Monday, May 25, 2020

Falls the Shadow by: Daniel O'Mahony - A Re-Review

Falls the Shadow is a book which has been described as 356 pages of an excuse for pain and torture, and this cynical analysis is a Schrodinger analysis.  It is both correct and oh so incredibly wrong at the same time.  Daniel O’Mahony’s only entry in the Virgin New Adventures line of novels is a book with pain and suffering as a major theme, but hidden within its pages is a much deeper story about the insanity of the universe and what happens when time travel goes wrong.  In essence, the novel is O’Mahony’s answer to Marc Platt’s Ghost Light: the TARDIS ends up in a Victorian manor house which is inhabited with crazy people.  There is a professor doing his own experiments with a daughter who is insane, a visitor to the house who does not like the inhabitants, and eventually god-like beings who throw even more of a wrench in the mix.  O’Mahony subverts the Seventh Doctor formula of this story by having the TARDIS crash land in the house and the Doctor doesn’t actually have a plan.  He, Ace, and Benny are all stuck in a home where their only goal is to survive with their sanity intact.

The trick to writing a longer Doctor Who book is to ensure that the prose is excellent, and Daniel O’Mahony shows an incredible skill in writing his own little universe in microcosm.  The prose is lyrical from the simple description of characters walking down a corridor, to having someone’s blood sucked by vampire orchids, and even the end of the universe.  There are several references, obvious and subtle, to classic literature, the works of Stephen King, poetry, and pop songs of the era.  O’Mahony uses these allusions to plant the idea in the reader that Falls the Shadow means different things and there is an open end to the ways that it can be interpreted.  It’s certainly a style which can get the reader to work their way through the book within 24 hours and have a review up within an hour of finishing the book.  The villains of the piece are Gabriel and Tanith, the Light analogues in this retelling of Ghost Light.  They are representations of how the universe came to be and the spark of madness and unravelling which occurred when Professor Jeremy Winterdawn played with dimensional transcendentalism and interstitial time.  They are both insane and the source of the torture in the novel.  They are psychopaths, sociopaths, and up the garden paths.

There is a trio of characters living in the house already who have found themselves living out their own little soap opera love triangle of insanity.  Harry Truman is a man with a disfigured face, Justin Cranleigh is an explorer who has gone insane, and Cassandra Winterdawn has gone blind.  There is a moment early on in the novel where the scene is established as Cassandra opens a wardrobe in which hides Benny and carries on a conversation with Cranleigh as if she isn’t there.  The reader won’t immediately associate with the character being blind, making the reader question what this house, this Shadowfell, is really hiding.  It’s a device used early on to make the story work, as the reader no longer knows just what they can expect from the book.  Cranleigh and Truman are introduced as two sides of a standard love triangle, but by the midpoint there is something revealed about each of them that makes them somehow more insane than they were initially introduced to be.  While they are crazy Jane Page, an English assassin has come to the house with no real identity of her own to kill Winterdawn because of reasons.  Page isn’t her real name, she doesn’t actually have a real name and O’Mahony intentionally leaves it ambiguous if she’s a real person or just a construct of Gabriel, Tanith, Qxeleq, Shadowfell, or the overactive imaginations of the characters in the house.  O’Mahony evokes the Gray Man mythos for the beginning of the universe and the initial species who has tea with Benny and influences Ace’s decisions.  He is not an analogue for the Doctor, the Doctor is in the story after all, but he is an analogue for something bigger, something different.  Overall, Falls the Shadow may not be a book for those weak of heart or stomach, but it is one that leaves an impression and says something and nothing at the same time.  It is a paradox, and a brilliant one at that.  9/10.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Mistborn: The Well of Ascension by: Brandon Sanderson

One important aspect of Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire is that while it is the first installment of a trilogy it’s also telling a complete story from beginning to end, leaving the reader satisfied.  The Well of Ascension was published a year after The Final Empire’s publication which continues the trilogy and shifts the focus of the story from a heist, to a story that’s more political in nature.  While the first novel was defeating the big bad Lord Ruler and saving the day, The Well of Ascension is what happens next.  The climax of The Final Empire leaves a dictatorship with a power vacuum and Sanderson uses The Well of Ascension to focus on how the world can begin to rebuild, and the grimy aspects of that long process.  Vin has become the focus of a religion among the ska as responsible for freeing them from their chains, Elend has found himself the king, and the rest of the original crew have traded thieving for politics.  Elend has written a complicated constitution as the monarchal dictatorship becomes a representative democracy and several disgruntled nobles assault the city.  Luthadel under siege is the state in which most of the novel occurs, giving The Well of Ascension a more desolate and depressing atmosphere than the initial book.  Sanderson sets from the outset to give the reader a story that isn’t the happily ever after for the characters, but only the real beginning of their troubles.

Straff Venture, Elend’s father, serves as the primary antagonist of this novel, and like The Final Empire, he remains in the distance throughout the book, while his effects are felt.  Straff has the city under siege, with a true invasion only stopped by a political rival, Lord Cett,  This is a double-edged sword, however, as once Straff appears as a villain he is found to be more underwhelming, sending underlings to do his dirty work and not really being that impressive of a villain overall.  He has a Mistborn who gets a plot with Vin throughout the novel, bringing her story to the forefront.  Zane Venture is a character who has a voice in his said, the voice revealed not to be insanity, but a Mistborn who provides a foil and mirror for Vin.  Both come from an abusive father figure, but while Vin eventually made it out of her abusive upbringing, Zane didn’t.  Sanderson uses Zane as a character who thinks he’s able to get out, but is somehow more stubborn to the possibility of help, forcing himself into some sort of learned helplessness.  He’s also a character who the reader doesn’t really get to see the thought process of as he doesn’t get his own point of view chapter outside of smaller portions of other chapters.  This means that Zane is only perceived by the reader through the reactions of others, and that is primarily Vin.  Vin’s growth throughout The Well of Ascension is a continuation of working through her own self-doubt: she’s defeated the Lord Ruler and has found mutual love with Elend, but everything about the world is telling her that it is going to come crashing down.  She’s only really brought up because she has found a support structure to surround herself with throughout the book, but that doesn’t stop the doubt from greatly effecting her actions and sense of self-worth.

Meanwhile, Elend Venture has his own demons to fight as the studious man has been put into a position where he has to lead a group of people and avoid becoming a dictator.  Elend is a man with a na├»ve optimism that everyone is looking for the fairness, which is obviously not happening.  He begins the book as the king of the new empire, and Sazed, a Terrisman servant responsible for memorizing several faiths, sends him an advisor to actually make him a king.  Elend is someone who also suffers from similar self-doubt to Vin and throughout The Well of Ascension he builds himself up to be a good leader before being deposed for his previous inability to act as a king.  He’s a fascinating character because of this, as the election of a new king forms a large portion of the novel, giving Elend a status as a main character.  This overcoming of self-doubt becomes a major theme throughout the book, especially as it ends with a hook for the final installment taking up the last 200 pages of the book or so.  The climax of the novel is excellent and while Vin and Elend are the primary driving forces throughout The Well of Ascension, the rest of the crew and the new characters get their own chance to shine.

Lord Renoux in The Final Empire was already established to be an imposter, but it is revealed by the end of that book that he was a kandra, a shapeshifter which eats the bones of others to take their forms.  They have contracts with humans which they must be fiercely loyal and OreSeur, is the kandra’s true name, now under contract with Vin.  Sanderson has created a fascinating shapeshifting species here as while the kandra can impersonate humans to near perfection, that’s all it is, an impersonation.  There really is something alien about the character through dry wit as OreSeur impersonates a wolfhound throughout the novel, not a human.  He becomes Vin’s constant companion and bodyguard in essence, and adds an espionage flavor to the political machinations.  Sanderson also really introduces a second magic system to go side by side with Allomancy here.  Ferruchemistry is essentially a mirror to Allomancy and while mentioned in the first book, it is put into practice here.  While there are plenty of other characters in the over 700 page novel, it is this that really should be enough to sell the book if it hasn’t as The Well of Ascension is a continuation of the series by shifting the tone and forcing the characters through different situations and down a very different path.  9/10.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Interference - Book Two: The Hour of the Geek by: Lawrence Miles

Metatextual analysis is weird.  It’s looking at a text through a lens dependent on the existence of other texts which changes the context of the text you’re looking at.  For instance, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a play that only works within the context of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Including metatext in your work is a gamble, it can become like Stoppard and excellent, but it can also come across like say Hell Bent where it comes off as pretentious.  Interference Book One: Shock Tactic was the start of a book published in two parts, finished with Interference Book Two: The Hour of the Geek.  Miles introduces metatext to the first installment, but it really is the second installment which fulfills the metatext of what Miles is doing, writing an analysis of Doctor Who as a program.  The 300 pages of this novel analyzes what Doctor Who means, who the Doctor is, who the companion is, and somehow manages to predict to what the show would evolve into with scary accuracy.  Unlike the first review I wrote, this isn’t going to explore Miles’ plot, it’s largely a continuation of part one and is excellent, but I’ve said just about everything that I can about that aspect of the book.

Miles plays with the idea that the Doctor is dead, he has been dead since The Monster of Peladon, caused by a paradox on the planet Dusk.  Killing the Doctor at this point is his razor to cut canon in two.  It’s the Tom Baker era where the expanded universe started to take shape with Doctor Who Weekly and of course the 90’s already gave the world the Virgin New Adventures and Virgin Missing Adventures.  It’s cutting everything up and telling the reader to just enjoy the ride.  It’s a story, stories matter.  There’s the setup for future arcs and the promise that this tangled web is going to be untangled eventually, but for now enjoy the ride because it’s important.

The character of I.M. Foreman is Miles metatextual answer to the Doctor as a character, a runaway from Gallifrey who has quickly used up their regenerations for a good show.  They mean merely to entertain.  Their final life is even female and their place on Dust is one of self-discovery becoming what they need to become, who they need to be to serve the frame story.  Gallifrey is going to be destroyed one of these days, restored, and destroyed again because of some enemy and Foreman won’t be there, but perhaps they can save it.  From that description everything from Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the Doctor to stories like Hell Bent, The Timeless Children, and Death in Heaven have their roots here which is odd.  It’s not like Miles was a fan of the revival, but he’s been unintentionally pulling the strings all along.  Like the Eighth Doctor here, he just doesn’t seem to know that’s what’s happening with him.

The Eighth Doctor here is broken.  Sam leaves him and Fitz suffers a terrible fate at the hands of Faction Paradox, while Compassion begins to live up to her name while being forced into the role of companion.  Sarah Jane sees what he has become, and he turns his back on her.  He is a pawn in some cosmic game of creating interference for brainwashing purposes.  The geek is eating everything up and there really isn’t much that is bringing everything back.  Spaceships made of bone provide some of the visceral imagery found in this book’s pages while the story finds its way to an unsettling conclusion.  It goes beyond the pulpy fiction of most Doctor Who and into something greater.  Miles is writing something that he never intended to return to, he was saying goodbye to something he loved while leaving his mark.  It’s something that I think needs to be read to be fully understood.  While Shock Tactic took over 1,000 words to discuss, this one doesn’t need nearly as many, it’s cutting the fact and setting up the Doctor as damaged with a clone and a construct as companions leaving Sam in some sort of happiness, something that the VNAs would never do.  It leaves you thinking and perhaps that’s what the best works can do.  10/10.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Mistborn: The Final Empire by: Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson is one of the biggest names in modern fantasy.  First published in 2005, Sanderson has consistently published multiple books a year in both adult and young adult fantasy.  In 2009, he was chosen to write the conclusion to Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy saga, The Wheel of Time, and in 2010 he began publishing his own magnum opus, The Stormlight Archive.  His first published novel Elantris was not the first novel he had written, that would actually become his second novel The Final Empire, later retitled Mistborn: The Final Empire and simply Mistborn.  This is the first book in a trilogy now dubbed Mistborn Era 1, which spanned 2006 and 2008.  The Final Empire is a novel that grabs some tropes from a big bag of tropes and mixes them together to create a world which is something that Sanderson often does in his novels.  This novel is primarily a fantasy heist where the prize is valuable metal for the purpose of taking down the evil Lord Ruler which then forms the climax of the novel.  From that description the novel sounds incredibly generic, but Sanderson is brilliant at disguising the tropes in an incredibly interesting setting and characters to execute said tropes.

Sanderson opens The Final Empire with a brilliant hook: “Ash fell from the sky.”  This single sentence does more to set the tone than anything else in the novel.  It primes the reader for the bleak, ashen city of Luthadel on the world of Scadriel where the oppressive atmosphere fits hand in hand with the oppression of the lower classes.  The skaa are essentially slaves to their class, forced into squalor and cutoff from the magic of this world.  The skaa who have the lineage for magic are often found by the nobility or the Inquisitors and locked up, or worse.  The Steel Inquisitors make an excellent group of secondary villains.  They are Allomancers who have several steel spikes driven into them to put them under control, and there are implications that future books will delve more into what exactly they are.  The scummy streets create such a vivid picture that when Sanderson introduces Vin, the main character of the novel, the reader is ready to believe that she is at rock bottom.  Vin is a young girl, left on the streets and part of a thieving team who it turns out is a Mistborn, meaning she is able to utilize all ten metals for magic.  Allomancy is Sanderson’s magic system: burning specific metals to have a specific magical effect.  Magic in this world is genetic and Vin’s Mistborn status makes her valuable to Kelsier, a figure attempting to overthrow the Lord Ruler and free the skaa.  Vin is already a damaged character, overcoming life experiences which has left her untrusting due to abuse, yet her personality shines through.

Vin’s part in the plan involves her tapping into her own feminine side and attending several balls to gain information.  Sazed, a Terrisman, acts as her servant to help guide her with a dry wit and helping hand, and a creature impersonating a lord acts as her uncle.  The ruse and ball scenes provide a nice juxtaposition between the action of taking down the Lord Ruler and the nice espionage.  The balls do fall into the young adult trap of bringing in a romance, however, Sanderson does apply this with a deft hand.  Elend Venture who is the son of the lord of the most powerful house, is Vin’s love interest, but they are allowed to have a naturally growing relationship with its own twists and turns.  Both care for each other and it isn’t love at first sight which makes for a nice change.  The romance isn’t perfect, but it is more developed than some of the romances out there.  Kelsier is also a character who act as the mentor figure for Vin, which is where Sanderson perhaps follows tropes to too close of a standard beat.  He’s a fine character and there are glimpses of a damaged person here, but his story arc throughout the novel is one that follows the standard mentor story arc.  It doesn’t hurt the novel much, as The Final Empire is still an excellent novel where even the supporting cast is all unique, though like many fantasy novels, too many to count here.  Each serves a purpose in Vin’s story, but there is enough depth for them to have their own stories in future novels.  Overall, The Final Empire is just a fascinating read that I’d highly recommend if you’re looking for a gateway into modern adult fantasy, with a nice mix of tropes, tones, and characters to really have something for everyone.  9/10.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Interference - Book One: Shock Tactic by: Lawrence Miles

Interference is something so odd and contradictory that it can only be described as peak Lawrence Miles.  It’s split across two novels, published at the same time, and attempting to bring the disparate threads of the last 25 books together and setup the next story arc which I think culminates in The Ancestor Cell.  This is the book that’s meant to say goodbye to Sam and to really bring Faction Paradox to the forefront and set the BBC Books apart from the Virgin New Adventures before it.  This review is only for Interference: Book One: Shock Tactic, and is coming from the perspective of someone who has not read Interference: Book Two: Hour of the Geek, because it was published as one book and claims to be a book one.  Lawrence Miles’ first installment is weird.  It is 309 pages, split into several different sections to attack parts of the plot, and doesn’t feel like a Doctor Who novel.  The Doctor is barely in this first half, and when he does appear, he is confined to a cell, while Miles takes more time to explain Faction Paradox, aka his baby.  The book is all setup for something.  Something that Miles doesn’t even really hint at what it means for the characters or even what that something could be.  This isn’t to say that the setup is bad, far from it.  Like Christmas on a Rational Planet and Alien Bodies, Miles’ prose is beautiful and effective at making a surreal landscape of the events in the mind as from the very beginning there is this sense that everything is off.

Interference is wrapped in a frame story where the Eighth Doctor, alone and possibly broken, arrives on a place called Foreman’s World where over the course of a day he tells the story of what happened to him on Earth and what happened to the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith on the planet Dust to I.M. Foreman.  I.M. Foreman is a character who is left a mystery by Miles throughout the novel.  She is this character with a history with the Doctor and is implied to be on a self-imposed exile to this little planet which may or may not be in a bottle universe.  Miles explains the bottle universes in the prologue of the book as how parallel worlds work and where the Time Lords will go after some great war.  This war is something that is clearly setup for later in the books and the bottle universe concept is supposed to be Miles’ answer to how the VNAs fit in, but where the frame story works is to set the tone of the story.  The Doctor here is distant and clearly reeling from some sort of loss.  There comes a point where he just stops the story halfway because he doesn’t quite know where to go with it, before starting a completely different story showing that he has become pretty erratic in what he has been doing.  The frame story does fall apart as an end to the story as Shock Tactic isn’t a book that ends on a cliffhanger, or with resolution, it just kind of stops midway through the story.

“What Happened On Earth” is the section of the book that deals with the Eighth Doctor, Sam, and Fitz and takes up a majority of the novel.  It’s also the portion of the novel that has the closest plot points to a Doctor Who story, but after a few chapters Miles just sort of goes off the rails with it.  The Doctor and Sam are dealing with weapons dealers in London, 1996 while Fitz is kind of off on his own doing things.  The Doctor immediately gets captured and put in prison cell with Badar, a writer whom the Doctor has a good relationship with as he is tortured and broken down following the threads started in Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum’s Seeing I.  The Doctor is used scarcely in this section, but when he does appear it becomes incredibly emotional as he is broken down to his breaking point.  The real star of this section is Sam Jones who investigates Guest, Kode, and Compassion, a trio of characters from Anathema, a human colony, possibly from the future, possibly from the present.  Sam’s story is incredibly meta as once she confronts the trio with Sarah Jane Smith, who is also investigating alongside Sam, she is captured and put in the Remote which is a concept.  The Remote might be something alive, it might be a piece of technology, Miles doesn’t provide answers, but it allows Sam to undergo a series of scenes which are incredibly meta in nature.  These scenes are more often written in the form of a television script and described as a BBC interpretation of events which is interesting.  It’s meant to make Sam, and the reader, feel disoriented and unsure of what’s been happening, bringing back the Dark Sam concept from Alien Bodies and Unnatural History.

Guest, Kode, and Compassion are all characters with their own quirks and differences.  Kode is the least developed, while Guest is the over the top villain of the piece in the style of Mavic Chen and Tobias Vaughn and Compassion is the hardened criminal with a plan.  Fitz’s story is told through interludes within this section while he is in the custody of UNISYC which is an offshoot from UNIT and is sent into the future through the Cold.  The Cold is a suspended animation technology from the future which on it’s creation Fitz exited.  In the future, Fitz isn’t allowed to leave an apartment and is eventually driven to joining Faction Paradox as an initiate which is where Miles drops in the history of the Faction and much of its operations.  The Cold exiting Fitz becomes a paradox in and of itself and the second part of the book is where the origins of the Faction come to light.  Fitz’s fall to the dark side of the Faction is justified, but is in need of more exploration because like Sam’s story, it just sort of stops.  “What Happened On Dust” is the second part of the book which basically establishes I.M. Foreman’s Travelling Circus, the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane arriving after The Monster of Peladon, and the Faction going to the planet.  It’s the weaker portion of the novel as it doesn’t do much in terms of plot, just that the Faction is going to invade.  Magdelana Bishop is an interesting character, but the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane don’t do much except foreshadow that the Third Doctor’s regeneration is going to occur on Dust instead of during Planet of the Spiders.

Overall, Interference – Book One: Shock Tactic may be an incredibly compelling read, setting up a world and the potential for a galaxy spanning conflict, but it’s only setup and it doesn’t find a good endpoint.  It just stops.  9/10.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Maskerade by: Terry Pratchett

In these trying times I’ve found that looking for humorous reads has become a point of solace, and Terry Pratchett is an author whom I’ve always found able to blend comedy and drama seriously.  Maskerade is the eighteenth in his Discworld book and either the fourth or fifth in the Witches Sequence, depending on who you ask, and is largely a parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, with less romance and more witches.  It’s also the first Discworld novel post-Interesting Times where Pratchett decided to actually reflect on what he is saying and make more statements in his books than just parodies.  Maskerade is odd in that there really isn’t all that much of a serious commentary on the issues of the world outside of parodying the world and absurdities of theater.  While much is made of the Webber musical version of The Phantom of the Opera, Maskerade actually feels more like an adaptation of the original novel by Gaston Leroux, as it presents itself as a murder mystery.  There is an Opera Ghost in the Ankh-Morpork Opera House who leaves plenty of notes making demands of the new owners, killing people, and giving an ingenue singing lessons, but where it truly reflects Leroux’s novel is that there is the murder mystery aspect of the book.  The identity of the Opera Ghost is not revealed until near the end of the book and although it is 25 years old by this point, I will not be spoiling that twist.

Sure, Discworld is a fantasy setting, but this is a book where the supernatural elements aren’t really a part of the plot as per both Leroux’s novel and Webber’s musical, at least when it comes to explaining things.  Pratchett’s witches prefer to use reverse psychology and the fantasy creatures are more in service to mundane life than anything else.  This isn’t epic fantasy, it’s a character study.  Agnes Nitt was a supporting character in previous Witch books who goes against what she sees as the old-fashioned nature of Lancre and sets out to Ankh-Morpork because she’s looking to find her own way.  She has a good singing voice, but is stuck in the chorus due to an unflattering figure.  One large portion of the book is that she takes up the Christine role while Christine, the actual character, is shown to be more of the Carlotta.  Though this Carlotta is much more of a talkative prima donna who has no actual talent in what she does.  She’s not evil, she’s just a diva and whiny and the butt of several jokes.  The Ghost even thinks that he’s giving lessons to Christine, because Agnes and Christine switch rooms once he shows up because ghosts are scary.

Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg’s story, especially before they get to Ankh-Morpork, is where the book shines perhaps the most.  Granny and Nanny have lost Magrat to her queening duties and both characters are subtly undergoing their own arcs of grief.  It’s not done on the surface but there are little moments that Pratchett includes to show that they need to have a third person in their trio to reign them in (and to boss around).  Yes, Granny can kind of reign in Nanny Ogg, and vice versa, but there is an element to the relationship that’s just missing without a third.  It’s like a hole in one’s family and Nanny Ogg being taken advantage of which starts their plot is emblematic of this.  Nanny has written a cookbook called The Joy of Snacks (and yes it is full of innuendo and special sauces typical of Nanny) and basically wasn’t paid for her work, so they go to Ankh-Morpork to confront the publisher.  Like Witches Abroad, their road trip has the funniest portions of the book as they interact with one another and the world around them.  A close second is Granny Weatherwax as a patron of the arts.  They also have to learn to accept Agnes as a person, who appeared previously and attempted several times to get away from Granny and Nanny, and for Agnes to accept them.  The acceptance is a large part of the novel.  Overall, Maskerade is a book really about masks and how people’s inner emotions can greatly effect their actions and the lengths they go to for achieving their goals, healthy and unhealthy.  It’s also Pratchett on top form with laughs a minute from start to finish with plenty of diversions and jokes to keep interested until the end.  9/10.

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Final Sanction by: Steve Lyons

The Murder Game introduced the Selachians in its second half as a warmongering race which has mutilated itself to look like sharks and force themselves into battle suits.  With this premise Steve Lyons creates the potential for a vast world of culture to explore, however, The Murder Game is primarily a base under siege mixed with a murder mystery.  This leaves the Selachians in desperate need of exploration and a year later, Lyons wrote a follow up that delivered on this premise.  The Final Sanction returns to the Troughton era of the show, but now near the end of this Doctor’s life and captures a different tone.  The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe arrive at the end of the war between the Selachians and humanity, both sides are desperate, and war at this point is futile.  From its opening chapters, The Final Sanction manages to capture the bleak nature of a war that nobody will win without genocide.  The desperation seeps through the prose as the TARDIS team are tested to how far they will go to get out safely, as their worldviews are challenged and the usually fun team from 1969 are brought into the cold light of day.  Lyons isn’t actively forcing this team into a darker tone, but allowing the drama to arise naturally from the situations the characters have found themselves in.  This is far from a forced darkness of certain early novels of the Virgin run, but the natural development of those novels published two years after Virgin stopped.

Zoe Heriot is close to getting the Dodo treatment in The Final Sanction, as Lyons puts her through hell.  Near the beginning of the novel, Zoe is captured by the Selachians and held prisoner for the runtime.  There is an avoidance of the damsel in distress, as even on television Zoe is a character far from your typical damsel, as every attempt she gets, she’s attempting to make an escape to get back to the Doctor and Jamie.  The Selachians, being ruthless, torture Zoe at every turn from physical to the psychological.  Lyons does not relish in these scenes but gives them enough room for the reader’s mind to fill in quite a few of the gaps.  There’s even a point where she’s become so desperate to escape from the torture, she fails to stop her accomplice from killing a civilian.  This action has consequences, and of course once the Selachians discover the body, Zoe is quickly recaptured and broken even further.  It’s only at the very end of the novel, in the epilogue, where the Doctor is able to comfort her and set her on the path of healing.  It’s actually a really nice moment and harkens back to The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Wheel in Space.  While Zoe’s story is one of being broken by torture, Jamie’s story is one of being broken by the horrors of war.  Being the protector of this TARDIS team (and the Second Doctor’s era in general), Jamie’s immediate priorities once Zoe is captured is to get her back.  This leads him to being trained for war, something that has changed a great deal in the centuries between the highlander’s own time.  Lyons really provides the juxtaposition of who the character is as Jamie’s brash nature goes against the underhanded tactics of this war, nearly getting him killed in the end.

Putting the Second Doctor in the middle of an all-out war is also something rather new, Lyons adds to it by giving him foreknowledge of events.  The Final Sanction is essentially a pure historical from the future where the Doctor knows what the outcome will be, spends as much time as he can to at least get people to regret their actions, and essentially do nothing to stop it.  The book is building up to genocide, and throughout Lyons and the Doctor are showing the reader, and any character who listens, that the war is entirely the humans doing.  The Selachians were once Ockorans, a peaceful people with the most beautiful singing voices and a culture of high art.  They became warmongers because of people invading their planets and beginning to wipe them out because they couldn’t communicate.  It becomes heart wrenching as you watch the Doctor attempt to save someone, anyone, and only succeed in the more bittersweet of ways.  The supporting characters are also Lyons’ usual caliber of writing.  The most interesting is Dr. Laura Mulholland, the scientist responsible for the genocide in the end through her research.  She is an example of science without regard for consequences in a comment on weapons of mass destruction and certain aspects of the political landscape at the time that haven’t really changed.  Wayne Redfern is the other most interesting character as he is the one who actually presses the button to destroy the Selachians with the Doctor unable to stop them.  Overall, The Final Sanction is excellent, leaving plenty of questions and filling in quite a few blanks from The Murder Game.  9/10.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Doctor Sleep by: Stephen King

The idea of writing a sequel to The Shining is a dangerous gamble, even if it’s coming from Stephen King himself.  The Shining is a story rooted in addiction and a man trying and failing to overcome it, with a last minute redemption at the end leaving the story of Jack Torrance closed.  Jack is dead at the end of The Shining: he died by fire when the Overlook Hotel’s boiler exploded defeating the ghosts that haunt the building.  This is a closed plotline and King understands that death is a part of a story that should rarely be undone.  But, in 2013, King released Doctor Sleep which proudly bears the tagline ‘a sequel to The Shining’ on its cover and took a risk with the story he wished to tell and the ending he wished to undo.  King softened the gamble by making Doctor Sleep follow different themes and characters than The Shining, with the only returning character being an adult Dan Torrance, living his life and trying to overcome the shadows of his own path.  The novel opens right at the end of The Shining, with an extended prologue which shows Danny grow up and lock the ghosts away that won’t leave him alone while Wendy Torrance tries her best and Dick Halloran serves as a father figure to the poor boy.

At its heart, Doctor Sleep is a story of breaking the cycle of addiction.  It doesn’t take long for Dan Torrance to fall into the alcoholism that plagued his family, and like his father it nearly ruins him.  Much of the first half of the novel is about how he finds the right place and a healthy way to get sober and stay sober.  Like his father in The Shining, there is a moment that scares him, but this time it isn’t death.  It’s the potential ruining of a child’s life due to a one-night stand where his hookup stole his money for cocaine and Dan was going to steal it back, but a child coming in at the last minute doesn’t stop him.  This child makes him pause, only for a moment, but it is enough to haunt the man for much of the rest of the novel.  Dan’s journey to sobriety, like Jack’s fall, is an autobiographical element put into writing, just as blatant as King’s other work and perhaps a bit distracting, but not enough to make it unbearable.  It makes Doctor Sleep a personal book for King and that personal connection makes it incredibly readable.  Dan Torrance is a character who the reader becomes endeared to as he’s already gone through hell and there’s further hell waiting for him.

Dan earns the name Doctor Sleep once he settles down and works through addiction through Alcoholics Anonymous.  He uses his shining to help people in hospice move on as a janitor/orderly, with a cat who allows him to see who is at death’s door.  He provides comfort to those ready to depart.  This is all in preparation for his true purpose, to be a teacher, as Dick was to him, to another who shines.  Doctor Sleep is also a book all about Abra Stone, who we follow from birth.  Abra shines like Dan, but is much stronger and spent more time honing her powers.  She communicates with Dan several times, making him and Tony her own imaginary friend.  She also has a darker side, feeling several other children who can shine be killed.  As much as Doctor Sleep is a novel about redemption, it is a coming of age story for Abra, though going for a more student/teacher flair then King’s usual work with that type of story.  Abra isn’t the normal social outcast like many of King’s child characters, but embodies perfectly that feeling of being misunderstood by one’s parents and almost a normal amount of growing up.  Sure there is a reveal later in the book which feels a bit forced and a bit too coincidental, when King meant it to be sweet, but it undercuts a message of being able to break the cycle right in the epilogue to the book.

King’s villains of Doctor Sleep are the True Knot, a group of psychic vampires who feed on children who can shine, living off their ‘steam’ to keep themselves young.  They are like an evil carnival of what King calls ‘RV folk’: incredibly rich and riding across the country in campers, never really being noticed.  Many of the members of the Knot are one-dimensional, getting a backstory and some good lines and scenes, but not much else.  The leader, Rose the Hat, is the exception to the rule, as she is an incredible villain.  She embodies the ruthless leader, going towards her goals and having no qualms about killing, but an Irish charm about her.  When she offers people to join the Knot, King writes her as an excellent seductress, not in any sort of sexual way mind you, but this way that makes you trust her.  They also do horrible things to children which are described in detail, yet Rose still seems sympathetic.  She shouldn’t, she really shouldn’t but she does.  Overall, Doctor Sleep isn’t The Shining.  It isn’t on the same level of storytelling (it’s not really a horror story though there are horror elements), but it’s still a worthwhile read from King and a book I’d happily recommend.  8/10.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Autumn Mist by: David A. McIntee

Mixing science fiction and fantasy are of course genres that have always been closely linked to one another and mix often.  Doctor Who as a concept easily mixes fantasy concepts with the science fiction genre with time travel and several plot concepts that really only work with the idea of a soft fantasy magic system in mind.  The Daemons of course follows Clarke’s Law closely, however, often the show setting out to write a fantasy story seems to fail.  The largest example of this is the much maligned (and rightly so) Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark.  It becomes surprising then that David A. McIntee, an author known for either doing historicals such as White Darkness and Sanctuary, or era tributes such as The Dark Path and The Face of the Enemy, would write Autumn Mist.  Autumn Mist is the twenty-fourth Eighth Doctor Adventure and the penultimate story to feature companion Samantha Jones, and after about fifty pages is something completely different from McIntee’s usual style of novel.  The book begins like one would expect from McIntee: The Doctor, Sam, and Fitz arrive in Belgium on 15 December 1944, the day before the Battle of the Bulge began and right in the middle of Allies and Nazis.  This is conflict enough for the characters to interact with, especially with Fitz having to masquerade as a Nazi due to confusion, and Sam appearing to have died sending the Doctor into a depressive spiral.

McIntee sets up enough material to easily fill a novel with a pure historical, one that may rival Sanctuary for the emotions it draws from the reader, but Autumn Mist introduces a group of extradimensional beings who have been living in eleven dimensions in harmony with humanity for the most part since the beginning of time.  The Sidhe are explained by McIntee as the origin of legends of the fae and fae-like entities around the world, and their inclusion as the driving force behind the plot gives Autumn Mist a mythologic feel.  This group of Sidhe are ruled by Oberon and Titania who represent chaos and order, respectively, and the Nazi forces have been breaking into their dimensions causing them to fight back and retrieve Sam from her destruction.  Sam interacting with the Sidhe is incredibly interesting as they interfere with her biodata once again, effectively adding a little bit of themselves into her.  Their attitude towards the Doctor is interesting as he is given the moniker ‘the Evergreen Man’.  This title alludes to the mythological story of the Green Man, a protector of nature and representative of rebirth and spring.  McIntee uses this to reflect on the differences between the Seventh and Eighth Doctors in the novel, which ultimately falls flat as it is incredibly subtle.  The only confirmation is one line near the end of the novel which could easily be overlooked or thought of as accidental.  Sam’s experiences also lead her to demand the Doctor and Fitz to take her home, she’s done travelling and essentially leading into Lawrence Miles’ two-part epic Interference.

Autumn Mist suffers from some tonal dissonance, however, as the dark and gritty tone of the World War II segments don’t really carry over into the Sidhe sections of the novel whose tone is basically a serious A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This causes much of the novel to feel incredibly disjointed in its construction and needing of some rewrites and reworking to really come together.  The easiest fix would be to make the Sidhe sections of the novel darker and more in line with the earlier sections of the book, especially as they are introduced early on as mysterious and dangerous from the prologue until they actually appear in the open.  McIntee’s prose is suited to a darker tone, but as it stands Autumn Mist is a book whose disjointed nature makes it an often overlooked or even derided novel in fan circles which is a shame.  There are many things to like about Autumn Mist, not enough as it stands to make it stand out as one of McIntee’s good novels, but enough to at least make it a little interesting to read and a book where the reader’s mileage will vary overall.  It does just about as many things right as it does things wrong.  5/10.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Warrior of the Altaii by: Robert Jordan

The fourteen-book epic fantasy The Wheel of Time was published from 1990 to 2013 and written by Robert Jordan (real name James Oliver Rigney Jr).  Jordan’s career as a published author, however, began in 1980 with Tor Books under the pen name Reagan O’Neal with a trilogy of historical fiction novels and initially rose to prominence with a series of novels based on Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, but it wouldn’t be until October 2019, over a decade after his passing, that his first novel would be published.  Warrior of the Altaii was written between 1977-1978, before Jordan had done any work on what would become his magnum opus.  Unlike many books that do not receive publication, Warrior of the Altaii was not rejected because it was bad, it was rejected due to issues in contracts, or just by making bad decisions.  Publishing the book in 2019 with Jordan’s widow and editor, Heather McDougal, in charge of the release of the novel through Jordan’s publisher Tor Books.  Going into Warrior of the Altaii, readers shouldn’t be expecting the next great epic from Robert Jordan.  The book is only 346 pages long, shorter than all but one installment in The Wheel of Time (New Spring is shorter) and takes place in a completely different world to the rest of Jordan’s work.

Warrior of the Altaii is an incredibly interesting novel to read after being familiar with The Wheel of Time as this novel has several precursors to Jordan’s magnum opus.  There’s a sisterhood of magic users, the world is dichotomized by gender, women in the role of power while men are the warriors, and even a precursor to the ta’veren concept.  There’s the attention to detail in the history of the world, though nowhere near as deep as Jordan of a world as Jordan is famous for.  There never really was a feeling of what this magic system could do, or if men could even use the magic at all.  There is a lot of development on one city in this world, but the rest is left pretty blank to be honest.  The villainous queen sisters Eilinn and Elana reminded me of quite a few plot points used in The Great Hunt, readers of that novel will know which ones I’m thinking of.  The novel ends with a battle that only Jordan could write, as he wrote so excellently in The Wheel of Time and honestly Warrior of the Altaii feels like this may have been a point of being the first installment in a series that never was.

Warrior of the Altaii is through and through a novel from 1978 and an example of barbarian fantasy which was popular at the time.  Wulfgar, the protagonist of this novel, refers to himself and is referred to as a barbarian at several points through the novel.  He is the example of the strong leader in peak physical condition and laughs in the face of danger, with plenty of women bowing at his feat.  Yes, this book hasn’t been edited for publishing in 2019, and is presented faithfully with all of its little blemishes, but luckily Jordan manages to write something that is able to overcome much of the releases at the time.  There are still the hints of the strong female representation and what Jordan would do so well, but Warrior of the Altaii is one of those novels that is intrinsically linked with pulp fiction.  I will also admit that this may be because barbarian fantasy is not a genre I typically read, so if you are a fan of this genre you may get more out of this.  As it stands, Warrior of the Altaii is an interesting read that as a first novel is definitely a good novel, better than many other first attempts, and is of interest for fans of The Wheel of Time in particular to see how Jordan’s style evolved.  It is a great novel, if flawed by falling into certain traps many first-time novels fall into.  And yes I will review The Wheel of Time one day.  8/10.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Storm Harvest by: Robert Perry and Mike Tucker

To this point in the Past Doctor Adventures run, the Seventh Doctor novels have been building their own idea of what Season 27 could have been.  The stories all feature the Seventh Doctor and Ace, implied to be shortly after Survival with the exception of The Hollow Men, and the books by Mike Tucker and Robert Perry, coming from potential pitches to the BBC for television stories.  Storm Harvest is the third novel from this writing pair and of the three I have looked at thus far, it is the one that most typically resembles a televised Doctor Who story.  The novel is structured in a four-episode structure, like the other works from Perry and Tucker, and concerns the Doctor and Ace going on a holiday to the aquatic planet Coralee.  Of course, the holiday takes a turn for the worse when an archeological expedition uncovers the secret of an ancient civilization on this leisure planet.  Much of the first half of the novel succeeds because of the archeological expedition and some great worldbuilding from the authors.  Perry and Tucker add to the mystery of Coralee early on with the Doctor’s plot while Ace is processing the events of their previous novel, Matrix.  The authors even include a footnote or two to explain where the characters are in their relationship and why Ace is in need of a holiday at this point in her life.  There is this excellent idea of a dark secret from the past that may be returning that works incredibly well to ramp up the tension and give this novel the tone of a late 1980s action thriller.

Perry and Tucker also include talking dolphins, quite a Douglas Adams style idea played entirely straight, as the talking dolphins are from Earth and have become members of their own society.  This isn’t the famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy dolphins left the planet, but dolphins who have learned to speak and function in human society which is just fascinating.  It is a real shame that Perry and Tucker didn’t spend much time to actually develop the dolphin society, leaving characters like Q’lip in the background without a lot of development.  There is an excellent character late in the novel who turns out to be a sleeper agent for the invading alien Cythosi, which use genetic modification and almost Slitheen-like skin suits to integrate their sleeper agents.  As a race, they are essentially every late 1980s, early 1990s terrorist cell with an alien coating which makes for some interesting storytelling throughout the book.  They are an off-screen presence for much of the early portions and it isn’t until the halfway point where any real threat reveals itself.  The real threat of Storm Harvest are the Krill, a biologically engineered race of aquatic killers.  They are beautifully rendered on the front cover, which for a 1999 Black Sheep cover has aged rather well, partially due to the color scheme.  The Krill aren’t exactly mindless villains, but Perry and Tucker make them persistent killers, consuming anything they come across, slashing people to ribbons, and providing a great threat.

The biggest issue with Storm Harvest is that as a novel this really is trapped by formatting.  Storm Harvest is a novel that would have felt much better if the four-episode structure was paired down to three, like many of the Sylvester McCoy stories on television excelled at.  Yes that would have probably made this a shorter Past Doctor Adventure, but there is a lot of padding here and the story has the Battlefield problem of feeling like a three-part script expanded out to four.  This shouldn’t be a problem as Perry and Tucker could have used the extra space for more character development, as the side characters seem quite a bit underdeveloped.  As it stands Storm Harvest is the weakest of the three Perry and Tucker novels I have covered to date, but still manages to be an enjoyable story.  Seek this one out if you are a fan of the action thriller genre and wish to see it with a Doctor Who style twist, or were a fan of Mike Tucker’s 2001 Big Finish Production Dust Breeding, which serves as a sequel to this.  7/10.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Annihilation by: Jeff Vandermeer

This review perhaps will be one that is shorter in length than my usual fare and perhaps even one without a score.  Today’s subject is Jeff Vandermeer’s 2014 science fiction novel Annihilation, the first installment in his Southern Reach trilogy.  Annihilation is a novel where the writing style is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the plot itself.  The novel is presented in first person limited narration from the perspective of a female biologist who is part of the twelfth research team into Area X, an area closed to the public for over thirty years, whose exploration is overseen by the Southern Reach.  Every previous expedition has never come back or died soon after returning.  Vandermeer excels at writing a modern-day cosmic horror story, drawing heavily from the story structure of H.P. Lovecraft.  The narrator throughout the novel speaks in the past tense and indicates subtly that there is something not quite right about her experiences in Area X and that she may not quite be the same person who entered the area.  Vandermeer is a master at creating this real sense of paranoia and uncertainty that the biologist is not a reliable narrator or that the other characters are who they say they are.

There are only four characters who appear in the novel, all women, all scientists, and all nameless.  The biologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist, and the psychologist are the novel’s four players and over the short 200 pages of the book the audience will see how Area X effects them.  From the outset there is a sense of mistrust, as the psychologist has already put the members of the team under hypnotic suggestion.  The Area’s flora and fauna are incredibly dangerous and one major theme of Annihilation is the spiral into madness that all four characters experience in their own way.  In the works of H.P. Lovecraft, entering the domain of a cosmic scale such as entering the incomprehensible Area X, breaks them, leaving them insane and babbling.  The writing style reflects this aspect with an undercurrent of uncertainty and complete mistrust.  The background of the biologist is expanded upon as within hours of her husband’s return from Area X, their relationship breaks down and within half a year he has died from cancer.  The only thing certain about Area X is that something is there, creatures that we can’t comprehend, and an effect that leaves everyone broken.

Vandermeer asking so many questions really make Annihilation a novel that is up to interpretation as to just what the events mean in the greater context.  It can be read as a woman losing her mind or gaining enlightenment as interpersonal relationships break down, which is the reading I am most inclined to, or as something completely different.  There is so much that is uncertain that there’s even a possible reading of someone slowly descending into hell.  The tower/tunnel conflict is fascinating and the manipulation almost makes the government it’s own higher cosmic power.  Overall, Annihilation should be a must read, but one that you take slowly to understand just what it means, or what it can mean.  With a book like this where there isn’t much that is where I leave you, no score.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Unnatural History by: Jonathan Blum and Kate Orman

By the end of the run of the Virgin New Adventures one of the major complaints in fandom was that the books were relying too heavily on long running arcs between books.  The Eighth Doctor Adventures, then, began as generally a series of standalone books with the seeds of potential arcs appearing in Alien Bodies and Vampire Science, before Longest Day formally began the series first actual arc.  This arc was resolved four books later with Seeing I, which in turn set the seeds for the arc which comes to the forefront with today’s book, Unnatural History.  Unnatural History opens with perhaps one of the best opening chapters in the history of Doctor Who novels and much like Seeing I, Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum make you care for the character of Samantha Jones who is living back in England in a very small room on King’s Cross.  And her hair is black.  Yes, this is the novel which finally picks up the idea of the dark haired version of Sam Jones who essentially embodies the complexities and interesting story the character could have been.  This dark-haired Sam could have easily fallen into the trap of edge that such a damaged character often falls into, but Blum and Orman avoid this by making her genuinely likable.  She clearly is still the Sam that the audience knows, looking for a cause, and attempting to prove herself, but she has had the world around her constantly beat her down.  She’s gone on drugs and spent her life trying to distract herself, and is finally at a point where she has something in the world when the Doctor enters her life.

The opening chapter is where the Doctor reconnects with Sam, who disappeared from the TARDIS due to San Francisco in the year 2000 having physics break down and impossibilities are bleeding through.  When the Doctor shows up Sam’s entire life is immediately turned upside-down and Orman and Blum succeed at making the Eighth Doctor come across as a broken man here.  His best friend up to this point doesn’t even know who he is anymore and there’s a real sense that this almost breaks him.  The Doctor doesn’t know how to convince this new Sam to come with him to San Francisco where they can get to the bottom of this mystery.  Once the plot moves to San Francisco, Orman and Blum prove once again why they are the best at writing the Eighth Doctor as that childlike wonder is still there but understated.  The Doctor is attempting to outsmart Faction Paradox who finally rear their heads in this novel through a single agent running around.  The boy, as the character is referred to, represents that type of lost soul that the greater organization preys upon.  The boy is completely psychotic and is working in the background with the story’s greater villain to have access to the Doctor’s own biodata, writing out the idea that the Doctor is half-human (or is he no longer half-Time Lord?).  Things with the faction are left intentionally vague as Faction Paradox feeds off misdirection and paradoxes to gain their odd powers.

Orman and Blum also explore some of the ideas laid down in The Infinity Doctors by Lance Parkin with Professor Daniel Joyce appearing here.  Joyce is a professor whose assistant is implied to be Larna from that novel and the idea behind the scenes is this could be the Doctor’s “father”.  While this is left ambiguous intentionally it is an interesting idea as the character only appears at a few points in the book, is married, and provides something almost like comic relief for the characters.  He’s the one who gives hints to the Doctor and fatherly advice, being the only real evidence within the text unless you know that in the Leekly Bible where the Doctor’s father was exiled Time Lord Ulysses (Ulysses is the name of a novel by James Joyce).  There won’t be dwelling on this, but the idea is there and the character is excellent in helping heal the scar.  Finally the character of Fitz Kreiner somehow still manages to shine in a novel which is so heavily focused on the Doctor and Sam.  His experiences in Revolution Man are slowly being overcome and this new Sam creates passions within him, getting eerily close to acting on those passions.  He is acting once again on his own as a private detective and almost serves as a rock for the Doctor to rest upon.  He deals with Kyra Skye, a medium in San Francisco, who assists in finding where the tear is and how to close it.  Fitz is a character who is putting everyone else above himself.  Overall, Unnatural History is another instant classic from Orman and Blum and it’s honestly surprising that this one doesn’t get talked about more often.  10/10.

Friday, February 28, 2020

At Childhood's End by: Sophie Aldred, Mike Tucker, and Stephen Cole

The announcement in late 2019 that Sophie Aldred would be writing a Doctor Who novel with the Thirteenth Doctor meeting an older Ace, my interest was immediately piqued.  The fate of Ace is one of those plot threads which has had several possible endings throughout the years, and At Childhood’s End implies that this will be one final resolution to the Doctor and Ace’s story, and in a way it is.  Sophie Aldred’s novel has two interludes going back to the Seventh Doctor and Ace, where Ace sees her potential futures from her travels with Benny and Hex, her time on Gallifrey, to her death in Ground Zero and effectively retconning all of the expanded universe minus the Past Doctor Adventures novels (specifically those by Mike Tucker and Robert Perry) which are referenced.  However, this is not quite the cut and dry case of cutting everything as Timewyrm: Genesys opens with Ace recovering from a mindwipe very easily creating an excuse for perhaps why Ace remembers leaving at this point.  Now that that note on continuity is out of the way, At Childhood’s End actually does resolve the relationship between the Doctor and Ace incredibly well.  Dorothy McShane hasn’t seen the Doctor in years and is currently living on Earth running A Charitable Earth, changed by her travels, when an alien invasion and trouble starts occurring.  The plot of people being abducted by aliens and the UFO by the moon, while incredibly basic, is merely the support for the character work as Ace meets the Thirteenth Doctor.

Ace’s reaction to the Doctor’s new appearance isn’t unexpected, she understands regeneration, but wasn’t expecting somebody so different to her professor.  There is a perfect contrast between the Seventh and Thirteenth Doctor’s, which works to highlight that while the Seventh Doctor was the master manipulator, manipulation is still a character trait the Doctor possesses.  There is this great exchange between Ace and Yaz that really deconstructs the idea that while the Doctor is rarely the one who commits acts of violence, they are often a character who gets others to do it for them.  Seeing the older Dorothy McShane, however, really shows how important the Doctor’s impact on Ace was.  A Charitable Earth really does make a difference and works as both an international charity and a connection to UNIT, Torchwood, and Counter Measures, the three big secret government organizations of the Doctor Who Universe.  There is almost an implication that Dorothy has run in with all three organization, bringing an older Ace and Captain Jack meeting into possibility.  There’s also the continuation of Ace’s experimentation with explosives, refining her Nitro 9 into Nitro 90, and really using her inventions for good overall.  There is a maturity to this Ace which only comes from the fact that this was a book written by the character herself, Sophie Aldred.  It is a brilliant examination of who the character is and what motivates her own actions.

The author of At Childhood’s End is credited to Sophie Aldred, but Mike Tucker and Stephen Cole are also credited as authors on the title page (thought the copyright is exclusively Aldred’s).  While there can only be speculation, I believe the contributions from Tucker and Cole are on specific continuity matters and perhaps assistance with the characterization of the current TARDIS team.  There are quite a few references to other eras of the show including The Android Invasion, The Day of the Doctor, and Torchwood.  The characterization of Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor reflects much of the development that she has had in Series 12, still the easily excitable incarnation of the Doctor who cares deeply for her friends, but there is a certain unease about her.  Once she reunites with Ace, she puts on a face of being incredibly happy to see her old friend, but there is an effect on her, perhaps a twinge of guilt and regret of everything she had to put Ace through.  When trouble starts, she immediately puts these feelings aside and remembers why she travelled with Ace in the first place, because they make a good team.  The dynamic between them is excellent and this portrayal of the Thirteenth Doctor is clearly intended to be performed by Whittaker, making it a bit of a shame that this is a book and not a television script.

Graham, Ryan, and Yaz all have their own parts to play as well with the novel’s 290-page count being used to great effect to ensure that each companion has something to do.  The book is structured like a typical Seventh Doctor three-episode story, and each companion gets several subplots in helping with the main plot.  Graham and Ryan perhaps have the best characterization as the novel’s main source of comic relief while Yaz is used as an almost reflection of Ace.  There’s this moment late in the book where the Doctor gets Yaz back into the TARDIS just so that she could save her life, which is almost the reflection of Seven putting Ace in danger for his own ends.  Graham also gets to be the caring grandfather and be given several subtle moments to shine outside of his comic relief with Ryan.  The supporting characters are also excellent from conspiracy nut Kim Fortune, to astronaut Will Buckland, and Chantelle.  Chantelle is actually the character Squeak who appeared in Survival and much of her life reflects the work of Andrew Cartmel, in watching someone’s life fall apart via Cat’s Cradle: Warhead and Warlock.  The villain of the novel also works incredibly well as a foil for Ace’s charitable efforts, but as this novel has only been out for a few weeks I shall go no further in spoilers.

At Childhood’s End is not perfect, however, as the prose itself varies in quality.  It starts off incredibly well, focusing solely on Ace as she investigates the various goings on with plenty of internal monologue.  At the halfway point cracks begin to show, with several points of the book being encumbered with clunky dialogue and some descriptions that just feel out of place in a book like this.  There is literally a reference to Anime eyes which just jolt you out of the narrative when you come across it, and honestly it takes down what should be a brilliant novel.  Overall, At Childhood’s End proves that while the writing isn’t always the strongest Sophie Aldred is definitely a good storyteller, and the story it tells closes one chapter in Ace’s life.  There is room for Aldred to write a follow-up if the ideas are there, as it is overall an engaging and enlightening read.  8/10.