here as this is the first piece of Doctor Who media to really come to terms with how the character would react to time travel.  McIntee excels with Liz’s internal monologue as throughout the novel she is questioning just how any of this is possible.  It is interesting contrast as in her television appearances she is skeptical but never faced with anything that she couldn’t rationalize.  The prospect of time travel is enough to break her which is excellent.  She comes to terms with this about halfway through the book at which point McIntee throws her right into the conspirators.

McIntee does some interesting things with the Doctor here, having his constant name dropping actual get him into trouble.  Russia at this time is incredibly suspicious to outsiders and the aristocracy, and the Third Doctor is perhaps one of the most aristocratic versions of the Doctor.  There are those immediately convinced he’s working for British Intelligence and his name dropping of Lethbridge-Stewart only bring this right to the forefront.  It’s the Doctor who causes this books plot to occur in the first place, yet for the most part he takes more of a standard action hero role as Liz and Jo both get the spotlight.  Jo here is portrayed with excellent to contrast with Liz, showing both of their intelligences and how they differ.  For lack of a better phrase, Jo is the “street smarts” to the “book smarts” of Liz (who has quite a few thoughts on how odd Jo is for an assistant).  Rasputin is the one who gets Jo under his spell, allowing her and the audience to sympathize with a much maligned figure from history.  Rasputin has always been characterized as some villain throughout history, yet like many figures, the man behind the myth is quite a bit different.  McIntee portrays him as much as the manipulator as well as a deeply holy man.  He doesn’t want to see bad things happen and genuinely has good intentions.  He is too short sighted to the Tsar and Tsarina to see what is happening out there.  He also has less desirable qualities: a womanizer and an alcoholic to boot, he’s a perfect example of how to write a complex character.  Jo isn’t taken in by any mystical means, but by the very human character she is presented with.  Overall, The Wages of Sin shows a glimpse into what might have been had pure historicals been done in the Pertwee era.  8/10.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Last Wish by: Andrzej Sapkowski translated by: Danusia Stok

Many gamers are familiar with CD Projekt Red’s trilogy of The Witcher video games which were critically successful, being rereleased for several systems including the Nintendo Switch.  It is odd that there are still those unfamiliar with the series of novels the games are based upon by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski and published in the original Polish between 1992 and 2013, and translated into English between 2007 (in conjunction with the first video game) and 2018.  Ostatnie życzenie or The Last Wish, as it is translated is the first book in the series (though published second) and collects seven short stories told outside of chronological order of adventures in the life of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher, and the series main protagonist.  A Witcher in this world is someone who since childhood has undergone many mutations to their body to aid them in fighting monsters, leaving their hair white and eyes yellow.  The series is also being adapted into a Netflix Original Series starring Henry Cavill in the title role, and it is my intention to have the series reviewed before the web series is released on December 20.  The Last Wish is notable for being one of two of the books to be translated by Danusia Stok into English apart from the series’ usual translator David French.

The Last Wish is framed through a frame story called “The Voice of Reason” which can be quickly summarized as worldbuilding and a simple device to bring the reader from one story to the next, as Geralt reflects on several moments in his life after the events of the first story in the collection.  It’s not really a story in it’s own right, but as a framing story it is enjoyable and keeps things moving and more memorable than just presenting the stories.  7/10.

The first story in the collection is “The Witcher” which serves as the first proper introduction to the character of Geralt and what exactly he does.  The plot is simple, Geralt is contracted by the king of Vizima to cure his daughter who has become a vampire like striga who has been terrorizing the land for several years.  Geralt spends the night in the girl’s tomb using tricks of his trade to keep the striga out of her coffin for one night which should cure her.  Sapkowski then uses this time to throw in one little twist as to why the girl has been stuck in this form for years, a lord has been using this situation for his own selfish gain, wishing the king to be deposed.  Exposing the darker sides of humanity is a common theme throughout the series and introducing it up front like this immediately sets the tone for the rest of the stories.  This is not some happy story about monster hunting but something more.  What “The Witcher” also does is introduce the stoic nature of Geralt of Rivia.  As it’s a short story there isn’t much backstory to the details of who Geralt is, just the basic outline of what a Witcher is and why they are often hated by society at large.  Its excellence is in its simplicity which introduces readers to Sapkowski’s world, magic system, and main character in telling a solid yet incredibly human tale.  8/10.

Sapkowski’s series is heavily inspired by Eastern European mythology and fairy tales and the second story of the collection, “A Grain of Truth”, is one such fairy tale retelling.  The story is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast from the perspective of the Beast with a subverted ending.  A man named Nivellan has been transformed into a bear-like creature after his father forced him to overtake a priestess and can only be freed by a true love.  Nivellan has attempted to fall in love with several women, but many of them are only attracted to the magical power that come with his curse.  Sapkowski once again employs a twist in this tale as the beauty whom breaks the curse at the end of the story is a bruxa, another vampire like creature responsible for a trail of corpses which leads Geralt to the castle.  Of course Geralt must slay the monster as that is what Witchers do and the creature does have malicious intent to all those except its love.  This story is the first appearance of Geralt’s horse Roach whom he often speaks to, and Sapkowski gives Geralt a much more fleshed out personality.  There is this very subtle dry wit added to the character which suits the more dialogue driven story that “A Grain of Truth” tells and while “The Witcher” was a good introduction, this is the story which began to make me fall in love with the character.  9/10.

The morality play is another type of story which Sapkowski employs in these collections as he deconstructs specific concepts.  “The Lesser Evil” takes its title from the idea that of two evil actions, one is inherently less evil and that is the action which should be taken.  Geralt as a character is opposed to this idea, evil is evil, there are no degrees to it.  This is a story meant to shake the character’s moral viewpoint of the world, as the climax involves the town of Blaviken being massacred with an illusion making it look as Geralt is the one responsible.  In actuality he was killing a band of assassins sent to kill a wizard friend of Geralt’s.  “The Lesser Evil” is one that seems to be wholly original and deals with Geralt’s eventually futile attempts to save everyone involved, which obviously fails by the end of the story.  While this is a good story, it is the weakest thus far.  I believe this may be down to translation issues as there is very little characterization to the supporting characters involved in this story.  There’s also a lack of tension as the story does attempt to go to a thrilling climax and conclusion, but for whatever reason just doesn’t pick up as much steam.  7/10.

The fourth story in the collection is one of the first to have major connections to the story arc of the series.  “A Question of Price” is also an interesting story as it opens as a story not about Geralt attempting to slay a monster, but disguising himself as a nobleman and present at a party where the princess of Cintra must choose a suitor for a husband.  This is a story inspired primarily by laws of chivalry and interestingly Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as a monstrous intruder enters claiming that long ago the King promised him whatever he wishes.  Of course he wishes the King’s daughter in marriage which causes an uproar at the dinner and a brawl breaks out, but this causes Pavetta to reveal some force within her, a force of magic as this creature is her lover.  The story ends with everything revealed to be a miscommunication and almost a comedy of errors, hinting that the child Pavetta will bare shall become a Witcher.  That is the titular question of price and this hint is that the child will be bound by destiny. As a story it is excellent, but one of two halves.  The first half is much of Geralt discussing with the queen what exactly she wishes for him at a dinner table.  This is oddly a tense section of the story as Sapkowski draws you in as a suspicious Geralt looks around at the suitors and the idea is planted that any one of them could be listening on their conversations for an edge.  The second half of the story is also such an enjoyable free for all, building to an excellent final line which seals this as one of the best of the collection.  10/10.

It is followed by the weakest story of the collection “The Edge of the World” which feels like its only purpose is to do some worldbuilding on elves.  Sapkowski’s elves here are incredibly dangerous and incredibly bitter creatures and the title refers to the idea of a metaphorical edge Geralt and his friend, Dandelion, are apparently brought to.  The plot has Geralt contracted to stop a devil in a field which Dandelion does not believe in existing, as the humans they are around are essentially yokels who wouldn’t know what a monster it.  Geralt is willing to take the contract as they seem honest enough, but the devil itself is actually an illusion conjured by some elves who bound the two heroes.  The story ends with a deus ex machina and attempts to build ups the idea of a conflict with the elves brewing, but outside of that it is weak.  It is an enjoyable story for introducing Dandelion, a bard who really shouldn’t be friends with Geralt, but in the book’s own words “opposites attract” and they end up being very close friends.  “The Edge of the World” doesn’t manage to hold interest as well as it feels like there isn’t a concrete end goal for the story, but it is still at least okay.  6/10.

The final story in the collection is the story which gives the collection its name.  “The Last Wish” shows the first meeting between Geralt and the sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg after Dandelion accidentally releases a djinn which hurts him.  Geralt and Yennifer’s introduction to one another is excellent as Sapkowski immediately lets the sparks fly between them.  It’s never stated outright that they are love interests, but the writing style changes immediately to one of intimacy.  Yennefer as a character perhaps can be characterized as a femme fatale, confident in her sexuality and a complete tease to Geralt through their first scene together.  They end up discussing things while Yennefer takes a bath which makes Geralt note her beauty and interestingly it’s one small action which inspires Yennifer to help.  He takes a moment to help her get a drink early on in the story when others would be more concerned about their friend, which is interesting.  The djinn itself is also this force of nature and a looming threat throughout this short story, which isn’t that long all things considered.  “The Last Wish” is perhaps the best short story in the collection, bringing together some great action, drama, character interactions, and character development into an incredibly engaging read.  10/10.

Overall, The Last Wish is a successful collection and excellent introduction to The Witcher franchise.  If there was one flaw, the nature of being a short story collection does not allow the deepest level of characterization or an actual arc for the series to follow.  8.14/10.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Dragon's Claw by: Steve Moore with art by: Dave Gibbons

Dragon’s Claw is written by Steve Moore with art by Dave Gibbons.  It was released in Doctor Who Weekly issues 39-43 and Doctor Who Monthly 44-45 (July-October 1980) and is reprinted in its original form in Doctor Who: Dragon’s Claw by Panini Books.

The opening story of the second Panini Doctor Who Magazine graphic novel gives the book its title and is one of the more odd entries in Steve Moore’s run of Doctor Who comics.  Dragon’s Claw is a story that spans seven issues, but of varying page lengths due to what was happening behind the scenes at Doctor Who Weekly.  The year is 1980 and Doctor Who Weekly has been running successfully since October 17, 1979, releasing one issue per week.  The comic strip was successful under Mills and Wagner due to their stories coming from pitches sent to the production office as potential serials, while Steve Moore’s run had been wholly original work.  Giving original work to a four page comic book in a serialized story is difficult and due to a drop in sales of the magazine the decision was made in September 1980 to switch from a weekly schedule to a monthly schedule.  This brought with it a higher price, but nearly double the page count dedicated to the comic strips and an 8 page increase in the length of the magazine overall.  This increase in page count midway through the story makes it feel as if Moore took the concluding four issues and pasted them together quickly, as there are moments halfway through the final two parts which feel like they are meant to be cliffhangers.  It creates an odd pacing for the story as each part usually builds to a cliffhanger, not a weird halfway point and then resolves that point to an actual cliffhanger.

Dragon’s Claw itself allows Steve Moore to partake in much of his love for China and its ancient history, sending the Doctor and Sharon to an ancient Chinese Buddhist monastery where strange events are occurring.  The first issue of the story is spent in a village which is under siege by pirates introducing the group of monks as holy men who come to the villagers’ rescue, but also causing violent chaos in their wake.  It is this mystery as why monks who usually only fight in self defense would become violent throughout the course of this story.  The Doctor, Sharon, and K9 only arrive in the final few panels of the first issue where they are captured.  This style is markedly different from the earlier comics of Mills and Wagner with a late arrival of the TARDIS team emulating the types of stories which had begun airing on television at the time.  Luckily, unlike the darker version of the Doctor from Season 18, Moore characterizes the Doctor in a manner much similar to his earlier persona during the Graham Williams era which is fitting for a comic strip.  Moore also keeps the focus squarely on the Doctor once he arrives which with the shorter page count of the first five issues of the story is an asset.  The TARDIS team become the point of view characters for the lengthy story with the twists coming to the reader when the characters discover them.

The story plays out for the first five issues like a standard Doctor Who story with the Doctor, Sharon, and K9 being captured and escaping, until they eventually discover what’s behind this story.  Dragon’s Claw is most famous for bringing the Sontarans right into the Doctor Who comics.  Moore actually uses the Sontarans to better effect than television appearances like The Invasion of Time: they are warmongers and are using their time in Ancient China so they can gain a tactical advantage in their war.  There is a large piece of quartz which can be used to power their spaceships and they are using hypnosis to convince the monks to kill the emperor on a specific command.  Overall their plan is reminiscent of Linx’s efforts to get his spaceship working in The Time Warrior, but Moore does elevate the story by using the setting and culture to great effect.  Dave Gibbons’ artwork as always is excellent and the detail in designing the Sontarans as actual clones is a nice touch.  Dragon’s Claw is a story whose biggest flaw was due to conditions outs of the creators’ control, but even with that considered it causes some structural issues which are difficult to annoy.  It brings down what could have been an all out classic. 8/10.

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Taint by: Michael Collier

The debut novel of Michael Collier Longest Day is one of the weakest Eighth Doctor Adventures.  Often when a novel is not well received by the greater Doctor Who fan community, the author would not be invited to contribute any more material to the Doctor Who novel range, so it was a surprise when ten books later BBC Books released The Taint, Collier’s second and final effort for any Doctor Who range, with the promise that this is the introduction of a new companion for the Eighth Doctor.  With Collier’s previous work being a weaker entry, there was a sense of apprehension reading this one as it could easily turn out as weak as the former.  The Taint once again demonstrates Collier’s propensity for filling stories with interesting ideas.  The novel is set in London, 1963 where six individuals have all begun to share the same delusion.  They believe that they are all Satan, the Devil himself, come up from Hell for nefarious purposes and delusions of torment by demons.  Luckily, these shared delusions do not seem to make them dangerous, but they have been taken under the care of Dr. Charles Roley.  Roley is taking care of them at his own manor with their consent and attempting to get to the bottom of this mystery.

The main theme of the novel is one of the study of parapsychology, a field of pseudoscience popular in the 1960s as advances in science brought to the forefront the possibility that psychic powers were a legitimate field of inquiry.  Inquiry led to thorough debunking of the field in reality, but playing around in the Doctor Who universe makes the field an incredibly interesting idea to explore.  Much of the first half of the novel involves discussion between Roley, his assistant Maria, and the Doctor on the nature of his experiments and the possible causes of these delusions.  The investigation slowly builds as it becomes apparent that there is something more occurring in the story.  This is one aspect of the novel where Collier lets the story down is that the actual storyline doesn’t delve deeply into exactly what experiments Roley has been conducting and becomes far too quick on the uptake when it comes to including alien intervention.  The villains of the novel are Azoth and Tarr.  Azoth presents himself as an almost demonic figure attempting to use these people for his own purposes, but Collier eventually reveals that he’s just an android from the future.  This twist is perhaps the weirdest twist of the novel, as Collier implies Azoth should be some alien and an android villain doesn’t quite make sense with what is set up.  Tarr is a human villain and to be honest he is incredibly bland, making little impact on the plot except being someone for Azoth to talk to and intimidate.

Collier does shine in this second attempt at a novel in characterizing the Doctor and Sam as well as introducing a new companion.  Fitz Kreiner is a young man working in a greenhouse whose mother is one of Dr. Roley’s patients and gets caught up in the events of the novel.  Fitz is a character whom Collier immediately ingrains into the reader’s mind by giving quite a bit of insight into his mind.  He’s a lovable rogue archetype through and through, convinced he’s a ladies man and going to make it as a star one day, but hopelessly lost in London with a dead end job.  He does land a date with Sam Jones and they do spend much of the book with scenes of excellent chemistry.  Collier hints on a potential romance, but the plot of the novel makes note that this chain of events is not fated to happen as Fitz undergoes emotional trauma as his mother does not make it out alive.  Sam Jones is also characterized quite well by Collier, having some great scenes with Fitz and a sense of emotional connection.  Outside of that her character is no less bland than her other appearances.  The Eighth Doctor here perhaps acts most like the character, with his first appearance attempting to by a dead begonia which he intends to rescue.  It is an excellent scene and the childlike wonder and eternal optimism of the character is present throughout.  Overall, The Taint is an improvement over Longest Day and is good, but the weak villains and a plot that needs a little more time to breathe.  6/10.