Sunday, January 24, 2021

Time's Champion by: Craig Hinton and Chris McKeon


Craig Hinton is a Doctor Who author who infamously coined the term fanwank in fandom and wrote books where that term was often a criticism.  He was first published with a Virgin Missing Adventure, The Crystal Bucephalus, and would publish a further five Doctor Who novels for Virgin and BBC Books along with several short stories.  He had proposed a Sixth Doctor novel to BBC Books which would have seen an explanation for the Valeyard and the Sixth Doctor’s regeneration in Time and the Rani, however it was rejected and could not be completed before his untimely death in 2006.  Telos Publishing, who from 2001-2004 published Doctor Who novellas, would eventually publish this proposed novel, completed by Doctor Who fan Chris McKeon for charity publication in 2008.  McKeon would go on to found Black Glove Studios which would produce fan Doctor Who audios and Time’s Champion quickly went out of print.  It was virtually unreadable for a number of years as the second hand market put the book up for exorbitant prices, until 2020 when Telos Publishing commissioned a special limited reprint, once again donating proceeds going to the British Heart Foundation (as Hinton died of heart problems).  It is this 2020 edition which I was able to acquire, though sadly that too has gone out of print.


Time’s Champion is a beast of a novel.  Hinton provided an outline and the first chapter before his untimely death and even that was enough to give McKeon space to fill a full length novel.  The book starts simply: Sergeant Benton is having a birthday party inviting the UNIT family as well as characters from Hinton’s The Quantum Archangel, a novel which I haven’t read, Paul and Arlene Kairos.  Arlene as a character is perhaps too flat, but Paul is incredibly interesting as the host for the Chronovore, Kronos, from The Time Monster.  Arlene serves the purpose of plot device, sending the party guests and Mel 100 years in the past to the manor of Madame Clacice Beauvier.  Beauvier becomes a secondary and then tertiary antagonist as the many layers of this book bring in the Valeyard (as expected) and eventually the six Eternals who are set up as the gods of Gallifrey.  Beauvier does eventually get an explanation which constitutes one of the books very best twists and allows Death’s plans to go forward, but there are long stretches of the book where she disappears for a while.  Her reveal ties heavily into Millennial Rites.  Outside of this there is an author, George McKenzie-Trench who is trying to complete the manuscript to Time’s Champion, a novel which will be his magnum opus.  This character does not seem to be an author insert for either Hinton or McKeon, especially as there are several versions of the character who pop up throughout this rather complex book.


The first third or so of the novel is incredibly slow, only really picking up pace once the Valeyard enters the picture.  This is after the Doctor goes to Gallifrey, meaning that Romana, K9, and Vansell all appear as major forces in the novel.  The computer virus Abbadon is unleashed and the Keeper of the Matrix simply needs the Doctor’s help.  Once the Valeyard appears Hinton and McKeon clearly are having a ball writing the interactions with the Sixth Doctor.  The entirely complex plot is all a foil just so Death can make, in this order, the Valeyard, Mel, and the Doctor her champion, which is what eventually leads to the regeneration.  The regeneration scene itself is an incredibly emotional one, lasting most of the last chapter from the Doctor’s perspective.  The Doctor reflects on each of his past regenerations, meets his final incarnation, and eventually finds a way to trick Death, giving himself to Time, and allowing the Seventh Doctor to take over with the Valeyard defeated, but not dead.  It becomes an incredibly poignant sequence and this entire novel could be considered canonical as McKeon includes Spiral Scratch (and retroactively The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure) into the possibility.  The Valeyard is then sent off to Matrix (and most likely his other Big Finish appearances)  Overall, Time’s Champion is a book which needs a run that lasts longer than two months.  There are definitely two hands at work here as the second chapter onward has a similar but distinct style to what came before, though it is mired in the Doctor Who universe to almost a backbreaking degree that it is slightly held back, especially as some of the characters come across as paper thin while others are complex.  8/10.

Friday, January 22, 2021

The Heroes of Olympus: The House of Hades by: Rick Riordan


Ancient Greek culture had several different words to describe the concept of love, most popularly explored in modern culture by C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves, which took those concepts and connected them to Christianity.  I bring this Christianity connection up as a means to illustrate how the concept has lasted into modern society as the fourth installment in The Heroes of Olympus is an examination of the many different forms of “love” from the Ancient Greek ideals to more modern ideas of love.  The House of Hades is a book which has a herculean task ahead of it, it follows up The Mark of Athena which left the Seven broken, Nico was saved but war was encroaching on Camp Half-Blood and Percy and Annabeth were dropped into the depths of Tartarus.  The ending could only be described as throwing our characters to the ground and setting them on fire, and The House of Hades has the Seven in their two separate settings try to get to the Doors of Death to close them.  Both groups have to undergo harrowing trials that threaten to destroy the love that they have for one another in almost every way imaginable.  There are several revelations about characters and this book is essentially guided by the different relationships formed.


Starting with the most applicable love to the whole group is storge, the love of one’s family.  The Mark of Athena built up the Seven as this found family and that love of working together to save the world is the primary motivator for getting each and every character together at the end.  The idea of a war destroying both camps is there throughout the novel, two families that need to join together being pushed to the brink.  Camp Jupiter and Camp Half-Blood are essentially their own families and there are cameos from characters from Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Son of Neptune to emphasize that point.  This is the type of love that is perhaps most apparent in the general way that each of the Seven interact with each other, especially the party on Argo II as Percy and Annabeth are separated from everyone else throughout the book.  Interestingly philia, the undying friendship, while able to be applied to any friendship, oddly makes itself most known in how Riordan stops the love triangle between Frank, Hazel, and Leo.  While The Mark of Athena had Hazel make her choice, Riordan doesn’t forget that Frank Zheng is kind of an idiot, and is still jealous of Leo.  Much of the first half of the book involves Frank coming into his own as a son of Mars again (gaining some magical power ups and I guess good looks in the mix) and Hazel gets over her own reservations of being best friends with her crush’s great-grandson.  They end up forming their own little trio in this one where they end up learning to trust one another and basically solve everything together as a group, separating themselves apart from being a sidekick.


Leo also turns out to represent ludus, the flirtatious love, along with Piper and Jason.  Piper and Jason’s relationship is obviously the most flirtatious and doesn’t actually advance more from the previous books and it doesn’t need to (Piper spends most of this book as the clever one figuring out how to stall the war back home and charmspeak when necessary, but this isn’t really a problem as she’s had plenty of development in The Lost Hero and The Mark of Athena).  Leo has a small section in the middle of the book where he is on his own on Calypso’s island.  The Battle of the Labyrinth had Percy promising Calypso that he would get the gods to free her which he did in The Last Olympian, but they seem to have forgotten that.  Calypso and Leo’s romance is essentially an enemies to lovers, except instead of enemies Leo kind of crash lands and breaks some of her stuff while Calypso is incredibly annoyed by not being freed and having another hero on her island.  This actually traps Leo there for a decent amount of the book allowing Riordan to create this great flirtatious relationship between the two characters with Leo making the same promise to Calypso as Percy once he eventually does leave.  This is also clearly not a book where the started story arcs are finished by any means.


The plot of The House of Hades has a lot of side quests for both parties including a return from the Boreads, two more wind gods appearing, and a final battle which kind of outdoes the Battle of Manhattan in creativity.  Hazel gets a chance to be apprentice to Hecate and develop magic as her own skills and Hecate is just really fun in that final battle.  The most important for this review’s/essay’s purpose is the side quest with Jason and Nico to find Diocletian’s scepter where two forms of love are represented which means here there be spoilers.  They are guided by Zephros/Zephyr the west wind to Cupid who’s the Roman form of Eros.  Eros isn’t actually represented as a concept here (that’s for our final couple), but Cupid does have musings on love in general.  Love isn’t always happy, often it hurts and it hurts hard, but is something that nobody can really avoid.  And Nico’s journey is to understand philautia, self-love.  Now philautia as a concept often can develop into narcissism, but that isn’t the fate of Nico.  Nico di Angelo is gay.  He had a crush on Percy since The Titan’s Curse and Cupid forces him to admit it to himself and Jason who happens to be present at the time.  With that revelation, every action of Nico since The Battle of the Labyrinth is recontextualized and honestly makes a lot more sense, especially the stuff he’s done post-The Last Olympian (before that could easily be handwaved (mostly) as him dealing with the death of his sister).  Nico doesn’t actually achieve philautia in The House of Hades, he just has to admit what he is and admit it to someone.  Cupid essentially forces him out of the closet to Jason, but Riordan doesn’t portray Cupid as good for doing that.  Cupid is a god and as eros is passion itself it is an act of passion.  There’s also the very deep love and death connections which can be made in many ways.  Jason, in turn, become a representation of pragma, the love of one’s companion, committed to keeping Nico’s sexuality a secret until Nico is ready.  Jason Grace is a character who as the son of Jupiter, is the archetypal hero.  This is something that I don’t think Percy would ever actually do and if Percy was present he would probably react poorly.


The only love that really is missing from The House of Hades is agape which is empathy and universal love.  The only character who kind of fits this one is Reyna, who appears at the end and puts that love towards her fellow demigods: she’s the one who is able to delay the camps and stop the war at the end, she takes the Athena Parthenos back to Camp Half-Blood and is essentially fated to unite the camps in the next book.  Though that’s not necessarily the best example for agape, so if readers don’t see it and rather have it not included that works just as well.


Half of this book is the eros of Percy and Annabeth’s trek through Tartarus.  Tartarus as a pit is essentially Rick Riordan’s tribute to all kinds of horror.  The trek that makes up their chapters takes every range of horror, from Annabeth being blinded, to being constantly hurt by monsters, to Percy being cursed by every black deed he has done.  This is the one where Percy and Annabeth’s own mistakes come back to haunt them: they have to descend into hell and face their own demons with their eros being only what saves them in the end.  Percy at one point sinks so low as to nearly kill an immortal goddess who tries to hurt him and Annabeth responds by being scared that he is now going to kill her.  Their passions are inflamed and once they actually get out at the end of the book it’s their love that has only deepened as they can only collapse from the strain.  Bob the Titan becomes a representation of all the bad the two have done and their own journey of atonement.


Overall, The House of Hades is hands down the best entry in The Heroes of Olympus.  It acts as a beautiful reflection to The Son of Neptune’s thematic death throughline with its reflections on the nature of love bringing people together and eventually saving the day.  It allows love, like death, to be messy and present on every page.  10/10.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen by: Douglas Adams and James Goss


Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen started life as a proposed Doctor Who film from Douglas Adams early in Tom Baker’s run as the Doctor.  When plans fell through it’s main ideas were rewritten into Life, the Universe, and Everything, the third book in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so it was very odd when in 2018 the BBC announced James Goss would be adapting it into a Doctor Who novel.  This may seem like an incredibly odd decision as the story has already been told, until you actually pick up and read the book.  Douglas Adam’s proposal for Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen isn’t a standard short story proposal, it lasts about 30 pages and is included in the back of the published book, unedited.  The basic premise is the same as Life, the Universe, and Everything, but a lot of the ideas didn’t make it into that later book so Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen ends up being a unique reading experience.  James Goss should be praised as he clearly understands Douglas Adams’ specific style of writing, though there is a slight lacking of the depth that Adams usually puts in his scripts.  This is more of a Douglas Adams sendup than something that Adams would always right, though Goss does put in some of his own satire on Doctor Who and the Graham Williams era which makes sense.  Changing a 30 page storyline into a full-length novel means that things must be added, however, some of the deeper Doctor Who references like to the Racnoss, the Vampires, and the Kastrians feel a bit too much like adding references for the sake of references.


The first third of the novel is where most of the comparisons to Life, the Universe, and Everything can be made: the Doctor and Romana go to a cricket match which is invaded by the Krikkitmen who steal the Ashes to destroy the universe and a diverting exposition dump to explain who the Krikkitmen are.  Instead of taking place in a time travelling restaurant run by bistronomics, it’s moved to Gallifrey in the Matrix, something that was in the original script.  The history of the Krikkitmen is a chapter which takes paragraphs straight from Life, the Universe, and Everything including many of the famous lines about the universe groaning and the motivation of the Krikkitmen.  It’s just put in a Doctor Who framework, though it is undeniably written by Douglas Adams.  Goss’s inclusion of Borusa, giving him a relationship with Romana as her tutor which Goss uses to reflect on the relationship between the Doctor and Romana.


The Doctor and Romana are essentially played here as two sides of the same coin: both sick of Gallifrey and going on to have their own lives, saving the universe one planet at a time.  Romana, while regenerated, is still the calculating and rational one, knowing that she’s going to have to save the universe but not putting up with having to give explanations for why she needs help.  There’s this great portion late into the novel where the Doctor and Romana are apart which is really where each of them shine.  Romana has to try to get some people on Earth to try and save the universe where she has this incredibly direct response to any of the questions.  It makes her one of the most interesting characters, coming straight from the era and Goss uses the opportunity to reflect on how Romana will eventually leave the TARDIS in E-Space before returning to Gallifrey.  There’s a remark where she insists she would never make it as the President of Gallifrey which becomes one of the best gags in the book.  The Doctor is also incredibly well characterized as the over the top Tom Baker performance that fits so well with Douglas Adams’s style of storytelling.


There is also an effort to make this feel like a script for a Doctor Who film, taking full advantage of the Doctor Who premise, sending the Doctor, Romana, and K9 all around the universe, fighting a mad computer which makes the Ultimate Weapon, a Krikkitman robot who has broken its programming, and even the White and Black Guardians.  This turns the story into one dealing with the “gods” of the universe, not gods in the religious sense, but in the sense of having power and reputation throughout the universe.  This involves proposing three gods of the universe including the Doctor, which becomes musings and a complete rejection of the concept.  The Doctor isn’t a god, he’s just having fun.  The variety of setting and scenarios are really what make Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen shine.  Overall, Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen shouldn’t work, but ends up being both a tribute act and genuine Douglas Adams story.  James Goss should be praised for his work on creating a fascinating little tale which finally got the chance to see the light of day.  9/10.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Dresden Files: Summer Knight by: Jim Butcher


Summer Knight is, I truly hope, the turning point for The Dresden Files.   I say this because there is often a curse in media where installments in a series will alternate from top tier quality to terrible within a minute.  The Dresden Files seems to be avoiding that trend by putting out two good installments in a row.  Summer Knight helps me believe that Fool Moon’s lapse in quality was a fluke as it is at it’s heart a fun piece of pulp fiction that does some things amazingly well and some other things not nearly as well.  Jim Butcher has not yet surpassed the quality of Storm Front, and Summer Knight is a step down from Grave Peril (which came very close to doing just that), but there is enough here to enjoy in the actual story.  The biggest problems in this plot involve how Butcher gets the plot started and moves things along until about the halfway point of the book.  The biggest offender of this is the introduction of the character of Elaine.  Elaine is a character who was mentioned once in Fool Moon while Harry was speaking with his subconscious as being still alive, but given a full backstory in Summer Knight just before she appears as a major player in the book.  This is handled very clumsily as the immediate cut in the same chapter to Elaine turning up in Harry’s office is really poorly done.  There is no actual time to reflect on Harry’s past and current mindset where Elaine is dead which means that once she does appear the reader isn’t on Harry’s level.  Harry has the emotional investment, but the reader doesn’t which makes him incredibly difficult.


There is also a return of the character of Billy from Fool Moon, one of the Alphas, who eventually becomes an interesting character as the book goes on, his introduction feels like he’s a completely different character than the one in Fool Moon.  He was a real nerd in Fool Moon and that’s still kind of there but Butcher makes him kind of more athletic and more of a cool dude which I kind of get what Butcher was going for, but it falls a bit flat when you don’t really remember who he was.  His involvement in the final battle and some of the middle of the book is great, and the way he gets Harry out of his depression about Susan is great.  Susan’s absence is felt, it’s a matter of telling instead of showing the pain a character is going through, though I do hope she will appear in future books as the Red Court vs White Council plot does provide a background conflict and source of tension which works well.  The actual plot is a murder mystery between the two main courts of Faerie (Winter and Summer), with Harry’s debt to his fairie godmother being given to the Winter Queen who will cancel it after three favors, this being the first.  Butcher draws on Celtic mythology and the idea of maiden, mother, and crone for each court with the knight’s being essentially their emissary out of the Nevernever and into the regular world.  The conflict is really well setup and Queen Mab (the Winter Queen) is the most interesting in particular with the two Mothers coming in second, but the eventual resolution and reveal to the murder mystery feels a bit like an anticlimax until the battle actually starts.  There is also another tension built upon with the White Council holding Harry on trial for the events of Grave Peril which is great, giving the reader a real look into what the Council are.  Morgan, the Warden assigned to Harry, actually gets better development here as a representation of those who find Harry a danger and are willing to give him over to Bianca.  He has a foil in the Gatekeeper who is perhaps a bit too mysterious, but is also an interesting character.


Overall, Summer Knight is a decent enough time, however, this is a book which is just a bit too messy in places to become an amazing one.  Things are looking up, but it is something which the next books need to overcome.  6/10.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Tomb of Valdemar by: Simon Messingham


There is an interesting gimmick in Tomb of Valdemar, something that makes it stand out from a lot of the other Doctor Who books.  There is a frame story from a character telling this story to a village of people after the fact.  Having a frame story is nothing new for books or even Doctor Who books, but this frame story from Simon Messingham puts Tomb of Valdemar in the present tense instead of the traditional past tense prose of practically every other book.  This gives the book a very odd tone.  It does feel like you’re sitting around a fire, being told a tale which is sort of what Messingham is going for, but it is also interrupted by the frame story, especially early on and this breaks up the pace of being told a story.  These breaks especially become an issue when they do not occur at a chapter break which Messingham could have used as a natural break in the narrative, instead often occurring right in the middle of a page meaning it comes across as choppy and not easy to read instead of a natural interruption which is what Messingham is clearly going for.  This is a shame because there is a mystery in what the frame story means, the narrator’s identity is revealed at the very end of the book in a very clever review and the whole idea of the story is called into question.  From the first page this is a book where you question if the story is really what happened to the Doctor and Romana after The Ribos Operation, and the final reveal makes you wonder about a lot of things, tying back into Season 16 and into the current arc in the Eighth Doctor Adventures range.


The entire premise involves this entity of the Old Ones, Lovecraftian beings which were in the universe before and are essentially forces of nature, Valdemar.  Valdemar was entombed, or so the legends say, and like The Tomb of the Cybermen a team is coming to unearth this tomb to prove the existence of a legend.  The Doctor, Romana, and K9 are dragged off their search for the Key to Time by the TARDIS malfunctioning and the Tracer being damaged.  Romana knows Valdemar is a myth, an impossibility.  This is a story all about a fictional story becoming real and adding that extra lens of the frame story allows Messingham to add some depth to the proceedings.  Valdemar is not ever actually seen as a character, but its shadow is felt throughout the book as the party gets ever closer to its release.  Tomb of Valdemar becomes a story that has a cosmic entity right off-page looming while human villains play their own machinations: insanity sets in at several points and this is the adventure that almost gets Romana killed.  Messingham is very clever in creating a cast that are all stereotypes from the strong female leader to the insane, power hungry villain, and the poor lackey who gets broken at the first opportunity.


K9 is basically a nonentity in this story, being written off pretty early on as Messingham clearly knows that including him would cause problems.  The Doctor is captured fairly well for the season that this is supposed to be placed in, but part of that is mired by the fact that the Season 16 Doctor has kind of become a generic Doctor.  There are definitely scenes where you can hear Tom Baker in the book, especially in the beginning and the end of the book, but really this is Romana’s book.  That’s actually an interesting thing for this one as Tomb of Valdemar is a book which was reprinted in a limited edition Fourth Doctor Time Capsule along with a beautiful statuette, Genesis of the Daleks, Terror of the Zygons, and several other goodies for fans.  This is Romana’s book: she’s the one who gets to reflect on her current situation of helping to find the Key to Time.  This is the book where she decides to stay with the Doctor throughout the quest, even though that’s a diversion.  Mary Tamm’s portrayal shines through Messingham’s prose, and there is a real sense of bridging the first two Key to Time stories and the final revelation about how this story changes Romana is beautiful.


Overall, Tomb of Valdemar may not be the best representation of the Fourth Doctor and Romana era of the show, it does tell an interesting story through an unreliable narrator.  A very different approach to metatext occurs than say The Well-Mannered War, but there is a lot here to like which makes it worth the read.  7/10.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Heroes of Olympus: The Mark of Athena by: Rick Riordan

The Lost Hero and The Son of Neptune setup The Heroes of Olympus as a series where two opposing groups with two opposing ideals have to work together and hopefully avoid disastrous consequences.  The Mark of Athena is the third book in the series, and the midpoint for Rick Riordan’s mythological work thus far, and that is a dangerous position to be in for a series as the middle is where everything needs to keep moving.  Middle book syndrome is often ascribed to the second book in a trilogy which doesn’t have a real beginning or an ending so the author does not leave the reader feeling satisfied and Riordan easily could have succumbed to this point.  Like the previous books there is a theme here: trust.  Trust is what underpins this book which is appropriate as it is the first time the Greeks and Romans truly meet and where the seven half-bloods actually have to work together for a quest.  Instead of his usual time jump in between books, The Mark of Athena starts right where The Son of Neptune leaves off with the Argo II arriving at Camp Jupiter and the meeting between the two parties.  This lulls the reader into a false sense of security where Riordan pulls out his best character work yet.  First, the reunion between Percy and Annabeth is amazing, ending with Percy being flipped over Annabeth’s shoulder.  Second, it’s the calm before the trust is broken completely and everything shatters: Leo Valdez decides to shoot the Romans down forcing Jason, Percy, Piper, Annabeth, Hazel, and Frank to flee across the country to find a captured Nico di Angelo in Rome before hopefully moving on to Greece.


The seeds of trust are seeded early on between the conversations with Annabeth and Reyna.  Reyna was characterized as the warrior with no political competence, however, The Mark of Athena shows that that was more in Reyna’s head than anything else.  Reyna immediately likes Annabeth and takes her advice (before everything falls apart).  Reyna is the one to offer Annabeth one final chance to turn themselves in, and it is Reyna who is willing to trust the Seven.  Reyna represents the faithful trust of someone already seemingly betrayed in the book: only appearing a handful of times, and not at all once the plot moves to the open sea and then Rome.  Like Reyna, Nico is a character who barely appears yet represents trust: trust in his friends.  Nico is captured by the twin giants Otis and Ephialtes and placed in a jar where he has to trust that he will be rescued.  He leaves himself completely vulnerable, putting himself into a trance that when his time runs out he is dead, no coming back.  The reader only sees a little of how this damages him, but ultimately improves him.  He is rescued in the end and making it out alive is one final note of hope and reconciliation with the way Riordan ends the book.  Once again, I’m avoiding spoilers here, but it is an ending that elevates the rest of the book up in the best way.  I’m not talking about a copout ending with one good scene, I’m talking a climax where everything was building right to this gut punch of a moment.


Frank and Hazel have the most closely connected arc in this book, interestingly because their arc is told from the perspective of others.  They do not have point of view chapters in this novel, they are the Romans, they are the outsiders.  They are the ones who still have to prove their trust to the Greeks, except Percy.  Frank does that in Atlanta by essentially saving Percy’s life (and later Annabeth in a very clever way) while Hazel’s devotion to Nico is enough to win them over.  They both have things to give to the group as a whole, suggesting things that end things over.  They also have to trust themselves more than ever.  Frank feels like the outsider: intimidated by Leo and really just a big softie at heart, oblivious to the fact that he’s the one intimidating Leo in the first place.  He finds himself confounded by Chinese handcuffs and genuinely threatened by Leo and not really able to hold a candle.  Hazel on the other hand finds herself drawn to Leo in what could have easily become a repeat of the Percy/Annabeth/Rachel love triangle that plagued The Last Olympian, but this relationship isn’t a triangle, so much as Hazel trusting that Leo isn’t actually her long lost Sammy Valdez.  She also has to trust in her own abilities to protect Frank as throughout the book she has his firewood.  It is only mentioned once or twice outright, but there are subtle hints that it is weighing her down.


Meanwhile Leo also has to learn to trust in himself, but it’s a journey the reader gets to know intimately.  Leo calls himself the seventh wheel of the group, which works because he is the only one who isn’t paired up with someone else.  He doesn’t know what his place is in the group as an ‘outsider’ which he really isn’t one.  He has to trust himself to become vulnerable around others, putting behind him his overtly cocky persona, and like all human beings, he isn’t perfect at doing that.  He loses control of himself when possessed by a spirit sent by Gaea which possess other members of the Seven, and that nearly breaks him.  He gets an audience with Nemesis, Greek goddess of revenge, and she gives him a deal that comes with a price, that hasn’t yet been paid at the end of the book.  Leo may just be the best written of the Seven and the most human: he does amazing things but barely believes that he deserves to and interestingly has the second most points of view chapters.  There’s an interesting reflection with how he deals with Narcissus and eventually gets out of an obvious trap at the novel’s climax by using his sharp wits.  Piper and Jason are also paired and have to learn to continue to trust each other.  Piper has these fears that Jason will abandon her due to the fact that Camp Jupiter is his home.  Jason doesn’t get any point of view chapters in this book as he is Roman and while trusted, could have betrayed them.  Jason is the one who has to be the moral support for everything going on and they both have chances to shine in the book when they get a side quest assigned by Hercules at the Straight of Gibraltar.  Everyone else has to put their trust in the two to finish this little side quest and come back.  Piper also has to trust herself into charmspeaking her way into Camp Jupiter and saving everyone’s life in the end of the book.


Percy has to trust in his abilities, as he’s really suffering from trauma after nearly drowning in The Son of Neptune.  Yes, this was almost lampshaded in the previous book, but it did happen and Percy survived broken.  He begins having recurring nightmares that he won’t be able to control water and this book actually builds to a scenario where he cannot control the water, instead trusting himself, Piper, and Jason to get out of the scenario alive.  Though his book was the previous book while The Mark of Athena is really Annabeth’s book.  This is the first book where we got anything from Annabeth’s point of view and that becomes one of the absolute best decisions made.  We’ve only seen her from the perspective from others and finally getting into her head we can see her insecurities.  Readers already knew of her family troubles, but The Mark of Athena is where she feels most abandoned by her mother.  She has planned and planned for the reunion with Percy and then to go to Greece and defeat Gaea.  This entire book could be summarized of that plan going horribly wrong as another quest gets in the way and war is brewing from the Romans.  This book ends without that resolved and the quest in a way is a failure as Annabeth puts her trust in Percy to save them in the only way that she knows how.  There’s a moment where she could easily be dead as her ankle breaks, she’s being crushed, and Arachne wants her dead and is going to get it.  She’s not a damsel like in The Titan’s Curse, but actively saving herself to the best of her ability.  The final scene with her is a gut punch.


Overall, The Mark of Athena is the best installment of The Heroes of Olympus yet, with twists and turns, and another theme to add to this series’ running list.  It climaxes the series with the villain finding herself close to winning and the characters scattered.  This is the breaking of the fellowship moment of the series which makes the reader just want to continue on.  10/10.

The Dresden Files: Grave Peril by: Jim Butcher


Just as I finish a book that doesn’t at all feel like it’s a proper sequel for a series, I start one that then hits all the right beats to be a sequel.  Grave Peril is the third novel in The Dresden Files and actually feels like the follow up to Storm Front that Fool Moon desperately wanted to be.  The book opens with Dresden investigating a ghost in Cook County Hospital with Michael Carpenter, a holy “Knight of the Cross” who wields a magic sword and essentially represents faith in the series.  Michael is a fascinating character as his faith in specifically the Christian God and the Catholic Church is a foil to the largely agnostic Harry Dresden.  Butcher tries to philosophize on the nature of religion and it’s possibility, however, it doesn’t quite work when he has created a world where religious myths do in fact exist.  Where Michael succeeds is showing the audience that it is possible to do what Harry does in fighting evil and the supernatural while having a family and Michael is an interesting character, however, his wife Charity feels like a point of putting a woman in the fridge and once she’s saved she doesn’t do much.  Charity is actually a strong character in her few early scenes in the novel, but she just sort of disappears once she is rescued to take care of her children and give birth to a son.  It’s such a shame because she is a really fun character when she’s in the book, outshining her husband in many scenes and should be the action hero.


Grave Peril also starts differently from the previous two installments in The Dresden Files, starting in media res instead of the formulaic opening in Harry’s office, it goes right for the action at the hospital for two chapters before flashing back.  While this makes it different from the other two books, flashing back in chapter three doesn’t actually give us a lot of context as to why Harry and Michael are at this hospital.  It does introduce a character who becomes important for the proceedings and an update on the relationship between Harry and Susan Rodriguez, however, that is also explained in dialogue which begins the theme of the power (both magical and nonmagical) of words.  Harry has this reluctance to say ‘I love you’ to Susan because he doesn’t want to make it official, although it is written as if they are already planning to be married.  Of course this is used for dramatic irony as Susan is taken away and undergoes a terrible fate at the climax of the novel.  A climax at which the power of love comes up and is a very interesting idea, though it does make bits of the climax fall apart in the end.  There are hooks left right at the end for future books, improving on Fool Moon’s issues of wrapping everything up so conclusively with plenty of teases to get readers interested in the next installment.  I believe this is because Fool Moon and Grave Peril were both published in 2001, within nine months of one another, while the fourth book, Summer Knight, would only be published a full year later.


The novel is one of two halves: the first half dealing with ghosts and the second half dealing with Bianca and the Red Court Vampires from Storm Front.  The ghost plot is fun, though not necessarily the most interesting story here.  It gives readers a deeper understanding of the world Butcher has created in the Nevernever and introduces us to Harry’s fairy godmother, Lea, who owns his soul.  Lea’s annoyance on Harry not following a bargain and the nature of the fae being very Celtic mythology inspired: literal, taking things very much in what the words mean.  Lea makes a great tertiary antagonist, not evil, but definitely chaotic and putting her own goals before anything else.  Lea’s story ends with Harry getting more time which is a bit of a copout, but her inclusion in the vampire plot.  There’s also the Nightmare as the villain which is eventually explained really well and the final confrontation is great, but overshadowed by the Vampire Court intrigue.  The vampire plot is Bianca being incredibly crafty to get her revenge for Harry’s attacks on her in Storm Front where we get a genuinely interesting lore dump on the three Vampire Courts and what makes them different from one another and a sympathetic-ish vampire character in Thomas and his “friend” Justine.  It is this point where the action kicks into high gear and makes Grave Peril worth it.


Overall, Grave Peril returns The Dresden Files to where it was with Storm Front though it is still a bit of a mess.  It is at this point where the series seems to have a goal in mind, if that goal will take a long time to come to fruition, but redeems the issues with Fool Moon.  7/10.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

The Shadows of Avalon by: Paul Cornell


While Lawrence Miles seemed to be the author to bring in when the Eighth Doctor Adventures wanted to usher in an era of changes with Alien Bodies and Interference being the big game changer novels, though with his leaving of Doctor Who (for the first time), the task came to Paul Cornell with The Shadows of Avalon.  The Shadows of Avalon boldy proclaims on its back cover that this is the end of an era and the beginning of another, though unlike other ‘event’ books, this one waits until the very end to bring the changes right into the resolution of the novel.  That revelation involving the ultimate destiny of Compassion, changing her from an agent of the Remote into something far more powerful, yet surprisingly more human in the end.  While I will not spoil that particular change for those who haven’t read the book, I will say that the final scenes with her are absolutely brilliant.  In the background of the novel is a rather important subplot involving a couple of Time Lord assassins sent to kill the Doctor and Compassion on the orders of Time Lord President Romanavoratrelundar.  Romana has regenerated and this third incarnation is ready to fight the War in Heaven, becoming more of an ice queen than Mary Tamm’s Romana ever was.  Attributing her bloodlust to becoming the President, this Romana feels like a sane version of Drusilla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  She only appears in the bookends of the novel, but when she does appear she steals the scene.  Making Romana a villain also goes a long way to show how companions can change once they leave the Doctor.


Companions changing is a major theme in the novel as Paul Cornell picks up with the Brigadier post rejuvenation in Happy Endings, exploring just what it means to have an artificially extended life.  Doris Lethbridge-Stewart is dead, and Alistair cannot cope.  He’s begun to see visions of her whenever he is alone, and they are slowly finding their way into every point of his life.  In the hands of a lesser author this would be the result of some alien interference, however, Cornell plays it as simply a symptom of the character’s grief and aging mind.  The grief is used to make the Brigadier throw himself back into working for UNIT as a nuclear bomb disappears into the mists of Avalon, a realm ruled by the fae and the Queen Regent, Mab.  Cornell draws on Celtic mythology for the main plot, wrapping science fiction concepts into the fantasy as the entire realm is powered by the psychic energy of a sleeping king.  The book undergoes several genre transformations, all showing the Brigadier’s journey of grief.  This book starts out as an Arthurian legend (though one distinct from the Avalon mentioned in Battlefield and Happy Endings) with political intrigue in the court of Mab as the Doctor and the Brigadier become trapped in Avalon with a dead TARDIS, before turning into a war story as UNIT intervenes to keep the peace, but of course this fails quite quickly, and finally a political thriller as the Doctor has to escape the Time Lord assassins.  The Brigadier and the Doctor have some of their best interactions, being most at odds with one another in this book as the Brigadier makes several damaging, yet very human, mistakes.  They don’t even see each other at the end of the book with the Brigadier staying behind in Avalon while the Doctor just leaves him.  This is a conscious decision made to keep these characters apart.


The Doctor, Fitz, and Compassion here feel for the first real time to be working as a team.  The Doctor, in stark contrast to his previous incarnation, has a plan to stop something horrible happening to his friends and failing at almost every moment.  The time he spends at Court is absolutely brilliant as he fits in with the fantasy setting and his flighty nature makes everything worth it.  Cornell even slips in a Lungbarrow reference with the looms being name checked as a definite origin as well as being womb born.  Fitz is also excellent here as the human who nobody seems to care about.  The Shadows of Avalon deals with big players as the War in Heaven looms and Faction Paradox is implied to be in the background while Fitz is really just trying to survive in a world that is much bigger than himself.  He feels like Fitz again and maybe, just maybe he’ll find his way back.  Compassion is really the standout here as she finally breaks down.  Gone is the ice queen and in her place is someone who is witty and sarcastic and friendly.  Compassion has to give in to what has been happening in her head, something that takes her beyond her origins into something that cannot be changed back.  This becomes the book where she is the one involved.


Overall, The Shadows of Avalon is a Paul Cornell book, meaning that it packs an emotional punch and elevates the characters into a story.  It takes a lesser loved VNA’s premise (in this case Cat’s Cradle: Witch Mark) and makes it work with the Eighth Doctor, developing the companions and setting things up to the future while still telling a complete story.  An emotional roller coaster from start to finish it hits all the right boxes. 10/10.