Friday, August 28, 2020

City at World's End by: Christopher Bulis

 

Could there really be any more 1960s Doctor Who title than City at World’s End?  There is just something about that title that just screams an early-Hartnell story, and Christopher Bulis’ second Past Doctor Adventure delivers just on that premise.  This book features the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan arriving on the planet Sarath which is just two months away from destruction, and the citizens of the great city of Arkhaven are attempting to escape their destruction through a great Ship being prepared to take-off.  That premise alone sounds like it comes straight from the mind of Terry Nation in a serial that wouldn’t feature the Daleks, and therefore wouldn’t be made.  Bulis’ novel is structured perfectly like a First Doctor serial, from the TARDIS being cut off and the team being split up, to periods of time where certain regulars disappear on vacation, even down to the many chapter titles evoking the individual titles of the Hartnell era.  This is also one of those few times where Bulis actually goes beyond the traditional style of Doctor Who novel, instead writing a political thriller in the style of the First Doctor’s era.  From its first page, City at World’s End has several twists and turns that change the context of the story.  As such, the rest of this review will contain certain spoilers for the novel, so read at your own risk.

 

The central theme of City at World’s End is one of religion versus science, but this time with a twist.  The religion isn’t the standard Judeo-Christian conflict, but an evolved religion.  The church in Arkhaven specifically reveres the planet Earth as a mythical homeworld, where the original human race have become this idealized version of itself.  This has caused a distortion where this Church has massive power and influence among the people.  They are led by Bishop Fostel who is essentially every fundamentalist religious character in fiction all at once: equally cool and cunning, he displays several aspects of manic fervor throughout the book.  The Church causes conflict with the Mayor of Arkhaven, Draad, as there is a back and forth on who can be allowed on the Ship to escape the dying planet.  There is an underlying theme of discrimination as there is an entire class of people left in essentially concentration camps which the Doctor and Ian are initially sent to, as the city itself couldn’t actually support their life, giving the entire system this underlying vibe of fascism and Bulis plays with the idea that the only reason the Doctor and Ian are helping these people is to get Susan medical treatment, and to find Barbara.  It’s a very mature look at what it’s like to be in an authoritarian society, as the entire city is build upon a city of lies and deceptions.

 

The first twist Bulis uses is essentially that Arkhaven is not populated.  The government are lying about their population numbers and making up the great population of the city using robots and cars.  Automated lights turn on and off in buildings, and robots cast shadows to create this illusion of a populated city while the actual population again languishes in camps.  This lie is just the tip of the iceberg, and the only reason the Doctor and Ian refrain from revealing it is because they’re just trying to find their friends and get out of there.  The iceberg goes deep to reveal a secret and bloody history of Arkhaven, and a faction of rebels in a conflict where nobody is really good and nobody is really bad.  Moral ambiguity is the message of the day as City at World’s End tells one of those complex adventures the Hartnell era is known for.

 

While the Doctor and Ian are the main focus, Barbara and Susan are not neglected by Bulis as both characters get their own subplots.  One complaint is that Bulis keeps them both of them captured as damsels in distress which while keeping with certain writers of the era, it does feel at points like they are objects to be found.  Luckily, he counterbalances this by giving each of them their own character arc.  Barbara overcomes a world which is essentially trying to kill her while Susan begins to come to term with the fact that she might regenerate at some point.  They both speak with authentic voices, as do the rest of the cast.  Overall, City at World’s End is a great political thriller with twists and turns at every turn and honestly one of Bulis’ best novels.  8/10.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Power of the Daleks by: David Whitaker directed by: Christopher Barry

 

The Power of the Daleks stars Patrick Troughton as Dr. Who, Anneke Wills as Polly, and Michael Craze as Ben Jackson with Daleks operated by Gerald Taylor, Kevin Manser, Robert Jewell, and John Scott Martin, and voiced by Peter Hawkins.  It was written by: David Whitaker and directed by: Christopher Barry with Gerry Davis as Script Editor and Innes Lloyd as Producer.  It was originally broadcast on Saturdays from 5 November to 10 December 1966 on BBC1.  All six episodes are currently missing from the BBC archive.  It was animated in 2016 in a production directed by Charles Norton and produced by Paul Hembury with character art by: Martin Geraghty, character shading by Adrian Salmon, props by Mike Collins, and background art by: Darryl Joyce.  The animation was remastered and recomposited in 2020.

 

Perhaps the most important story in Doctor Who’s history is The Power of the Daleks.  When it was understood that William Hartnell was stepping down from his role due to ill health, producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis came upon the idea that as an alien there would be no reason for the Doctor to continue on after changing his appearance and undergoing a renewal.  By July 1966 they had received permission to enact this renewal at the start of the fourth production block and it was decided to issue William Hartnell a special extension to his contract to cover serial DD which became The Tenth Planet (The Smugglers which opened Season 4 was produced as the final serial of the third production block).  To help through the transition it was decided that the contracts of Anneke Wills and Michael Craze would not be cancelled early, and were extended to cover much of the fourth production block, to assist in the transition to a new actor, and the most popular foes of the time, the Daleks, would be the first foe this new Doctor faced.  Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks, gave his permission to use the creatures with the knowledge that former script editors David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner would be responsible for the story.  Whitaker and Spooner were chosen by Nation as they were the only writers other than Nation to write for the Daleks: Whitaker had written Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks (later reprinted as Doctor Who and the Daleks) in 1964 and Spooner had written episodes 6 and 8-12 of The Daleks’ Master Plan on television.

 

While Whitaker wrote The Power of the Daleks, the new actor had not been cast and by the time Patrick Troughton agreed to play the role on 2 August 1966 they were well underway.  Dennis Spooner would be contracted on 12 October 1966, less than a month before Episode One would air, to revise the scripts to be in line with the characterization developed in pre-production by Troughton.  The Power of the Daleks would air between November and December of 1966 with viewing figures ranging from 7.5-8.0 million, marking the new Doctor a success, and ensuring the future of the show.  Sadly, by 1975 all six tapes in possession of the BBC were wiped in line with practice of the time, leaving The Power of the Daleks completely missing bar approximately 6 minutes of varying quality recovered from various sources and a complete set of telesnaps.  It has been released as a soundtrack on cassette and audio CD, and most recently was animated and remastered in a special edition DVD and Blu-Ray which includes a remastered telesnap reconstruction, with and without narration.  While the animation was originally released in 2016, the special edition marks a definitive version of the story and is the recommended purchase for anyone wishing to experience this story.  It is more polished than the 2016 release, the animation is notably more smooth and complete scenes have been done from scratch with more camera angles and detail.  It further reveals the 2016 animation to be the rush job that it was and eclipses that release in every way.

 

And now, nearly 700 words into this review, we can actually turn to The Power of the Daleks itself.  The six episode script is a tightly paced drama from start to finish, opening in the TARDIS in the aftermath of the “renewal” (yes it’s a regeneration, but as none of the lore had been established yet it’s a renewal as well) where the audience is firmly in the shoes of companions Ben and Polly as they don’t understand what has happened to the Doctor or who this strange new man in his place is.  This suspicion continues through the first two episodes as the TARDIS arrives on the planet Vulcan in a mercury swamp where an Examiner from Earth is shot, and the Doctor assumes his role.  The colony on Vulcan has turmoil under the surface as a group of secret rebels have been planning an unjustified revolt and scientist Lesterson has found a space capsule in the mercury.  Whitaker’s stroke of genius here is allowing the TARDIS team and the audience to understand the colony before the Daleks even appear: they are revealed at the end of Episode One, but don’t become active until the end of Episode Two.  The audience has time to get a handle on who all of the human players are and what motivates them before the tragedy strikes.  Lesterson, played by Robert James, Bragen, played by Bernard Archard, and Janley, played by Pamela Ann Davy in particular form a trio of characters who represent the different groups.

 

Lesterson is a scientist and well-meaning at his heart, but curiosity gets the better of him as he is determined to awaken the Daleks.  Once they are awakened he only sees the potential for their servitude, and it eventually leads to his downfall as they take over.  Bragen is power mad, looking to unseat the governor and uses any means necessary to do so: playing the rebels and colonists against each other for his own ends.  Janley represents the rebels: an antagonist and desiring power, but not entirely evil.  There is a telling line from a Dalek late into the story where it questions “why do human beings kill other human beings?” as a reflection of all of the evil man can perform.  The Daleks themselves work in the background of the story, starting with only one powered up, and then three, all claiming to be in the position of servants.  They entice Lesterson with their potential only if they can get more power (in more ways than one), and by the time anyone that has the power to stop them on Vulcan realizes this, it is too late.  By the end they are reproducing on a massive scale and everything comes to a head in Episode Six where they are truly ruthless with a body count that shows just how powerful the Daleks can be.  In fact, before this only The Daleks’ Master Plan had this many on screen deaths.

 

Patrick Troughton as the Doctor is brilliant in his first outing.  While he is still acclimating to the role, he marks himself off as a completely different interpretation from William Hartnell’s portrayal.  Troughton is more physical in the role, but also works in the background to put himself into a position where he can take control and stop the Daleks in a way that Hartnell would never accomplish.  He also keeps the viewer guessing as to if he really is the Doctor until a Dalek recognizes him near the end of Episode Two which is where the relationship between the Second Doctor and his companions can really be established and explored.  The Doctor relies on Ben and Polly outright at several points for help without ever actually telling them he needs their help.  At several points Ben and Polly both have their parts to play and give the Doctor ideas and possible solutions during the plot.  Michael Craze and Anneke Wills bring their characters to life wonderfully, acting as the audience surrogates throughout.

 

The music and direction also play important parts in evoking the feel of Vulcan.  Tristram Cary’s musical score for The Daleks and The Daleks’ Master Plan is reutilized here to full effect, making Vulcan come alive.  There is also a tenseness added as specific cues are used whenever Daleks appear on-screen or a revelation is made about the colony or the Daleks, or even the Doctor.  Christopher Barry provides the direction for this story and although we cannot see much of it, we do have access to the camera scripts, telesnaps, and several clips from the story.  Taking this into account, and his work on The Daleks, we can get a decent idea of how the story looked, something that Charles Norton’s team captured in the animation.  Many of the surviving clips are tense and set up camera angles that build the threat of the Daleks and convey the fear and eventual insanity of characters.  Barry is one of those directors who lasted through multiple Doctors and each time he brings an interesting and distinct visual style to proceedings.

 

Overall, The Power of the Daleks is a story which originates much of what makes Doctor Who Doctor Who.  It has been the inspiration for several stories in the future, but nothing can really beat the original.  It is ranked among the very best the show has to offer with good reason and if you have not seen this for whatever reason track down the animation or soundtrack and experience it for yourself.  You won’t regret it.  10/10.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Malazan: Gardens of the Moon by: Steven Erikson


The one fantasy series which is spoken of in hushed whispers for its brilliance yet stone faced difficulty is the massive Malazan universe.  Created in the 1980s by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont in a tabletop role playing game, the universe first came to the public in 1999 with the first installment in Malazan: Book of the Fallen, Gardens of the Moon and since then 20 further novels and 6 novellas have been published to critical acclaim and success.  Erikson and Esslemont, however, have been criticized for creating an overly complex world that is difficult for new readers to enter and understand everything.  Malazan is a commitment to read to be certain, however, critics and fans laud it for its characters, world, plot, and themes, claiming that the difficulty is worth it, especially upon rereads.  While I am not here to make a definitive judgement on these claims, as I’ve only read the first book that I am reviewing, this review is going to be the first in at least sixteen reviews of the series to evaluate each book on their own merits and hopefully to serve as an introduction to the series for anyone who is interested.  The intent is to review the Book of the Fallen by Erikson and Novels of the Malazan Empire by Esslemont generally in publication order (excluding Night of Knives which will be read second).

 

With that prologue taken care of, Gardens of the Moon is the first novel in the universe and the Book of the Fallen sequence.  Written by Steven Erikson in the 1980s as a screenplay and later converted to a novel, it was rejected for publication multiple times until 1999 where it was picked up by Bantam Books, and later Tor for the United States release.  When picking up Gardens of the Moon prospective readers should be aware of several intrinsic problems which do in fact drag this novel down in quality.  Converting a script to a novel is as difficult as changing mediums and there are several points in the book where Erikson’s style feels like it is a screenplay, especially near the end as the point of view begins to shift more rapidly in each chapter making it slightly more difficult to follow who is speaking.  It feels like a description of something in a film, often expecting seeing the characters to allow the reader to know who they are.  It also can make some of the descriptions of action feel like cues for stage direction and not an organic description.  This is relatively minor, but it does muddle things as Gardens of the Moon begins in media res and does not ever really jump back to the beginning, leaving the reader to wonder just what happened before the events of this novel.  Being written in the 1980s, over a decade before it would be published also has an effect on the way it is written.  This was Erikson’s first novel, and there are hallmarks of an author’s first novel throughout.  The pacing of Gardens of the Moon is odd as it is split into seven segments, some longer than others, some shorter which makes reading odd.

 

Outside of this, there is in general a lot of Gardens of the Moon which demands the attention.  The reputation of being a difficult novel to read is apt, but luckily much of this is not due to a lack of skill on Erikson’s part.  Erikson is a talented writer and while this first book is flawed there are great things here: he’s writing a story where there are a lot of moving pieces and there is a refusal to get bogged down in exposition.  The reader is thrown into the story with no expectations of what the world of Malazan holds or how the magic system works or even the history of these characters, but careful attention to how they interact will reveal much in the way of exposition in the subtext.  There is also the intention that this is the first in a long series, so not all of the answers are meant to be revealed here.  Erikson employs unreliable narrators for several points in the novel to further leave the reader on their toes.

 

The actual plot of Gardens of the Moon is pretty simple: the Malazan Empire has had its emperor assassinated and an empress on the throne whose goal is to conquer the continent of Genabackis.  The city of Pale is under siege and it is this conflict that serves as the inciting incident and centerpiece of the novel.  Each of the characters introduced in this book have their own allegiances in the siege of Pale and the further conquests.  Allegiances are formed and broken, and then reforged over the course of the book.  Characters go to war, die, are resurrected, and have their worldview changed with the exposure to new ideas and factions.  The world is vast and Erikson makes it feel like this is an empire spanning conflict, but doesn’t forget that there are also the little people on the ground who get swept up in conquest.  The magic system he introduces here involves alternate dimensions which give people power due to allegiances with different gods, gods who aren’t afraid to interfere and meddle to their own ends.  Writing gods and godlike characters, Erikson gives the point of view from those on the ground, in the impact zone.  This gives the gods their own power over the reader and the characters as we don’t quite know what powers they have.  The standout gods, to me at least, are Cotillion aka the Rope, a sort of acolyte to a god of death, who spends most of the novel possessing a young girl and maneuvering her into the army and into a position where he can take power, and Anomander Rake.  Rake is not a god, but a member of the Tiste Andii race who are very long lived.  He is the lord of a floating fortress called Moon’s Spawn and while integral to events, especially in the climax, is not in much of the novel.  Erikson ensure that when Rake appears the reader gets an impression of who he is and who other characters think he is.  He is both feared and respected, and there is a twist with Rake at the end of the novel which is excellent.  He has a Great Raven called Crone which does his bidding and provides the oddest comic relief in the book.

 

The mortal characters also have their own struggles and each major character leaves a lasting impact due to their wants and desires.  Readers will attach to many of them, although ambiguity in their actions is key to Erikson’s themes.  This is a book about conquest and does not shy away from the fact that these characters are doing horrible things.  They may be likable, but few of them can be called good.  There are characters like Quick Ben or Kruppe who work on the outside for their own manipulative ends throughout the book, or like Tattersail who is trying to keep her regiment together after the siege leaves her and her squad broken.  There are people like Paran who became a soldier for glory, but has become a pawn in an even greater game, dying and being resurrected by a god for their own ends.  They’re all excellent and Erikson is not afraid from using the genre of fantasy to its fullest, even if he intends to deconstruct tropes.  Overall, Gardens of the Moon has a lot going for it.  The world is one which you can get lost in and it will stay with you after you finish, as you ask questions, but it is a first novel.  As a first novel, it does quite a few things that make it excessively difficult to read, even by the standards set by the author, but if this review has intrigued you, I will say give it a shot.  7/10.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Battle of the Labyrinth by: Rick Riordan

 

A penultimate novel in a series is almost always an interesting read.  It’s at this point in a series where the author prepares to finish the series, but must also not fall into the trap of making the book completely setup.  The Battle of the Labyrinth is the fourth installment in Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Rick Riordan deserves praise for writing a book that straddles the line between setup and its own story brilliantly.  The formula for these books is well established at this point, but it is The Battle of the Labyrinth that experiments with this about halfway through.  Riordan decides to shoot Percy out of a volcano and it is at this point where instead of the standard searching for a quest goal while encountering monsters every so often Riordan opts for a focused goal of the characters trying their best to stop Kronos’ ascension and invasion of Camp Half-Blood.  One of those goals is successful, the other is not.  The end of The Battle of the Labyrinth has an extreme bittersweet element as there is time spent on the fallout of the titular battle where people die and Kronos is essentially free to enact his own plans.  The great prophecy in the background of the entire series is going to be the subject of the final novel in the series and it’s coming to completion.  The book ends with Percy turning 15, having one year left before the prophecy is to be set in motion.  Riordan reflects on the fact that he didn’t give the normal campers personalities by showing Percy not quite know how to act when some of them dies.  There’s also this moment with Dionysius (his only scene in the novel) which is incredibly effective at giving the god of wine one little moment where it shows he cares in his own way.

 

Riordan also does an excellent job of foreshadowing later events in the novel as early as the first chapter.  The first chapter is a standard monsters attack at a school, but it brings back a minor character from The Titan’s Curse who becomes incredibly important for this book.  Rachel Elizabeth Dare appeared in the scene at Hoover Dam where Percy stabbed her with his sword, and it turns out she lives in New York and is at the same high school orientation with Percy.  Percy’s anxiety at seeing her is what causes him to run off and get cornered.  She can see through the Mist and is eventually used as a guide through the Labyrinth in the second half of the book.  Rachel brings an outside perspective to the book’s proceedings: she’s incredibly sarcastic and doesn’t put up with much of the insanity that the situation she finds herself in is.  She isn’t scared off by the gods and monsters she encounters, but she doesn’t want to take any of Percy’s weak explanations.  Riordan is clearly setting up a love triangle between Percy, Rachel, and Annabeth, and while Annabeth’s reaction to Rachel is catty, Rachel proves to be the bigger person.  She’s got her own family problems (parents who are rich and distant) and is just happy to get explanations to the mythological world around her.

 

Annabeth and Percy’s romance (or slight lack thereof) is also really interesting, as Riordan writes the book with everyone else essentially knowing that they’re in love and eventually going to be together, except for Percy and Annabeth.  Annabeth is still hung up on Luke and leading a quest in this book to realize while Percy just hasn’t thought of that yet.  Annabeth’s best moments in this book are when she is in the role as leader.  There is a choice foreshadowed early in the novel and she makes it, not quite knowing if it’s the right decision.  Hera, goddess of marriage, essentially represents keeping the status quo and a happy family, avoiding the oncoming war, and is treated (rightly so) as almost a villain in her two appearances in the book.  Annabeth also chooses not two, but three companions to join her on the quest which apparently breaks ancient laws, making it harder to succeed.  Along with her and Percy is Grover and Tyson who both have their own arcs.  Tyson is the easiest to discuss here as Riordan has improved with his portrayal since The Sea of Monsters: gone is a character written like an idiot and in his place is a Cyclops who is intelligent.  Tyson may not be typically intelligent, but he does make decisions and shows a creativity to problem solving.  There is a scene where he meets one of his heroes and essentially convinces him to keep living and fighting the fight against the Titans.  He also shows that he has a selfless side to him in many ways, caring deeply about his friends, treating Percy as his brother.  He’s become a character who can grow and change.  Grover, on the other hand, gets his character arc of wanting to find Pan brought to a conclusion here, ahead of the final book.  While this may have detrimental effects on the final book, for this book it feels like the completion of his arc is necessary.  He finds Pan in this book, and finally stands up to the council of satyrs who has been harassing him since The Lightning Thief.  His life now has a new purpose, no longer on a quest to find, but on a quest to protect nature and the wild with his own.  He also forms a friendship with Tyson and gets a girlfriend which allows him to grow out of the role of sidekick to Percy Jackson.

 

For someone who’s name is in the title, Percy Jackson isn’t really the hero in this one.  Yes, he is the point of view character and there are plenty of heroic moments, but The Battle of the Labyrinth is all about the people around him, the people he cares about.  On his own in this book, Percy gets a diversion on Calypso’s island to expose him to the other side of the argument and he does show just how dangerous being a son of Poseidon can be, but his best moments are the quiet ones.  There’s a moment near the end of the book where Paul Blofis who has been dating Percy’s mother asks for his blessing in proposing to her which is a brilliant scene.  The Labyrinth and Daedelus are really characters in their own right, providing an oppressive atmosphere to the quest and a variety of confusions.  Riordan draws from myth and the film Labyrinth in many places for scenery and encounters in the book which work incredibly well.  It creates a sense of confusion which is reflected in all of the characters: it’s a place where choices are made and allegiances are formed, past mistakes are revealed and characters find their own way to essentially a final battle.  Clarisse, who has already been given development in The Sea of Monsters, is further changed by the maze in this book, showing motherly instincts and a real sense of caring for a traitor whom she falls in love with.  The character who makes the most important choices here is Nico Di Angelo, son of Hades.  Throughout the book Percy is trying to guide him away from anger and the possibility of being seduced by Luke and Kronos’ promises of a better world.  Nico throughout the book is in a deep stage of grief and all the anger which comes with it.  There is something amazing about how he is able to overcome it and realize that while he may not be accepted at Camp Half-Blood (in his own mind), that trying to destroy it is not the right answer.  He has grown from the little kid from the previous book, foolishly putting aside childish things, but eventually rediscovering them for what they are and can provide.  There is a plan in the final chapter that he proposes to Percy, something that won’t be revealed until the next book, but this also becomes the first point in his own life that he’s treated almost like family indicating that his life may be on the up and up.

 

Overall, The Battle of the Labyrinth does a lot to take what worked from the previous three novels while trying something new.  There is a lot of character work here as Rick Riordan prepares to have the final confrontation with the armies of Kronos and Luke in The Last Olympian.  Everybody grows at the very least a little bit and it finally feels like Camp Half-Blood is fleshed out with a variety of people who will stand or fall together.  It is also the best book yet, reaching Riordan’s highest highs.  10/10.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Decalog edited by: Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker


Doctor Who short fiction has had a varied history throughout the show’s run.  The first Doctor Who Annual was published in 1965 and featured several short stories featuring the First Doctor.  The annuals would continue publication through 1986 before being revived for the new series in 2005.  1966 saw the publication of Doctor Who and the Invasion from Space, a 46 page story sometimes cited as the first original Doctor Who novel, however, it’s more accurately classified as a novella or short story.  While Virgin Publishing began the successful New Adventures line in 1991 and by 1994 would launch the Missing Adventures line of books, in between releases of both ranges would be five short story collections.  Published between March 1994 and September 1997, the Decalog series spanned five entries, three focused and branded as Doctor Who releases, one as a spin-off exploring the family of companion Roz Forrestor, and a final entry providing ten original science fiction releases.  The first Decalog was published in March 1994, featured ten stories featuring all of the then existing Doctors from writers familiar and new to Doctor Who, and was edited by Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker.

 

Playback by: Stephen James Walker is Decalog’s frame story, taking the form of a conversation between the Seventh Doctor and a psychic.  The Doctor has lost his memory and goes through the many objects in his pockets to jog his memory.  As a framing device it starts out promising, but quickly becomes repetitive as another object is taken out of the pockets and quickly moves onto the next story.  There is eventually an actual threat posed by the end of the story, linking nicely in with a previous story in the collection, yet oddly not the penultimate story.  Walker as an author is more well known for his reference material for Virgin Publishing, and the style of prose really reflects this.  It is direct with little thought put into the characterization, instead going for stock descriptions of the different items.  Playback is serviceable, nothing more.  5/10.

 

The story that opens the collection proper is Fallen Angel by: Andy Lane which is the first short story to actually tell a succinct story.  Lane’s tale involves the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe getting involved in an old fashioned heist story with the titular thief Lucas Seyton.  It is incredibly refreshing to read a story from Virgin with the Second Doctor that characterizes this tricky Doctor to full effect.  Andy Lane perhaps leans in slightly towards the clownish portrayal in areas, but much of the Doctor’s dialogue here is snappy and works towards him.  Jamie and Zoe are relegated to the background for this story, allowing the Doctor and Seyton to have this great rapport with one another.  The setting of London, 1933 is also used to full effect with foggy nights and policemen on patrol.  Fallen Angel may not become anyone’s favorite Doctor Who story, but it manages to entertain and set the tone for the rest of the collection more than Playback ever could hope to.  7/10.

 

Lane is then blown out of the water with Marc Platt’s entry in the collection, The Duke of Dominoes, a story which does not feature the Doctor.  Instead, Platt tells a tale of the Master marooned in Chicago during Prohibition where the reader can delight in the character being frustrated as his schemes go completely awry.  Platt portrays the Master as crafty, but being outwitted by the sheer stupidity of others.  Calling himself The Duke of Dominoes is fitting as the story is essentially a series of dominoes which falls around him.  The Master is put in the setting of protagonist for essentially the first time: the reader wants to see him succeed because he’s not having any fun without having the Doctor to fight.  Platt gives the character a pathos against his own situation.  His TARDIS has been stolen and really he only succeeds in his plans at the very last second due to deus ex machina.  Platt as always is a wonderful author and provides just a great story with a non-traditional protagonist.  9/10.

 

The next story is from a rare female author.  The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back is the first short story from Vanessa Bishop, who is more well known for her contributions to Doctor Who Magazine.  Unlike Stephen James Walker’s reference book style, Bishop’s is much more focused on telling a story driven by characters.  The title is a reference to the story’s theme: the Third Doctor snapping early in his exile on Liz and the Brigadier.  Bishop uses this story to explore the tension created in that first season of the Third Doctor’s era, especially during Doctor Who and the Silurians, and ends almost with the Doctor and Brigadier finding a new respect for one another.  This also explores the lengths the Doctor has been known to go and is willing to go in any given situation.  He is far from the complete pacifist that he is often portrayed as and Bishop’s story ends with that fact being reiterated.  There’s also this fascinating idea of an alien that tries to communicate but kills with its voice a la The Ambassadors of Death adding a layer of love to the story and the era it is a part of.  From this it’s a real shame that Bishop hasn’t written a full length Doctor Who novel for Virgin or BBC Books.  10/10.

 

Interestingly it’s the fourth story that actually features the iconic TARDIS team of the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane from editor Mark Stammers.  Scarab of Death while not suffering from his co-editors bland style, is a sequel to a classic story: Pyramids of Mars.  Sadly, this really is one of those sequels that doesn’t really do much more than rehash a lot of the material from the original.  Stammers does have a lot of fun by setting this story on the moon Beta Osiris, in a pyramid where Horus sleeps so there isn’t the threat of Sutekh to contend with.  This is much more focused on cult activity attempting to awaken the sleeping Osirian, but it eventually ends with a runaround in the pyramid.  It’s also a story that just feels out of place in the era that it is set: there is a lot of overt humor here as if this was a Graham Williams era story, not a Hinchcliffe one.  This isn’t saying that humor isn’t appreciated, it is and can add a great dynamic between the Doctor and Sarah Jane, but it just feels out of place in a sequel to a grim story like Pyramids of Mars.  Sutekh was a villain that could easily destroy Earth and that power is available to the others of his species.  6/10.

 

The Book of Shadows is the first short story that feels like it doesn’t fit at a short story.  This is an alternate history tale from Jim Mortimore, and like his other work is grim and leaves its characters with a choice.  It’s one that would fit better as a full length novel as Mortimore doesn’t have the time to flesh out his characters and alternate history.  This is a story about the First Doctor and Barbara in Macedon, at some point after The Dalek Invasion of Earth, but before The Rescue.  Barbara is sent through time and creates an alternate history where she has a husband and son in this ancient world.  Mortimore puts Barbara through the wringer, making her live eight years with her own son and is married to Ptolemy Lagus, who is utterly devoted to her.  Ian is essentially not in the picture here which is a shame as it feels like Mortimore had the idea to explore their relationship, but as it’s a short story, this was impossible.  As it stands it’s a great story, but really needs the expansion a novel would allow to really shine.  8/10.

 

Fascination is a fitting title for the weakest story of Decalog.  David J. Howe writes a tale for the Fifth Doctor and Peri that not only fails to keep the interest, but also is marred by a mishandling of adult themes in several ways.  There’s a lot of sexualization in Fascination, and while much of it is on the surface consensual, I’m not to sure adding in a mind control plot really can keep that pure.  The Fifth Doctor really does feel like Peter Davison of this era, but Peri is sadly less well burdened.  Howe writes her as the “for the dads” companion that John Nathan-Turner would often describe her.  Howe adds magical elements and invokes Clarke’s law in quite a few places, making the climax of the story a battle of words which is a bit fun, but this leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the reader in a lot of ways.  3/10.

 

A multi-Doctor story really wasn’t expected for Decalog, but that’s exactly what David Auger’s The Golden Door provides.  This story kind of does the Locum Doctors thing of switching companions, but Steven and Dodo are convinced that the First Doctor is not their Doctor, but the Sixth Doctor is.  Old Sixie isn’t really characterized the best, being brash and loud, which is an interesting contrast to the First Doctor who at this point in his life is much more, for lack of a better term, goofy.  The First Doctor becomes completely confused as Steven and Dodo claim not to know him and has an interesting chemistry with the Sixth Doctor.  This is also the story that ties in the most to Playback, and honestly it feels really weird that it isn’t the final story before Playback wraps up.  Still, it is a very fun story and odd that Auger did not much else.  8/10.

 

The second Third Doctor story in Decalog, like the first, is the highlight of the collection.  Again featuring the Brigadier and Liz, with appearances from Benton and Yates, Prisoners of the Sun by: Tim Robins is a story that deals with the fallout of Liz’s decision to leave UNIT in an interesting way.  This story does a parallel history thing where decades in the future Liz Shaw is responsible for finding a power source from the sun by implementing Time Lord technology.  UNIT has become corrupted with Mike Yates as the tyrant in a position of power which is just brilliant to read.  Benton is also evil here, as is Liz, but it really is the Doctor who gets self-reflection in the novel.  The Third Doctor is one who lacks self-awareness and this story is used to show his actual sadness at losing Liz Shaw.  There’s also a message for Liz from the Time Lords which adds an interesting layer to her character once the message is revealed.  The final scenes of this story will stay with the reader long after it is finished, and that is the best thing a short story can do.  10/10.

 

Paul Cornell gets the chance to write for his precious Fifth Doctor in the final story of the collection in Lackaday Express.  Cornell uses some of this story to explore the death of Adric in Earthshock and to tell a story that twists in time.  It seems that the film Groundhog Day is at least partially an inspiration for Cornell in this story as a woman is forced to relive moments of her life in her own personal hell.  The Doctor, Nyssa, and Tegan have to discover what is happening with Catherine and how to stop it.  With a simple premise, Cornell sets up a short story that makes use of its short page count and characterizes its regulars brilliantly.  Cornell is clearly writing for a TARDIS team that he loves and it comes through, making their dynamic much nicer to read through than much of their TV run.  Lackaday Express has the charm and wit typical of Paul Cornell’s novels adjusted for the Decalog format and rounds off the set very nicely.  9/10.

 

Overall, Decalog is both an interesting experiment and success providing ten very different stories from ten very different authors and only one of them not being worth the read.  7.5/10.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Titan's Curse by: Rick Riordan

 

After The Sea of Monsters, I will admit that my enthusiasm for continuing Percy Jackson and the Olympians had decreased somewhat.  However, I pressed on and continued to the third novel, The Titan’s Curse which I can say up front was a marked improvement over not only The Sea of Monsters, but also The Lightning Thief.  This book marks the halfway point in the initial pentalogy and feels like the point where Riordan is ramping up the tension.  The first key decision that Riordan makes in this novel is setting it in winter, halfway between The Sea of Monsters and The Battle of the Labyrinth.  The inciting incident isn’t some monster attack on Percy, getting him expelled from school, but Percy, Thalia, and Annabeth being called on by Grover to help escort two half-bloods to camp.  Yes, there is an early action fight with a monster, this time a manticore in the employ of Luke and Kronos which is another decision that ties it into the main plot.  Dr. Thorne, the manticore in question, kidnaps Annabeth allowing Rick to reuse his formula of getting one of the main trio out of the action.  Annabeth’s capture is handled much better here than Grover’s was in The Sea of Monsters.  Grover’s capture never felt for Percy like the danger was real: the dreams early on were written off as odd, and they were a bit generic.  Rick leaves Percy, and the reader in suspense as to if Annabeth is even alive, only giving a few dreams throughout the book to Percy.  This creates tension for both the character and the reader much more effectively.

 

Putting Annabeth in danger and making that danger feel real by allowing Percy to have a hand in the reason she is captured (he goes off after the half-blood siblings as they are escorted out of school by the manticore) gives a deeper emotional involvement for the character.  They feel more real and compounding these stakes with the fact that the world is at stake makes The Titan’s Curse feel like there is a real danger.  During much of the climax, Riordan reveals more of Luke’s plan to raise Kronos and actually makes him a threatening villain whereas in The Sea of Monsters he just showed up to be intimidating.  He has to be fought with the “big bad” of the novel, whom I will not spoil, making the climax especially engaging, even if the resolution then resembles the final few chapters of The Lightning Thief.  Although Annabeth isn’t in the novel, Riordan introduces her father in a sequence that is perhaps the most memorable and most in parallel to Percy’s relationship with his stepfather from the first novel and a mirror with Paul Blofis, a minor character who is revealed to have begun a relationship with Percy’s mother.  Dr. Chase is meant to represent an understanding of family making it through difficult times and fixing broken relationships.  He was never an abusive parent: a failure to protect his daughter, but not from lack of trying (Annabeth may have been misinterpreting his signals) and he is a fascinating character in his short scenes.  Percy also isn’t chosen to take part in this book’s quest, which is an interesting decision as it gives him better motivation to go off on his own.  There are two points in the novel where Dionysus is actually given more depth and hints at being a more important god and more complex than previously thought.  First, he lets Percy go on the quest when by his own admission, he should have stopped him, and second, he provides aid at one point during the book, even using Percy’s correct name showing that there is something more to the character.

 

Percy’s quest in The Titan’s Curse is summarized by Aphrodite as one for love.  It is made clear to everyone except Percy that there is a romance between him and Annabeth: this is the reason that he went on the quest and the reason he blames himself for her capture.  He is losing his innocence and growing up, getting closer to the age of sixteen and while Thalia could also be the child of prophecy, he very easily can still be the one it speaks of.  The loss of innocence is a subtle theme running throughout the novel: Riordan introduces Artemis and her hunters as a group of maidens who have sworn off romance for immortality, and the hunters are portrayed partially as childish.  There are hunters who childishly act like boys and men are inferior because they are immortal teenagers who never had to grow up.  While equating romance to a loss of innocence isn’t the best analogy, for what Riordan is going for it works.  Artemis is portrayed as both young and old, innocent and experienced in the ways of the world.  There is something both childlike, yet incredibly strong about the goddess.  Early in the book one of the half-blood siblings, Bianca Di Angelo, joins the Hunters of Artemis and it is portrayed as almost reclaiming her innocence.  Bianca is a character who has been responsible for taking care of her younger brother Nico and sees the Hunters as a way to reclaim the childhood she never had and her own identity.  Riordan does not portray Bianca as wrong for doing so.  She is a little rash perhaps, but not a bad person or really dodging a responsibility, even though it hurts Nico.  She has to deal with the consequences of her decisions and her arc ends in tragedy.

 

Nico, on the other hand, while a minor character only appearing in the bookends of the novel, gets his own arc.  He starts as a complete innocent: wide-eyed, liking a card game, and finding the knowledge of being a half-blood like a game.  He is what Percy perhaps could have been if he was introduced to the world of gods and monsters naturally, but by the end of the book that innocence is gone and he doesn’t quite know how to cope with that.  Thalia Grace also has her own arc about growing up.  She and Percy have a much more interesting dynamic than simply rivals: there is a mutual respect and friendship, but Riordan writes them as similar thinkers in many ways which is where they clash because of the few differences they have.  The differences are simple and stark which makes for an interesting dynamic between the two of them.  Early on they are put into the position of co-captains for capture the flag against the Hunters of Artemis and their styles of leadership clash with one another like the sky clashing with the sea.  They both want to go on the quest and both are close friends.  Finally, there is a sea creature which follows Percy from a myth about the Titans which represents innocence in its purest form.

 

This isn’t to say that The Titan’s Curse is a perfect book.  The formula of The Lightning Thief is followed pretty closely which makes it feel a bit repetitive in places.  Zoe Nightshade, while a fun character with her own moments, has a final fate that feels just a bit cliched.  Overall, The Titan’s Curse shows that the series is going places and makes enough changes in the formula to make things interesting.  It leaves the characters in different places then they started and shows that Rick Riordan is not writing a static series: things will change, characters will die.  It is not going down a darker path, but it makes the book feel more real and the pending danger of Kronos present.  9/10.

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Trial of a Time Lord: The Ultimate Foe by: Robert Holmes and Pip and Jane Baker directed by: Chris Clough

 

The Ultimate Foe stars Colin Baker as the Doctor, Bonnie Langford as Melanie, Michael Jayston as the Valeyard, and Linda Bellingham as the Inquisitor with Tony Selby as Sabalom Glitz, and Anthony Ainley as the Master.  It was written by: Robert Holmes and Pip and Jane Baker and directed by: Chris Clough, with Eric Saward and John Nathan-Turner as Script Editors and John Nathan-Turner as Producer.  It was originally broadcast on Saturdays from 29 November to 6 December 1986 on BBC1.

 

Doctor Who fans don’t seem to understand the point of The Trial of a Time Lord.  Doing an overarching season arc with the Doctor on trial was done simply to convince the higher ups at the BBC that the show deserved to continue.  If you look at it in those terms, it is a success: Doctor Who would then run for three more seasons before its cancellation in 1989, but when you look at the critical reception of the time and how it has aged thirty years later, it tells a different story.  The Ultimate Foe is the title given to the final two episodes of Serial 7C originally commissioned for writer Robert Holmes as almost an homage to “The Final Problem” which “killed” off the great detective Sherlock Holmes by throwing him off a cliff in Switzerland.  Robert Holmes submitted his first draft of “Part Thirteen” and an outline of “Part Fourteen” before sadly passing away on 24 May 1986.  Script Editor Eric Saward would step in and edit “Part Thirteen” and write “Part Fourteen” based on Holmes’ notes, however, Producer John Nathan-Turner and Saward disagreed on the ending of “Part Fourteen.”  Saward wished to follow the wishes of Holmes leaving the Doctor and the Valeyard in a battle in the time vortex, while Nathan-Turner wished for a happier ending, fearing cancellation.  By 4 June 1986, Saward withdrew his permission to use the script so Nathan-Turner called his lawyers and met with Pip and Jane Baker to actually finish the story.  The Bakers were given a copy of the script for “Part Thirteen” and told to write “Part Fourteen” based on that, with a lawyer present to ensure none of Saward’s, and by extension Holmes’, ideas made it into the final episode.

 

This odd way of writing a serial means that The Ultimate Foe is a story of two wildly different halves.  “Part Thirteen” opens the story with really one last hurrah from Robert Holmes: the dialogue sparkles, Holmes gives Mel this perky optimism that really makes her mesh with the Sixth Doctor, Anthony Ainley shows up as the Master and gets to be delightful, if not a little evil.  The Doctor then goes into the Matrix after the Valeyard, who is revealed to be a sort of darker distillation somewhere between the Doctor’s twelfth and final incarnations.  The Matrix here takes its inspiration from a Victorian office in the era of Jack the Ripper which allows director Chris Clough to have some fun with the foggy foundry sets and jabs at bureaucracy.  The episode culminates in a cliffhanger where hands rise from the mud and drag the Doctor down.  While the cliffhanger is shot in a very simple manner and it does look slightly cheap.  Colin Baker sells the performance, but you can tell that he really isn’t being grabbed and is shimmying his way down into the mud.  Outside of that the episode is nothing short of brilliant.  There’s this minor character, Mr. Popplewick, where Holmes has a glorious amount of fun jabs at filling out forms.  Tony Selby’s Sabalom Glitz is ever the lovable rogue and Michael Jayston truly gets to flex as the Valeyard.  This is Holmes going out in the closest he can get to a blaze of glory.

 

“Part Fourteen” on the other hand ends the story with an incredible amount of mess.  Gone is the sparkling dialogue and in its place is a mass of technobabble about “megabyte modems” and how “nothing you can do can prevent the catharsis of spurious morality.”  The former is an example of technobabble which dates the episode while the later is an example of something that means nothing.  The plot is that the Valeyard attempts to trick the Doctor into signing over the rest of his regenerations and is eventually defeated by flipping some switches and overloading his contraption.  The episode even ends with a hook that the Valeyard is still alive to make a possible reappearance, completely doing away with the homage to The Final Problem.  Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and there is a lot to like about “Part Fourteen”.  The cast is great, and there is quite a bit of tension to be had with the characters going around in the Matrix as anything can happen.  Pip and Jane Baker add some absurd dangers to the Matrix sequences including comically large harpoons, explosions, and the Master’s own TARDIS appearing at several points to get in the way.  The Bakers have the Master kind of playing both sides for his own power, and oddly to save the universe which is interesting, though not very well developed.  The inconsistencies with the script can’t really be blamed on Pip and Jane Baker: they had barely two weeks to finish the scripts, scripts that were not then edited, and had absolutely no idea on where the story was supposed to be heading.  For what it is worth, “Part Fourteen” at least ends the story, even if there are major missteps.

 

John Nathan-Turner’s interference with the story is also felt at several points.  There’s already the very happy ending for the Doctor, who leaves in the TARDIS with Mel (who has nothing to do in the final episode).  The Inquisitor basically just lets the Doctor go and goes off to possibly have a run for President, but the real kicker is that the death of Peri Brown in Mindwarp has been undone and she has been given her own life with King Yrcanos.  This is an odd ending, as it puts a companion in a random marriage and really undercuts a lot of the performance of Colin Baker in the trial segments of Terror of the Vervoids.  Sure, Big Finish and Bad Therapy would both use this as a premise to explore Peri in depth, even allowing all of her possible fates to be true, the story as it is presented here simply a messy ending.  There’s also the sad fact that Colin Baker’s final line is lamenting carrot juice.  The Ultimate Foe is just one of those stories that you can at least say was a fun way to spend an hour, though beneath the fun nature of the story is a production that lacks any sort of guidance.  Two creative directions vie for control and neither really can win out as the story just stops in its tracks and ends the season on a weird note.  Sure it allowed the show to continue, but there isn’t nearly as much here for people to see as excitement for the inevitable Season 24.  5/10.

Monday, August 3, 2020

The Trial of a Time Lord: Terror of the Vervoids by: Pip and Jane Baker directed by: Chris Clough

Terror of the Vervoids stars Colin Baker as the Doctor, Bonnie Langford as Melanie, Michael Jayston as the Valeyard, and Linda Bellingham as the Inquisitor with Honor Blackman as Professor Lasky and Michael Craig as Commodore Travers.  It was written by: Pip and Jane Baker and directed by: Chris Clough, with John Nathan-Turner as Script Editor and Producer.  It was originally broadcast on Saturdays from 1 to 22 November 1986 on BBC1.

 

It is fitting that between reviewing Mindwarp and Terror of the Vervoids a lengthy period of time and upheaval occurred as it mirrors the state of the Doctor Who Production Team.  Originally to be split into three stories, two linked written by David Halliwell and Jack Trevor Story respectively and a final story by Robert Holmes.  Both writers were rejected and the episodes reallocated to two stories, a four-part story where the Doctor provides his defense and a two-part final battle.  Christopher H. Bidmead was contacted for the first story, but dropped out and was replaced by P.J. Hammond’s Paradise Five who made it to a final script before being rejected.  Then tragedy struck: Robert Holmes passed away on 24 May 1986 before completing Part Fourteen of The Trial of a Time Lord, script editor Eric Saward finished from Holmes’ notes, however arguments with producer John Nathan-Turner over the ending and nature of the Valeyard led to Saward quitting before script editing was complete on the entire six episode block that comprised Serial 7C on 4 June 1986.  As production on 7C, the serial which became The Ultimate Foe and the story being covered today, Terror of the Vervoids, was set to begin in two weeks, there was no time to find a replacement so producer John Nathan-Turner took over Saward’s duties so the production could continue on schedule.

 

Terror of the Vervoids, commissioned as a last-minute replacement for Paradise Five, comes from the minds of Pip and Jane Baker who contributed The Mark of the Rani the previous year and received the brief of murder mystery in space.  While The Mysterious Planet and Mindwarp made liberal use of the trial sequences, Terror of the Vervoids should be praised for using them sparingly as the Valeyard allows the Doctor to dig his own grave and the Doctor objects to the Matrix apparently being tampered with.  Like Mindwarp, there are scenes here that the Doctor insist are wrong: they are different from when he viewed them to prepare his own evidence.  That evidence is the Doctor and future companion Melanie’s interference on the Hyperion III space liner.  Responding to a mayday they arrive as murders begin occurring.  There is a man who is lying about his identity and an agronomist transporting some plants that prove to be a danger to the existence of the human race.  The Bakers’ script is complete pulp, taking bits from mystery writers like Agatha Christie and scientific terms to flesh out the villains to create a script that is in desperate need of an editor.  John Nathan-Turner does the best job he can, but the structure of the murder mystery is poor: there are several red herrings but none of them actually add up to anything of note and the murderer is obvious from the first scene.  The fatal flaw of the script is that the Bakers attempt to craft a mystery where you can go back and figure out who committed the murders, but lack the subtlety of crafting clues and good misdirects.

 

While the murder mystery occurs in the foreground, starting in the second episode the actual Vervoids begin working in the background.  For a story that is promoted as Terror of the Vervoids, they actually do very little terrorizing.  Sure they kill people and the bodies pile up, but the script and production doesn’t take the time to make them feel like there is a real danger.  The tone of the story is inconsistent, adding more humor as per the BBC’s request to get the show back on air.  The supporting cast essentially have one trait which is used mostly for humor with the slight exception of Honor Blackman’s Professor Lasky.  Lasky is good-natured and only brought to the status of memorable character because of Blackman’s performance.  The Vervoids themselves are struck by poor design choices, their heads looking not like plants but a piece of female anatomy.  They bleed into the background of generic Doctor Who villains who time will eventually forget.  The killer plant storyline has been done before and better in stories like The Seeds of Death and The Seeds of Doom, with more inventive twists.  Their defeat is only in the last few minutes of the story, less than a single episode after the Doctor becomes aware of their existence.  While their existence is why Lasky is on Hyperion III, their inclusion feels like an afterthought.  The half-mutated lab assistant reveal at the end of the second episode would have served much better, but sadly is relegated to the women in refrigerators trope.  She gets a name, Ruth, but that’s about it.

 

Terror of the Vervoids introduces Bonnie Langford as Melanie Bush, the companion to replace Peri.  While promotional material would give her full name and backstory as a computer programmer from 1986, the actual episodes just have her there, fully intending to show her first meeting with the Doctor at some point in the future.  While the script could have integrated this into the episode subtly, at the very least mentioning she’s a computer programmer, it leaves Langford to endear herself to the audience.  Bonnie Langford has good chemistry with Colin Baker, however, Mel as a character presented here is fairly weak.  Two of the episodes end with her screams, tuned to the key of F as a talent Langford does.  Langford acts the part well and Chris Clough’s direction attempts to make the audience like her, but the script is too weak.  Overall, however, Terror of the Vervoids can be summed up as bland.  It’s a murder mystery that is fairly boring and really held up by performances from Colin Baker, Honor Blackman, and Bonnie Langford.  The script was clearly rushed and little editing was done creating an experience that is subpar, and a downward turn for a season that was doing so well.  3/10.


Sunday, August 2, 2020

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters by: Rick Riordan

Sequels are generally difficult to pull off.  A first book establishes so much that often the sequel has to continue the momentum of a series with less things to do.  The characters and setting are already established and the sequel has to deepen them.  The Sea of Monsters is a sequel that tackles this to incredibly mixed results.  Rick Riordan continues Percy Jackson and the Olympians by taking the format of The Lightning Thief, but instead of mixing mythological creatures and ideas, The Sea of Monsters essentially draws from one source, The Odyssey for its story.  There are short sections that are taken from other myths, specifically Heracles and Jason, the story itself is a modern retelling of The Odyssey.  While this does make The Sea of Monsters a decent introduction to the epic poem, even though it lacks the themes engrained in The Odyssey, for readers already familiar with the poem the encounters with monsters, and many of the ways they are defeated by our heroes.  Although Riordan’s novel is derivative, this does not mean that The Sea of Monsters is by any means a bad book.  The writing style is still easy to read and it is clear that Riordan has stepped up his game when it comes to writing action, adding more descriptions to the action and some more tactics as the characters have aged a year.

 

The Sea of Monsters takes place a year after The Lightning Thief and as such deals with a now thirteen-year-old Percy going on a quest, not to save his own life or the life of his mother, but Camp Half-Blood.  The tree guarding the camp, the only remains of a half-blood daughter of Zeus, has been poisoned by Luke on the orders of Kronos; Chiron has been used as a scapegoat; and a spirit from Tartarus has been brought on as a replacement.  Grover Underwood has gone missing on his own quest to find Pan in the Sea of Monsters, and the only thing that might save the camp happens to be what drew him off course, the Golden Fleece.  Riordan uses Grover’s kidnapping by Polyphemus, the Cyclops from The Odyssey to serve as Percy’s motivation to go on the quest.  Riordan keeps the reader in suspense as Grover sends dreams to Percy through an empathy link, as he attempts to take advantage of the Cyclops’ stupidity to stay alive.  It helps create a real uncertainty if Percy can actually get to the Fleece and to motivate him to leave camp, an action which normally would get him expelled.  He is not given the quest to find the Fleece, that goes to Clarisse, the brutish daughter of Ares from The Lightning Thief.

 

Clarisse as a character shows one improvement that Riordan makes over The Lightning Thief and that is creating side characters with more depth and a better idea of Camp Half-Blood as a location.  The sequences at the camp are the highlight of the novel: it never feels like there is immediate danger, but that the danger is looming over the horizon and as Percy doesn’t have to climatize to the camp, the status quo is established.  Yes that status quo is different then what could be considered normal for the camp, but it is close enough to feel like this is a place where Percy has roots.  Riordan also provides some campers with their own names and a character trait or two in line with their godly parent which is a step in the right direction.  It isn’t perfect by any means, but it at least establishes a base of things.  Clarisse as a character is given more depth than the stock bully archetype she served in The Lightning Thief.  She is sent on the quest to find the Fleece, goes alone, and crosses paths with Percy at several points through the novel.  There’s a subtle effort by Riordan to show the reader that Clarisse is going through her own struggles and self-confidence issues through her quest.  She’s trying to prove that she is just as capable as Percy to herself, to her father, and to the rest of the camp.  Riordan goes to great lengths to show that Clarisse is having her own adventure and journey throughout The Sea of Monsters, that the reader isn’t privileged to because the book is from Percy’s perspective.

 

Following Percy to the Sea of Monsters is also interesting as Grover is out of action and replaced by Tyson.  Tyson is where the mixed bag really comes out in The Sea of Monsters.  He is introduced as a friend of Percy’s at his school who helps save him from cannibal giants who burn down the gymnasium, and like Grover is a mythological creature.  Tyson is a Cyclops and is revealed to be a son of Poseidon, being claimed about a quarter of the way through the book.  Riordan decides that Percy’s next course of action is to become ashamed of this and essentially acts horrible to someone who he already treated as a brother.  Riordan even includes a (albeit well done) fake out death with Tyson to make Percy really come to terms with having a brother.  This doesn’t really feel like the Percy that was presented to us in The Lightning Thief and honestly makes a lot of The Sea of Monsters difficult to get through.  To add insult to injury, Riordan includes an arc about getting over prejudice for Annabeth, as a Cyclops is the reason she, Luke, Grover, and Thalia were delayed on their way to camp.  Annabeth’s prejudice is presented in a grey light: many Cyclops do kill heroes, but she is presented as firmly in the wrong when it comes to judging Tyson.  It also brings her and Percy closer together throughout the novel, firmly establishing their friendship and future romance.  Tyson as a character is fine, not amazing.  He’s used a bit as a plot device, but overall there’s a charm to him.

 

Much of The Sea of Monsters is devoted to setting up the rest of the series’ conflict.  While The Lightning Thief presented Kronos and Luke as the main villains, and hinted at a prophecy that concerns Percy reaching the age of sixteen.  It is this book where Luke actually shows his hand at creating an army of demigods and a plan to bring Kronos back, something so dangerous his own father Hermes intervenes in the hopes at getting Percy to save him.  There's also a final cliffhanger reveal that adds complications into this unseen prophecy.  This makes me hopeful for the future of the series as while The Sea of Monsters was an enjoyable read, it was plagued by problems that brought it down.  6/10.