Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Dark Shadows: Heiress of Collinwood by: Lara Parker

“My name is Victoria Winters. My journey is beginning. A journey that I hope will open the doors of life to me and link my past with my future. A journey that will bring me to a strange and dark place, to the edge of the sea, high atop Widows’ Hill. A house called Collinwood, a world I’ve never known, with people I’ve never met. People who tonight are still only shadows in my mind, but who will soon fill the days and nights of my tomorrows.”  This monologued opened the first episode of Dark Shadows on June 27, 1966, and fifty years later Lara Parker released her final novel to date.  This final novel finally tackles the story set out in this opening monologue.  As a soap opera, Dark Shadows’ plot strayed from its original premise within its first year, by the time vampire Barnabas Collins was introduced, and by the halfway point Victoria Winters was written out of the show, the audience no wiser to how her future linked with her past.  Heiress of Collinwood is the final Dark Shadows novel from Lara Parker and the one that is perhaps the most different from the others.  The first thing that strikes you about this novel is that it forgoes the third person limited perspective of the other three for the first-person perspective of the early opening monologues of the television show.  This aspect of the novel is a cue to the reader that this is going to be the story of Victoria Winters, not of Barnabas Collins and the rest of the Collins family.

This is perhaps a risky move from Parker as by the time Vicki left the show, she had been diminished in characterization to a complete background character.  She was given a romance with Peter Bradford/Jeff Clark from 1795/1796 and was sent back in time so the audience could say goodbye, and that is where Parker does start.  It is 1797 and Vicki is miserable.  She’s stuck in the past and while attracted to Peter Bradford, she’s realized just how rash she was.  The book opens with her once again being accused of witchcraft and hanged which Parker uses to bring her right back to the present, in the role of a reporter in Bangor, Maine.  She reports on grisly deaths and serial killers, living on her own, and not staying in contact with the Collins family.  She remembers her experiences at Collinwood and is hiding Barnabas’ own secret, not wishing to reveal that to the rest of the family until the inciting incident of the novel coaxes her back.  The Collins family barely appears in Heiress of Collinwood, this is Vicki’s story and nobody else’s.  The Collins family is missing, and in Elizabeth’s most recent will the Collins estate has been left to Victoria Winters under mysterious circumstances.  It is this which leads Vicki back to Collinwood to actually explore her past, as she needs to find her birth certificate to prove her identity.  This gives Parker a reason to explore the past and reveal that Vicki is in fact the daughter of Elizabeth Collins Stoddard at the book’s climax, and tying her in with later Dark Shadows lore.  The foundling home she was raised in was once owned by Ms. Charity Trask, Magda Rakosi was responsible for helping Elizabeth conceal her identity, and she turns out to be the first person who isn’t a reincarnation of Josette that Barnabas loves.

The only three returning characters in any notable capacity are Barnabas, Willie, and Maggie: Barnabas is still a vampire and is attempting to defeat an evil he sees lurking in the area, Willie has gone mad, and Maggie has become incredibly bitter.  Parker explores each of them excellently and uses this book to restore the status quo by the end and restore Vicki’s relationships with these characters.  Parker excels in introducing two main one-off characters in the Dark Shadows style of being played by the same actors.  Augustus Longstreet is a poor attorney who coaxes Vicki back to Collinsport, and is the spitting image of a Thayer David character, but not the charming type.  Longstreet is the more uncomfortable role that David would play, like Matthew Morgan or Count Petofi, but is not a villain.  He is good at heart and wants to get down to the mystery of the Collins family.  Stephon Vogelsang is a Roger Davis character, and one that seduces Vicki off her track and is revealed to be the mastermind.  He is equally charming and cunning as he manipulates Vicki and the reader through several warnings from other characters.  There is also a descendent of Aristede, but he isn’t really the most important character.  Overall, Heiress of Collinwood is perhaps Parker’s best novel.  It delivers on what it sets out to do excellently and does it without falling back on regular characters for Dark Shadows, leaving the series of novels in their nice little story arc of Parallel Time.  9/10.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Dominion by: Nick Wallace

Writing a first novel is always a challenge.  An author has to decide exactly what style they are going for and avoid falling into a pool of common pitfalls which would bring their book down into the depths of mediocrity.  It is these pitfalls which Nick Wallace exhibits in his debut Doctor Who novel, Dominion.  The largest pitfall of the novel is that the pacing of the story is incredibly slow after the inciting incident, when Wallace is telling a story which should be told through a quick pace.  Dominion deals with the TARDIS being pulled into a time anomaly while people are going missing in the forests of Sweden.  The Dominion is a secret pocket universe which a race of aliens are being completely dominated by the Bane, and people on Earth are getting killed as the universe is bleeding through.  The first third or so of the book is excellent, setting up plenty of intrigue for the Doctor and Fitz to follow as Sam is missing for the first third of the book.  The Eighth Doctor is characterized excellently as aloof into the danger that Sam is in while investigating the strange goings on and the disappearances.  He is fully invested in the mystery and believes that Sam can easily take care of herself.

Fitz on the other hand, is still recovering from his experiences in Revolution Man and is afraid of losing someone else that he has grown to care about.  Throughout the book he grows close to Kerstin, a woman who has lost her partner to the pocket universe.  Perhaps his characterization in places is just a bit too simplified down to the chain smoker we saw in The Taint.  Kerstin is also a highlight throughout the novel as Wallace uses her to explore how people grieve and bargain to get the ones that they love back in their life.  Having Sam not really appear during the first third is also a very interesting as it allows the reader to have a sense of worry along with Fitz and the Doctor.  It adds a stake that the reader can really feel, and once Sam does show up and fulfills an admittedly necessary part of the plot, that is almost lost.  We know that Sam is alive so these other characters who are missing perhaps don’t matter as much.  Once the reader gets to this point in the novel, the story slows down to a snail’s pace and it becomes more difficult to really invest time in.

This isn’t to say there isn’t anything great about the rest of the book, far from it.  Nick Wallace does an excellent job of evoking the setting.  It is a breath of fresh air to be exploring a then modern Earth location that isn’t in the UK, as Wallace takes full advantage of the forests of Sweden to really give a fairy tale setting.  There is also some excellent work done by exploring UNIT of this period and experiments they were conducting which caused the issue.  UNIT and C19 as presented here are put right into the morally gray, as they do not trust the Doctor and have been using alien technology in a very Torchwood in Army of Ghosts way.  Jennifer Nagle is the main UNIT operative to get her own story arc and it is perhaps the highlight of the novel.  Overall, Dominion has the potential to be one of the truly great Doctor Who novels and it is clear that Nick Wallace has promise.  The book fails in pacing which just drags the book down to an above average read that is difficult to get through in places.  6/10.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Spider-God by: Steve Moore with art by: Dave Gibbons

Spider-God is written by Steve Moore with art by Dave Gibbons.  It was released in Doctor Who Monthly issue 52 (May 1981) and is reprinted in its original form in Doctor Who: Dragon’s Claw by Panini Books.

If ever there was a single issue story to end an era on, Spider-God would be that issue.  Published in May 1981, this simple story ends the run of author Steve Moore for the Doctor Who Monthly comic strip in the fashion which had become the norm by this point.  It’s a story that takes up a small enough scale to fill a single comic issue, has the Doctor travelling on his own, and has a last minute twist that leaves the reader with a moral lesson.  The story echoes stories from the William Hartnell era like Galaxy Four and The Web Planet, adding in an exploratory mission to a mysterious planet where a team from Earth is terrorized by a giant alien spider.  The native inhabitants of this planet are being trapped and potentially eaten by the spider, and it’s up to the Earth crew to rescue them.  Moore makes the incredibly important decision to have there really only be three other characters in the story, as the natives are mute, bringing the total to four.  Sure the characters aren’t very deeply characterized, outside of maybe Randall being a standard gruff soldier with a sense of duty, but when there’s one issue to tell the story, then these are the types of concessions which have to be made.

This is also one of the very few stories that is able to get away with the twist that there really wasn’t any danger after all, revealing in the final panels that the spider isn’t cocooning natives for a food source, but to allow them to undergo a metamorphosis, changing into butterfly like beings.  The twist is handled incredibly well for an eight page comic, with the Doctor piecing together some small pieces of evidence presented earlier in the comic and stopping a potential genocide.  There also isn’t much time spent on wrapping up the story, ending on the reveal, implying that the Doctor and the expedition crew just leaves because they really have no reason for being there.  The real standout of the strip is the artwork by Dave Gibbons.  Gibbons’ style has always been an evocative one and Spider-God is no exception on that count.  The art really captures the horror of the situation early on which aides the implication that these poor natives are going to be eaten alive.  Gibbons also perfectly captures the Doctor’s emotions making the Doctor really come across as the Fourth incarnation of the Graham Williams era, as the comic has never really moved into the Season 18 version of the character.  Yes, the costume is now the one from that season, but the Doctor’s actions are still the more light-hearted version of the character.

Overall, Spider-God is a solid end for what has genuinely been a rocky run in the Doctor Who Monthly strip.  It isn’t perfect, and the strip is still suffering from the short nature of these stories, but it’s enjoyable nevertheless.  8/10.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Dark Shadows: Wolf Moon Rising by: Lara Parker

Reading a series of books can often be an exercise in watching the improvements of an author as they develop their writing style, characters, and prose.  Wolf Moon Rising is the third novel from Lara Parker, and like The Salem Branch was for Angelique’s Descent, showing a marked improvement in the story and the characters.  Like her previous novels, this one picks up on the loose threads and continues in its own continuity for Dark Shadows, going in a different direction for the series than the ‘official’ Big Finish audio dramas.  This of course isn’t to say because it isn’t canon it shouldn’t be read, because it should.  It’s the first story to have Barnabas Collins back into a villainous role, as he’s back as a vampire, and the first to really use Quentin Collins in any meaningful capacity.  It’s also the book where Lara Parker finally perfects the use of flashbacks, instead of separating them, she does what the show did and sends characters back in time to interact with the past Collins family and unbury family secrets.  If there was one glaring flaw in Wolf Moon Rising is the characterization of Barnabas Collins in the beginning of the novel.  As a vampire, Parker nails the bloodlust and hunger that comes with the character, as well as the fact that Barnabas isn’t a protagonist, but in a fit of jealousy she has him slash Quentin’s painting which is used as a contrivance to put his plot into motion.  Barnabas and Quentin’s close friendship is one similar to Barnabas and Julia’s and if Parker wanted this, then she could have had Julia slash it.

If Julia slashed Quentin’s painting, bringing back Magda’s curse, it would have fit in better with the storyline Parker wrote for her.  Julia is now a vampire due to the events at the end of The Salem Branch, which is an incredibly interesting development for the character as it forces her into admitting her love for Barnabas.  She is also tempted by her bloodlust and takes several people, including Toni, as her victims which really allows Dr. Hoffman’s monstrous side to shine.  Her final fate is perhaps a bit convoluted and there is a lot which may need to be explained in further books, but overall it’s a nice different dynamic for the character.  She is contrasted with the arrival of a different doctor, Dr. Nathaniel Blair, brother of Nicholas Blair, come to Collinwood in an attempt to prove the supernatural.  He has come to hunt down a vampire and serves as the true villain in the story, putting David Collins through a basic hell and, unlike his brother, didn’t overstay his welcome and was effective in implementing plans.  His eventual defeat by Barnabas is incredibly satisfying to read and does quite a bit to redeem Barnabas’s actions throughout the novel.

Parker’s real focus for this novel is exploring the relationship between David and Jackie, as they both settle into this romance of which neither’s parents approve.  Roger believes that Jackie would bring shame on the Collins name, while Toni has the better claim of knowing the supernatural trouble the Collins family can bring.  David is shown here to have matured from the terror he was in the television show, building on his interest in cars attempting to get a luxury car from 1929 restored and accidentally being whisked on a strange and mysterious journey into the past with Jackie.  Yes, the portion of the book that is in the past brings David and Jackie right to it, where they interact with a younger Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Quentin Collins, and an older Jamison Collins during prohibition where the Collins family has taken up bootlegging.  It’s also a chance to bring back some characters from the 1897 story, including Magda Rakosi and Charles Delaware Tate who both make excellent appearances.  The book also goes a long way to have David become disillusioned with the image of his family he has.  Most notably Elizabeth and Quentin have a romance, with Elizabeth wishing to run away together.  This creates some dissonance with David, having to reflect on the possibility that he and Jackie are repeating history.  There is also the revelation that Jamison Collins was a member of the Klan, adding an element of historical realism never really touched on in the show.  It’s a development which creates a sense of danger as David and Jackie are tempted to stop a lynching and end up in a police raid.  Once, the 1929 flashback is over it’s a nonstop race to the finish as David and Jackie try to save Quentin’s portrait, realize Barnabas is a vampire and Quentin is an immortal werewolf, and generally shake the status quo in a way which the show never did.  Overall, Wolf Moon Rising is a book that’s another step up from Parker’s other work.  The plot is perhaps the most Dark Shadows of any of these, throwing together the kitchen sink and seeing just what comes out of it.  There are a few elements which don’t work, but what works is incredibly memorable.  9/10.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Players by: Terrance Dicks

For Doctor Who fans, Winston Churchill meeting the Doctor has been established since 2010’s Victory of the Daleks, with the Eleventh Doctor already having met the character as played by Ian McNeice and from subsequent appearances in Big Finish audio productions.  However, the character’s interactions and relationship with the Doctor actually originate in Players, a Sixth Doctor Past Doctor Adventure from Terrance Dicks.  It was chosen to represent the Sixth Doctor in 2013 with BBC Books’ reprint series for the Fiftieth Anniversary, and with good reason.  Players is a story which spans several time periods, fills in some gaps in the Doctor’s timeline, and puts the Doctor and Peri against a plot by the titular “Players” who wish to change the course of history.  The Count and Countess featured are one element Dicks throws into the book which sets the let’s change history apart from other stories of this nature like Timewyrm: Exodus.  The Count and Countess are not your stereotypical evil villain attempting to alter time for power, but are from a group of time travelers who attempt to alter history for the fun of it.  They are literally players in an intertemporal game just to see what sort of fun they can have by just watching things unfold.  The Count and Countess have this incredible sense of elegance, looking down on everyone and present themselves with the rest of the Players as almost a reflection of the Time Lords as a society, watching, but nudging enough to see just how much they can change.  The book is framed by them as a group repeating their credo promising a return at some point in the future of the BBC Books.

The one flaw with Players is perhaps that Dicks does almost too much in such a short time.  The story is helped by his wonderful writing style, but the plot shifts from the Boer War, to an extended flashback to World War I featuring the Second Doctor, and ending with a plot regarding the abdication crisis of Edward VIII of England as World War II looms on the horizon.  The Second Doctor’s flashback, while incredibly written and giving a formal explanation for the Season 6B theory, is perhaps the most superfluous to requirements.  Not much is actually imparted to the reader or Peri, who serves through that section as audience surrogate, that could have been done more quickly and efficiently with some dialogue from the Doctor to Peri.  That being said, even that section is easily readable with Dicks’ style and master of characterization for the Second Doctor, and it does give him a chance to visit characters from The War Games.  Dicks does show a mastery of giving readers the chance to explore the history around the Abdication of Edward VIII, who is portrayed here as a completely na├»ve man who falls into following fascists and being manipulated by everyone around him.  The climax where he attempts to gain power and broadcast the UK’s allegiance to the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler shows just how much of a slimeball he is.  Churchill himself is portrayed throughout the novel as the example of the stiff upper lipped British civil servant, wanting at all cost to avoid a war, yet understanding just how necessary it may end up being.  He’s perhaps a touch too one note, but with Dicks style being a throwback to Target novels that still works for much of the story.

There is also the return of Dekker, the private investigator from Blood Harvest, who remains a delight and luckily those unfamiliar with the character would need no prior knowledge to enjoy this one.  Dekker adds an element of espionage to the second half of the novel, where the book truly shines as the first half is a pretty bog standard pseudo-historical setting up the relationship between the Doctor and Churchill.  Where this one really does shine, however, is the Doctor and Peri.  Dicks gets the Doctor out of his coat at the first chance and while the Sixth Doctor is still gruff, pompous, and aggressive, there is a genuine sense of care and friendliness with Peri.  The Doctor here resembles the character whom Colin Baker would portray in the Big Finish audios, and to read about that Doctor is a delight.  Peri also is written incredibly well, being the audience surrogate and getting a chance to shine as she takes in a life of luxury, integrating into London society under the guise of the Doctor’s ward.  There is a sense of intuition and cleverness with Peri which was never really explored on television, even when the scripts attempted it.  Peri is the one who goes to do investigative work in her own style which makes everything come together nicely.  She also shows great courage in the face of Nazi torture, which luckily is avoided at the last minute.  Dicks manages to make the Nazi’s a real threat, even though only a few actually appear here as this is Britain before the beginning of World War II, using them as effectively as he did in Timewyrm: Exodus.  Overall, Players is one of those PDAs which sets up a greater world and while not the perfect novel proves just the potential of the Sixth Doctor and just how great a writer Terrance Dicks was for all of his contributions to Doctor Who.  Though riddled with numerous references to Dicks’ other work, that almost doesn’t matter and Dicks tells a great story.  9/10.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Dark Shadows: The Salem Branch by: Lara Parker

The publication history of Dark Shadows is an interesting one.  Angelique’s Descent was originally published by HarperCollins Publishing in 1998, with a follow up not by Lara Parker in 1999 before publishing stopped.  It wasn’t until 2006, the same year Big Finish Productions began producing Dark Shadows audio dramas, did Lara Parker return to write a second Dark Shadows novel.  The Salem Branch is a very different novel to Angelique’s Descent, still including many flashbacks, this time to Salem, 1692, doing another take on The Crucible but with Miranda du Val as its central character and explaining Angelique as a reincarnation of the woman, retconning bits of the 1840 story arc from the show where let’s be honest Dan Curtis had run his writers dry in redoing bits of literature that Curtis liked.  Parker’s take on The Crucible takes out the affair and makes du Val somehow both the victim and perpetrator, implying an unreliable narrator at points.  This section of the book is the weak point as while the flashbacks are better integrated in the novel without a framing story and the two plotlines do end up matching up at the end of the book, it’s a lot of stuff that viewers of Dark Shadows will have seen before and done better before.  Judah Zachary is kind of an interesting character, a powerful warlock who is beheaded in the end and his head becomes an eventual plot point in the television story, but here honestly he is far too boring as presented here.

The actual driving force behind the novel is the present day storyline with the now cured Barnabas Collins becoming emotionally restless as he has to deal with the fact that he is now, very probably, fully human.  There’s genuinely this internal struggle, as Parker uses Barnabas’ experience with having to eat food and deal with the fact that after so long he can be hurt.  This emotional outlet is something that never really was explored on television and the audios reestablish him as a vampire (because of course this is never actually going to be permanent, it’s Barnabas), both going under the mostly accurate theory that Barnabas’ appeal comes from his vampiric nature.  The Salem Branch may just be the exception that proves the rule, because the inner turmoil is brought into an outlet as Barnabas spends much of the novel obsessed with the woman responsible for buying and restoring to its near exact condition, whom he believes is the reincarnation of Angelique because she looks like Angelique.  Antoinette, or Toni as she is referred to in the novel, creates an excellent foil and allows Barnabas to be shown in an incredibly paranoid light.  Parker clearly understands that Barnabas Collins is not a good person and his obsession here is perfectly portrayed as both Julia and Quentin both attempt to affirm to Barnabas that she isn’t Angelique.  Sure her daughter is eventually revealed to be a reincarnation of Miranda du Val and is in love with David Collins, whom she promises not to harm as long as they’re together, but she’s completely innocent.

While Barnabas is the A-plot, the B-plot of the novel in the present day is dealing with a bunch of hippies allowed to live on the Collins land.  This is the part of the novel which leads directly into the climax and the hippies themselves are genuinely an interesting group of people.  It really allows both Roger, David, and Carolyn something to do.  David and Carolyn both partake of their rituals while Roger spends much of the novel being over the top about wishing to get them off the Collins land, even though he has no real way of doing that.  There’s also this added danger of two vampires wandering around the land, attacking and slowly bringing Barnabas back to his curse which adds some great tension.  The only issue with the present day storyline here is that Julia, while getting a subtle storyline throughout which gets revealed near the end, really doesn’t have as much to do which is a shame as Parker excels at writing these present day characters.  Overall, The Salem Branch is a marked improvement over Angelique’s Descent and makes for a great bit of Dark Shadows fun.  8/10.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Revolution Man by: Paul Leonard

Many of the reviews I have written for the Eighth Doctor Adventures have spent quite a bit of time lamenting the TARDIS Team themselves.  Companion Samantha Jones is not one whom is thought of highly in the Doctor Who community for good reason: she has a characterization similar to that of Clara Oswald, incredibly abrasive and bold yet treated as if she’s somehow a flawless companion.  It was clear that the BBC Books were attempting to recreate the powerful female companions of the Virgin New Adventures such as Benny and Roz, but they failed by making Sam an annoying character.  What makes this an even harsher disappointment is that seven books before her departure they introduced a second companion who actually allowed Sam to overcome her character’s rougher nature and show the real potential to be a great potential.  Revolution Man is the third novel to feature companion Fitz Kreiner, and Paul Leonard uses the story to really explore each characters roles as well as an in depth reflection on the late 1960s’ place in history.  The plot deals with the Doctor investigating an anomaly in the late 1960s, a time of protest, a time of revolution, and a time of drugs.  There is a new drug on the streets which seems to give those who take it telekinetic powers, and it’s up to the Doctor, Fitz, and Sam to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Leonard’s plot is interesting as it spans three years in the history of Earth, 1967-1969, only ending when the threat is done.  Leonard does an amazing job of setting the atmosphere of the novel as one of tension.  You can feel through the pages that there is revolution brewing, the Vietnam war is dragging on, the youth are restless for change that hasn’t come, and the Maoist reign of China is in full swing.  Every supporting character in this novel is either a revolutionary in some way, or a drug user, or at least tangentially related to those professions, making Revolution Man come across as incredibly tense as a riot could be breaking at any moment.  There’s also a real psychedelic nature to the novel with the drug Om-Tsor basically being LSD with added telekinetic powers, creating a genuinely silent threat as the Doctor has to track it through as it poses a danger to society.  The ‘revolution man’ of the title is a figurehead, shifting from person to person and remaining an ever present threat throughout the novel, leaving symbols on the Great Pyramids and subtly broadcasting their presence to the world.  It makes a great off-screen threat, and the actual reveal of the two behind the title creates a true monstrosity for the Doctor and company to face in the climax.

Sam Jones is placed in an interesting environment here as throughout the book she is working with anarchists who are planning violent resistance.  Leonard uses this to explore just how Sam believes protest should be carried out.  Sam has truly grown since her introduction in The Eight Doctors and has built up the idea that everything can be accomplished with peaceful methods.  Leonard truly gives her a voice, as she investigates the trail of the Om-Tsor and the phenomena it had possibly caused in Rome, as well as its potential to destroy the rest of the world.  Leonard gives her a foil in the ‘king’ of the anarchists Jean-Pierre Rex, who eventually takes the mantle of Revolution Man at one point.  Rex is a character who insists on using violent tactics throughout the novel who serves as a glimpse at potentially what Sam would become if she becomes violent, ending his life with a bang and leaving an impression on Sam.  Fitz on the other hand genuinely goes through hell in this novel.  Putting the character only a few years after his own time is used to really show just how different the late 60s are from Fitz’s 1963.  There is the rise of drug culture which throws Fitz as well as the genuine shift in music towards the psychedelic, as Fitz gets a love interest in Maddie, a user whose boyfriend is in a band and addicted to Om-Tsor.  Maddie is pitiful as a character, as Leonard intentionally makers her one of those characters who cannot fend for herself.  It’s essentially because of her Fitz is brainwashed by the Chinese government which has a lasting effect and because of the monstrosity her boyfriend becomes that Fitz has to shoot him.  Yes, the climax of this book involves Fitz in a fight for his life against the Revolution Man, once called Ed, now an amorphous mutated, Lovecraftian blob of terror and he shoots him.  This event shakes the TARDIS crew but not further.

The actual shaking of the TARDIS crew is the Doctor then picking up the gun and finishing the job in cold blood.  This is one of those aspects which resonates with the reader, seeing the Eighth Doctor have the first hints of a darker side.  Throughout the novel the Doctor is presented as the savior, coming in to make sure everything, but in being a savior he has to take arms and this alone is the highlight of the novel.  Overall, Revolution Man takes a place as one of the best Eighth Doctor Adventures, challenging the characters and acting as a turning point in their relationship which the forthcoming novels must resolve.  10/10.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Dark Shadows: Angelique's Descent by: Lara Parker

Dark Shadows was a soap opera which ran for five years between 1966 and 1971, being one of the few examples of the genre to essentially overcome it’s status as a soap opera and earn a place as a cult classic.  It received a revival in 1991 which ran for one season and a film adaptation from Tim Burton in 2012, but what I’m covering today is one of two continuations from the main soap opera, the other being the successful line of Big Finish audio dramas (which was how I first heard of and got into the show).  This review is of the first of four Dark Shadows novels published by Tor Books and written by series star Lara Parker, this one exploring the origins of her own character, the immortal witch Angelique Bouchard, scorned by Barnabas Collins whom she cursed with vampirism.  Yes, this show was still very much a soap opera with all the dramatics the genre involves.  Angelique’s Descent is basically the origin story for a comic book villain, chronicling the unhappy childhood and adulthood of Angelique, retelling an entire story arc from the television show from her perspective.  As a novel, one of the greatest criticisms you can apply is that this is clearly Parker’s first novel.  The writing style is often a very generic series of events, especially in early chapters making the portions of the novel describing Angelique’s childhood become pretty tedious as similar developments repeat for several chapters.

That being said, the first half dedicated to Angelique’s childhood and upbringing sheds some interesting lights on the character.  The novel does a good job of showing the character in a state of grace, living initially with her mother in poverty on the island of Martinique, yet still happy, before being essentially kidnapped by Thomas Bouchard to be used in pagan rituals, exploiting the innate magical abilities of his assumed daughter.  Angelique is convinced she is the conduit for a goddess, so is repeatedly drugged, forced to partake in these rituals, and locked in a tower with nobody really for company for much of her childhood.  The highlight here is really getting into the head of the witch, as she develops her own, clearly dark, powers, yet still has an outlook of wanting to do good.  The Dark One/Diabolos/whatever demon Angelique eventually becomes servant to is responsible for granting these powers, but is toying with her, allowing her the idea that she is free throughout and that the power is her own.  She also has to endure the death of her only friend at the hands of her father, and is only saved by a revolution on the island allowing her to go back to her mother.  Thomas Bouchard serves as an excellent villain for the first half of the novel: written with a domineering presence and presented as truly cruel, treating his own daughter as a slave.  The slight issue is the pacing here, as after Angelique escapes him there really isn’t another threat to replace him as the book enters territory covered by the television series and Angelique began the descent into villainy.

The relationship between Angelique and a young Barnabas Collins is incredibly interesting in the way that it is presented here.  One important thing to note about Barnabas is on the show while he is a protagonist on the show, he is not a good person.  He is presented as taking advantage of Angelique before moving on to his one true love, which is in line with the way it is presented here.  Angelique truly believes that Barnabas cares for her and there truly is an innocence, which makes her fall seem all the more grave, as Parker also does an excellent job of setting up the friendship between Angelique and Josette, which was kind of lacking on television.  It makes the point where Angelique has to hurt Josette have a more emotional impact.  Though Parker doesn’t actually have to do much than just retell the 1795 story arc from the point where she entered and exited, with one major exception: the time travel aspect is completely ignored.  This is actually a missed opportunity as Phyllis Wick, the character who was replaced on television by Victoria Winters, only gets some background mentions with nothing changing.

Outside of the retelling, Angelique’s Descent also features a present day framing story which seems to be mostly setup for future novels which is fun to read, but really has little impact on the plot.  The Old House burns down and someone who is probably Angelique buys the property which just may lead into something interesting.  That being said the book on a whole is a pretty fun read for fans, though if you’re unfamiliar it may not be the best for you.  7/10.

Friday, January 10, 2020

War of the Words by: Steve Moore with art by: Dave Gibbons

War of the Words is written by Steve Moore with art by Dave Gibbons.  It was released in Doctor Who Monthly issue 51 (April 1981) and is reprinted in its original form in Doctor Who: Dragon’s Claw by Panini Books.

Well, the title of this story is clearly a pun of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, an integral novel to the history of science-fiction.  It is kind of fitting then that War of the Words deals with a war taking place over the library planet, Biblios.  Knowing that the comics were popular I can’t help but wonder if this was an inspiration for Steven Moffat when coming up with Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead.  The setting is one of the more interesting settings for a comic strip and Moore does a good job of allowing Gibbons to flesh out the setting so he can focus on getting the story told in only one comic issue.  Yes, like The Life Bringer before it, War of the Words is one of those stories which only occurs in one issue of Doctor Who Monthly.  Moore is able to do this by keeping the story to task with a plot that is incredibly simple.

There are two warring factions hoping to take control of Biblios, which contains all the data in the universe, so would be used as a deadly superweapon in the wrong hands.  It’s of course up to the Doctor to find a way of ending the war.  The two waring factions, the Vromyx and Garynth, are the weakest element of the comic strip as they don’t really have any identity of their own except generic alien species.  Gibbons does give them some fun designs and his art style is really useful for making them at least look interesting.  Where Moore really shines, however, is in the writing of the Fourth Doctor.  The Doctor in this comic strip uses deception and cunning to find a peaceful solution to the war, with some smoke and mirror tactics a la K9, which makes this strip be the first since Dragon’s Claw where the Doctor actually is allowed to show off what makes him the Doctor.  The other stories just had him in the role of almost generic protagonist which isn’t really able to be said about the Doctor.  Sure it isn’t the deepest characterization in this strip, but the solution is at least reminiscent of something the Doctor would in fact do as a character, bringing to mind stories like The Time Warrior.  You can just imagine Tom Baker ending this story with a toothy grin as he goes off back to the TARDIS.

Overall, War of the Words is a story which at least attempts to overcome its limitations with such a short page count.  Moore and Gibbons manage to come together as a team to give a Doctor Who story which at least feels like it is a complete story.  There are still issues with pacing, as the setting still could use some fleshing out, yet it’s still a fun read.  7/10.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Lady of the Lake by: Andrzej Sapkowski translated by: David French

The Lady of the Lake is the final book in Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher saga and concludes the story of Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri.  Sure there was one final book published, but that is a midquel so doesn’t really alter what happens in this one.  This final book is the longest and most distinct from the others.  The series itself has used the Polish and Eastern European mythology, from tales of Sapkowski’s youth, to flesh out its world and to tell it story.  The Lady of the Lake is a departure from that, instead taking its title and aspects of its plot from British legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  The story is once again presented through narration from Ciri after the fact, this time in the role of the Lady of the Lake to Sir Galahad of the Round Table, eventually revealing that Ciri has left her home and traveled far to some version of the British Isles.  The story she tells is one that allows her to emotionally process events, and is implied to be at least partially an unreliable narrator.  Some of her final comments to Galahad really hit hard with the last 100 pages of the novel reading as an extended epilogue, concluding the story and wrapping up every loose end Ciri, Geralt, and Yennefer created throughout the series.  This epilogue is particularly impactful for how it ends everything, drawing upon Arthurian themes and leaving the series on a bittersweet, yet satisfying note.  Dandelion also only appears in this epilogue portion of the novel and the wrap up to his story serves as one final comedic plot point before the bittersweet ending really sets in.

The actual climax of the novel is perhaps its most engaging section, as Ciri and Yennefer are captured by Vilgefortz and Geralt’s party are actually making headway to rescue her.  Vilgefortz’s final plan is one to gain as much power as possible using Ciri’s Elder Blood and Sapkowski presents it in a way that makes the reader squirm.  It’s described in such a methodical and plain way that the disgusting nature of the plan is what really gets into the reader’s head, and puts you right on the side of Ciri as she escapes the lab on her own.  It also begins a long and tense buildup to the defeat of Vilgefortz which is non-stop action and character resolution almost resembling a dungeon crawl.  It’s this point in the novel where you really get to see how much Ciri has grown into an adult at this point: she has matured into a women and knows now more than ever how to handle herself.  Her reunion with Geralt and Yennefer is also incredibly satisfying, making up for the several books of buildup to this moment.  This section of the novel also concludes the storylines for Geralt’s party, each getting a final fate befitting of them.  Cahir finishes his redemption arc, fighting to the death while protecting Ciri from Vilgefortz’s clutches.  His is one which does not have as much detail in the sequence, but the way it is done is enough to end his arc.  The same can be said for Milva, who goes out in a blaze of glory for the archer that she is.  Finally, Regis’ ending is perhaps the most subtle, but the one with the best quips.  This is the novel where we finally get to see him embrace his vampiric nature, drinking the blood of his enemies and turning into a bat in what turns out to be a very satisfying sequence. He also gets the best quote of the novel: “There are occasions…where it’s simply impossible not to have a drink” and props must be given to David French for translating the novel so expertly.

Finally, the conflict with Nilfgaard is finally resolved and everything comes onto the table with why Emhyr var Emries actually wants Ciri.  It is for the same reason as Vilgefortz of course, but the plot thickens when it is revealed that the Emperor is in fact Ciri’s own father Duny, who plotted his wife’s death and only just survived.  He has lived since in this new identity and actually comes to marry the false Ciri once Ciri escapes.  The entirety of “A Question of Price” is recontextualized here and Duny is revealed to be utterly ruthless, willing to execute Geralt and Yennefer, claiming it is to rescue Ciri.  It is this which brings the pair to proclaim their undying love for one another, as they become resolute to confirm their love and commit suicide in a hot bath according with a ritual.  The eventual wedding to the false Ciri is also an excellent way of wrapping up everything else with regards to the Nilfgaard conflict.  Overall, The Lady of the Lake is an excellent end to a saga and really making me feel bad that this journey is over.  Yes, Season of Storms exists, but as a midquel I already know how that book will end and that it is leading up to this.  The Witcher is a series I highly recommend especially now that the Netflix adaptation has been released.  9/10.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Tower of Swallows by: Andrzej Sapkowski translated by: David French

The Tower of Swallows feels like the oddest book thus far in The Witcher saga by Andrzej Sapkowski.  While the previous books haven’t always placed Geralt front and center in the action, it is this book which feels most like it is sidelining the main hero of the saga, instead focusing squarely on Ciri’s story and several side characters as buildup to the final book in the saga.  Geralt’s only real contribution to this novel is still searching for Ciri and receives information about the prophecy involving Ciri from an elf, while finding druids which know her location.  Dandelion’s published “Half a Century of Poetry” is used almost as a framing device for their party’s segments, telling quite a bit of the story in a mix between flashback and flash forward which makes them interesting to read.  There is also a decent amount of character development given to Geralt’s party of travelers throughout the novel with Dandelion’s opinions on just how odd this band of travelers is interspersed.  Reading this novel after the release of the Netflix adaptation, through these sections in particular the voice of Joey Batey as narrator.  These sections also seem to have a large theme of chaos embedded in them: the war is building and danger shakes at every turn while Geralt is barely managing to avoid the trouble brewing for him.

Of the numerous side plots, Yennefer’s is perhaps one of the more interesting as it builds towards revealing Vilgefortz’s backstory and a search to find the sorcerer.  It’s a plotline which really gives Yennefer a chance to shine on her own and brings quite a bit of her own motivations directly to the reader with her own point of view.  The climax of her plotline is also perhaps one of the most intense: taking Yennefer close to her limits physically and emotionally, and ending with Yennefer in an apparently broken state.  Vilgefortz in this novel shows just how effective of a villain he is in his few scenes with Yennefer: the man has this insanity about him that isn’t stated outright, but slowly revealed as he becomes more and more desperate for power.  This plotline feels like Sapkowski is playing around with espionage tropes in a fantasy setting without altering the tone of his story to fit that type of story which makes for an odd time reading these portions of the book as it doesn’t quite match.  The Nilfgaard plot is also interesting with the Secret Service led by Tawny Owl Stefan Skellen getting quite a large portion of the novel to their search for Ciri whom they find and lose, scarring the Lion Cub in the process.  Sapkowski uses this portion of the book to muse on the benevolent totalitarianism that Nilfgaard imposes, fully aware just how contradictory the empire is.  This is also the point where Emperor Emhyr var Emries decides that it’s time to marry the false Ciri because like the rest of the characters he is also becoming desperate with his position in the war.

Ciri’s plot is what gets the most dedication in the book.  The novel opens with the rescue of Ciri by Vysogota, an elderly learned man who lives in a swamp.  Vysogota nurses Ciri back to health and essentially interviews her for the majority of the novel as her story takes up the most space.  As a character, there is this interesting mix of professional detachment and deep caring for Ciri.  Early on, he is examining Ciri to ascertain just what is wrong with her and how to treat her wounds, and there is never a moment where the character comes across as creepy.  He’s only helping her, and not using her unconscious state to take any advantage of the young witcher.  He grows to care for the girl, persuading her to stay to heal and not go out fighting monsters by herself.  Ciri’s plot in this book in particular is one of growing into maturity as she believes both Geralt and Yennefer to have perished, as well as seeing all her bandit friends die, and eventually coming to reckon with her own powers and place in destiny.  Her defeat of a banshee late into this novel is representative of just how far she has come and how she is nearer to equaling Geralt and Yennefer as characters.  Gone is the little girl of early novels, and in her place is a confident woman.  Overall, The Tower of Swallows or The Tower of the Swallow does some very important things for the series and is enjoyable, but does not reach the heights of the previous novel and some of the short stories.  7/10.