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.