Sunday, February 28, 2021

Decalog 2: Lost Property edited by: Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker


The framing device for the first Decalog was one of the most middle of the road things for a Doctor Who book, and honestly not necessary for selling readers on a short story collection featuring the Doctor in all seven incarnations.  Especially since it would be the only new original fiction for the first six Doctors since Virgin began publishing Doctor Who books, the Virgin Missing Adventures range only coming three months later.  It is then surprising in hindsight to see an author’s note in Decalog 2: Lost Property where editors Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker come across as surprised that the first one did well and that they would only do a single sequel.  Of course, this installment would be the second of five, with only the fifth having no substantial connection to the Doctor Who universe bar one story with Bernice Summerfield.  Decalog 2: Lost Property does away with the framing device, instead Stammers and Walker commission authors with stories based around the theme of property in the universe that the Doctor has owned.  That means that each of the ten stories have incredibly varied settings and can follow infinite possibilities, only having to include some sort of property, meaning that this is more experimental a volume than the previous Decalog.


Decalog 2: Lost Property opens with “Vortex of Fear” and the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe being trapped in a hotel in the Time Vortex.  The story opens with this genius sequence where an insane man called Brachinnen is convinced that the Doctor is coming to rescue him with a spare key.  Gareth Roberts sets out with an atmosphere of an unreliable narrator, at least until the Doctor actually appears, as Brachinnen’s insanity is justified.  It makes “Vortex of Fear” not be as interesting as perhaps Roberts intended, focusing the perspective onto the Doctor and his companions, Zoe especially getting a large part of the development here seeing the universe for the first time.  Roberts clearly has an affinity for the 1960s era of the show and he characterizes the regulars excellently, delving into what makes Zoe tick and why she really is travelling with the Doctor, close to the end of the line as this is set after The Seeds of Death.  The setting is really what outshines everything else here: a hotel suspended in the Time Vortex where an Agency sends people for a way to deal with their tax schemes.  It’s a very over the top story, as to expect from Roberts, but it doesn’t quite set the tone for Decalog 2: Lost Property instead being a perfectly enjoyable short story, though I understand if it might be skipped due to who this story is authored by.  7/10.


The second story of Decalog 2: Lost Property reminds me quite a bit of Red Dawn by Justin Richards.  “Crimson Dawn” is a story where the Fourth Doctor and Leela are spending some time on a houseboat the Doctor owns on the planet Mars after human colonization.  The Ice Warriors have long abandoned their planet and the Ares Corporation has come swooping in to terraform the planet and essentially make it an over the top fa├žade of the actual Martian culture.  Tim Robins attempts to do a story about cultural appropriation and what happens when it is done by colonizers, however, unlike his brilliant story in Decalog, “Crimson Dawn” doesn’t actually know what it wants to be and tries to do too much in the short story format.  This is a story where the Ares Corporation itself is the villain, taking Martian culture and blending it with several science fiction references from Earth’s twentieth century.  There is also elements of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds in here that don’t actually quite mix very well.  Robins feels like he is commenting on trends like odd spellings of names and the overabundance of choice, however, there isn’t really anything here that those statements add up to.  The Fourth Doctor and Leela are excellent here, however.  The Fourth Doctor is indignant throughout at what Mars has become outside of his houseboat and Robins understands what placing a hunter like Leela into a situation like this would entail.  Leela trying to order food at a restaurant is also hilarious in its own right and her interactions with Dr. Ginger Corvette (an example of the let’s make people’s names references and not actually spelled that way of course) are worth it.  5/10.


Andy Lane’s contribution, “Where the Heart Is”, is a standout story here dealing with some of the most complex themes that short stories can actually uncover.  The lost property here is UNIT during the Third Doctor’s exile, an obvious choice to represent that era in this volume.  UNIT’s headquarters are at risk of becoming literal lost property as after The Time Monster the powers that be have decided that UNIT isn’t really necessary.  The Brigadier’s plotline in this story is literally trying to make arrangements while the Doctor does not make any of these things possible through his attitude of superiority.  Lane writes Lethbridge-Stewart with this real sense of desperation, trying to keep the organization he helped establish from being torn out from under him.  This is a character who has built up his colleagues as his own new family, and the thought of losing them scares the Brigadier to no end.  Sure the Brigadier would still technically have Doris to go back to, and indeed Doris does cross his mind throughout, but it would be tearing away most of the family he has built throughout the years at UNIT.  He also has the issue of trying to convince his superiors that destruction may not always be the answer: “Where the Heart Is” has an alien threat where simply destroying the story’s “villain” would plunge the Earth back in development in ways that Geneva simply cannot see.  Meanwhile the Doctor and Jo are investigating several mysterious deaths and find an alien surgeon has been killing them, all luring them to his clinic because they are rich, have no family, and are dying from terminal illnesses anyway.  Lane doesn’t include the Master which is a stroke of genius, having Dr. Dantalion be a different alien whose culture is one where her actions are completely justified.  The moral dilemma, of course, comes from the fact that Dantalion’s people would gladly give themselves up in their twilight years for the name of science.  Jo is quite disgusted, while the Doctor is conflicted.  The Doctor and Jo here are characterized incredibly well with Andy Lane allowing Jo to swoop in to save the day at one point and the pair are clearly working as a team making “Where the Heart Is” a story that readers will not forget for it’s brilliant prose and questions about life.  10/10.


“The Trials of Tara”, or to call it by its full name The Trials of Tara or Would That It Were: The Comedie of Count Grendel, The Master of Gracht With The Life and Death of his New Executioner, is by far the funniest and possibly the best story in this Decalog.  Paul Cornell writes the story as a four act Shakesperean farce where the Doctor and Benny return to the planet Tara to find that Prince Reynart is gone, Strella needs to remarry, Count Grendel is scheming, and the Kandyman from The Happiness Patrol crash lands and causes havoc.  There are cases of mistaken identity, crossdressing, murder, resurrection, and bloody battles with every character coming across as a character in a Shakesperean comedy.  It’s almost as if Macbeth, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Twelfth Night, and The Comedy of Errors were all shredded and it was up to Paul Cornell to put them together again with a copy of Doctor Who and the Androids of Tara, The Happiness Patrol, and The Also People (which has fallen through a time warp back to where Cornell was writing).  Honestly, as this is a play written in iambic pentameter, it is one that needs to be performed somehow with a full cast, and probably has enough material for a full-length play.  Oh and the Doctor owns land on Tara tying it into the theme.  10/10.


When David A. McIntee does a story outside of a historical setting and dealing with characters he clearly has a fondness for, he often writes some of his most enjoyable efforts.  “Housewarming” is one such effort, being the single story for Decalog 2: Lost Property that does not feature the Doctor, instead following Sarah Jane Smith investigating a home the Doctor owns with K9 Mark III and getting some help from Mike Yates.  Apparently Mike Yates has set up a group of paranormal investigators, and of course this house isn’t actually haunted, it’s just one that was built over a time fissure explaining just how there are ghosts here in this mysterious house.  McIntee writes “Housewarming” like a horror story where there is secretly a villain pulling all of the strings, and careful readers will understand just who the Count is when he is described by McIntee.  The Count is such a fun character and such a fun reveal as the true antagonist of the short story.  McIntee clearly liked the idea of K9 and Company as it is referenced several times throughout the story, with Sarah Jane in particular being characterized really well as a narrator.  Sarah Jane, even here, has the potential to build up an entire story on her own while K9 provides some nice comic relief at points throughout this story.  It’s not the best story, and it has two very tough acts to follow, but it is really a lot of fun.  7/10.


Seeing the early work of an author after knowing what they would go onto accomplish is an odd thing, which is what happens when looking at “The Nine-Day Queen” by Matthew Jones.  Jones would eventually write Bad Therapy and Beyond the Sun before providing The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and Dead Man Walking for the revived series and Torchwood, respectively.  While his scripts are characterized as highly emotional and generally all about humanity, “The Nine-Day Queen” feels more like a prototype and is different from everything else he has written.  This is a story with the First Doctor, Ian, and Barbara sent back into history after Barbara had been possessed by a Vrij, a parasitic alien which caused aggression and feeds on anger.  When the TARDIS lands and the doors open it is let loose on Earth in late 1553, meaning that this is a First Doctor pseudo-historical story, something that feels anachronistic for this particular TARDIS team.  The title refers to Jane Grey, the historic Nine-Day Queen of England whose reign ended in execution.  Jones manages to avoid going into the trap of some human tragedy was caused by aliens all along, instead giving some great introspection into Barbara Wright’s character.  The Doctor is absent from the start of the story giving Ian and Barbara a real chance to shine on their own.  The Doctor taking a post as Jane’s tutor is also a lot of fun and really makes you feel Hartnell in Jones’ prose.  It does, however, pale in comparison to the novels and television scripts which Jones has contributed, really feeling like this story is a prototype for just what he would do in his other projects.  7/10.


Daniel Blythe is a Doctor Who author who keeps appearing in the books that are reviewed, and none of his stories have ever been really good.  There’s usually some sort of an interesting idea, even if that idea belongs to another author.  “Lonely Days” is perhaps the best story from Blythe and it still feels like a letdown.  It is a Fifth Doctor and Nyssa story set after Time-Flight and essentially plays around with the ideas Steven Moffat would use in the second act of Listen.  Sebastian Musgrove is stuck on an outpost on a planet which the Doctor happens to own and the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa arrive just kind of to visit.  Sebastian is perhaps the best part, though the nervous disposition is essentially a one note character trait.  Blythe wants to create some sort of mystery with why this base is under attack and how anything could be on this apparently empty planet, but it really doesn’t do much.  It’s the shortest story in Decalog 2: Lost Property and you can tell that Blythe loves the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, even if their characterization is quite bland.  They could be swapped out with really any other Doctor and Companion team without any real issue, you’d just have to remove some references to the end of Earthshock and Tegan’s departure in Time-Flight.  It may be the best of Blythe, but it’s still entirely skippable.  4/10.


The Doctor owning a land where he allows an indigenous culture to survive and thrive on a distant planet sounds like an interesting one: it could easily explore themes of colonialism and the idea of a white man savior trope as the Doctor is an aristocrat at heart.  “People of the Trees” by Pam Baddeley tries to explore that idea, but it doesn’t actually cast the Doctor as a villain and kind of makes what he’s done something that is meant to be a good thing.  In a way you can see it as a good thing: there is a people who have been hunted and discriminated against, and giving them their land back, even if the Doctor still technically owns it, should be great, but it is that ownership that really muddies the waters and makes this story leave a bad taste in your mouth.  It’s also apparently something the First Doctor did with Susan after leaving Gallifrey which is just a weird thing and doesn’t quite fit with the First Doctor.  “People of the Trees” at least is a Fourth Doctor and Leela story, both characters whom Baddeley understands and writes well, but this is one simply where the message makes it lose points and honestly a bland writing style doesn’t help.  4/10.


And just as Decalog 2: Lost Property was taking a turn for the worst, Vanessa Bishop returns with “Timeshare”, a Sixth Doctor and Peri story which takes a fascinating concept and runs with it to its conclusion.  Bishop is an author who should have been given the chance to write a full novel as this and “The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back” show, she completely understands how to write a good Doctor Who story.  “Timeshare” basically has the Doctor have bought a week at a timeshare, a single week in history which he is able to spend at this house, alone for a vacation.  When the Doctor and Peri arrive, they find that the people before them have not left due to an illness.  The Doctor isn’t going to let a sick woman be left out on their own of course, but he cannot leave as he accidentally paid without knowing that Godfrey and Camilla have already paid for them, so the technology of the timeshare is causing strange things to happen and the Doctor and Peri must stay to ensure that this place doesn’t get destroyed.  Bishop employs one final twist at the end of the story when a Time Lord detects the interference and shows up, giving the reader one real comedic kick with the Doctor getting egg on his face.  The Sixth Doctor and Peri are also brilliantly characterized.  The story is all from Peri’s perspective so you really get to see how she feels about the constant bickering between the two, and eventually she is able to get one over on them.  It’s always nice to have a story where the fate of the world isn’t really in danger and it’s all down to a misunderstanding.  “Timeshare” brings Decalog 2: Lost Property right back to the quality that it should have been all along.  8/10.


The final story is from another “new” pair of authors, Robert Perry and Mike Tucker, and unlike the other new authors of the Decalog books who have a tendency to never continue, this pair would become prolific in the Past Doctor Adventures for continuing the Seventh Doctor books with a sense of class.  “Question Mark Pyjamas” shows just how the pair can come together and write a story with the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Benny, essentially celebrating everything that the VNAs had to offer, especially as Decalog 2: Lost Property was published after Set Piece and Ace’s exit from the TARDIS.  This is the property that deals with the House on Allen Road, which for some mysterious reason is on an asteroid that the TARDIS has landed on.  A man called Garpol has taken the house along with other significant houses for the selfish desire of creating what is essentially a museum of lost property.  He then forces the Doctor, Ace, and Benny to essentially play house which kind of plays out like a parody, though a loving one, of the Virgin New Adventures, showing that the tongue can be planted firmly in the cheek.  Ace and Benny living together is also a hilarious situation that readers will enjoy and the title does refer to something the Doctor will wear.  It ends Decalog 2: Lost Property on such a high note and shows promise for what these writers will accomplish in the future.  10/10.


Overall, Decalog 2: Lost Property is a book that only came about because readers bought the first Decalog and liked it so much.  Like the first, there are new authors who are given their chance to shine and the best of these would go on to write great stories, so seeing their beginnings here are great.  While it doesn’t go quite as low as Decalog, Decalog 2: Lost Property does seem to lag a little behind the first in just how much of a range of stories it can include.  It is a book that is highly recommended simply for how different each story can be and what it does for Doctor Who.  7.2/10.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Malazan: Midnight Tides by: Steven Erikson


Steven Erikson’s writing style is incredibly analytic: he is an archeologist and his writing style reflects that background.  Malazan: Book of the Fallen has taken its time to setup two distinct scenarios occurring contemporaneously with Gardens of the Moon and Memories of Ice encompassing the first while Deadhouse Gates and House of Chains encompassing the second.  Midnight Tides is the fifth book in the sequence and introduces yet a third plotline for readers to follow, set years before the beginning of Gardens of the Moon with only the Crippled God and Trull from House of Chains appearing as real connections to the series proper, though knowing how interconnected Erikson’s writing is, this book shouldn’t be discounted.  For the first time since Gardens of the Moon there was difficulty in reading this tome of a novel, as the new characters while not uninteresting, make reading frustrating.  With Memories of Ice and House of Chains especially, attachments were formed to all of these characters and not getting to experience really any of those characters becomes a letdown for starting this book.  Starting is perhaps the most difficult part of getting through Midnight Tides, especially if you go in knowing that the characters you have grown attached to are nowhere to be seen.


The Crippled God’s segments of Midnight Tides are perhaps where Erikson succeeds the most in crafting an interesting villain.  Once again this being is giving others power to change events on a massive scale for seemingly his own means.  As the closest thing this series has to a “main” antagonist/villain, he is an interesting sort of character where you never quite know what he is trying to do.  Is he trying to take over the world?  How does he relate to the other gods we’ve met up to this point?  Is he really that evil?  He only gets like three or four scenes, but they are the best scenes in the novel overall as Erikson really gets into just what makes this god tick and how he has been planning his ascension for centuries.  He’s a villain in the sense of the magnificent bastard, who’s always one step ahead and possibly never actually being able to lose, having something succeed even when everything seems to go wrong.  He allows himself some mortal agents, tricking them with power into doing his bidding in the novel.  Erikson has this novel mostly devoted to the Tiste Edur and a treaty they intend to create with a tribe essentially mimicking portions of North American history, using the Edur and Lethereii as two parties attempting to live together, but of course things fall apart.  The inspiration does not seem to be from one specific Native American tribe, instead focusing more on the colonialism aspect and those horrors to great effect.  Midnight Tides is essentially a book where things fall apart: parties betray one another and the entire alliance ends up failing.  Erikson’s themes are essentially that of a race falling to conservative values, the Tiste Edur not being adaptable and essentially go onto a conquest, barely succeeding while the rest of the world moves on.  Being a pocket of the world seems to be what Midnight Tides is mostly looking at things that are going on to flesh out the world.


There is also an incredibly important return for the Crimson Guard, a force of characters who were introduced in previous books as background figures, and who get fleshed out in Return of the Crimson Guard.  The most important character, going forward at least, is Bugg, who is one of those Erikson characters who readers will either love or hate.  Early in reading the book I thought Bugg might be revealed to somehow be related to Kruppe as their mannerisms and idioms are incredibly similar, though Bugg eventually develops.  Bugg as a character is one whom I personally like and feels like the central figure of the book, even if he is not the one doing a lot of things.  He is the one who appears in the book’s epilogue and seems to be where this book will feed back into the rest of the series in future installments and is perhaps the most interesting character here.  Overall, Midnight Tides is a novel that your enjoyment is going to come down to how much you can tolerate Steven Erikson.  If you have gotten this far in Malazan Book of the Fallen and not been enjoying yourself, this is most likely not where you’re going to start.  It is a commitment of a book that is more confusing than even Gardens of the Moon if only because of how many characters are introduced, however, structurally it is a better book than that one.  Erikson is a great storyteller and there is genuine amounts of sucking you into the plot, even if it isn’t the perfect follow up and left me frustrated.  8/10.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Deal by: Steve Parkhouse with art by: Dave Gibbons


The Deal is written by Steve Parkhouse with art by Dave Gibbons.  It was released in Doctor Who Monthly issue 53 (June 1981) and is reprinted in its original form in Doctor Who: Dragon’s Claw by Panini Books.


Steve Moore only stayed on Doctor Who Monthly for a single year before moving onto other things in the comics world moving onto Star Wars before starting work on Warrior, a series of British anthology comics while artist Dave Gibbons stayed on until October 1982, another full year.  Moore was replaced by another Steve in the seat of writer, Steve Parkhouse, who would begin Doctor Who Monthly’s longest run so far of comic writers, from June 1981 to March 1985, a run of nearly four years.  Parkhouse’s initial strip, The Deal, continues the style of the Moore strips, telling single stories over 8-10 pages in only one, maybe two, issues.  This would be the style until the end of the Fourth Doctor’s comic run, however, with Parkhouse comes a very different tone for the comics.  While Moore’s stories were generally campy fun with the Doctor taking companion Sharon and K9 through wacky space adventures, The Deal sets out to be story with a bitter ending and overall a darker tone.


The Doctor crashes onto a planet during a series of intergalactic wars, a mercenary’s spaceship causing the TARDIS to have interference.  In the eight pages that comprise this comic the reader gets a real sense of just who this mercenary is and while it is slightly one note, that one dimension is enough to imply the horrors of war turning people who once may have been good to evil.  The Doctor only acts under duress in this story, with our mercenary threatening his life in exchange for passage off the planet.  The Doctor is only willing to advises, leading into a short sequence of dealing with the war, but the real kicker is the ending.  The mercenary is left on this planet to die exclaiming that this was not part of the deal, the deal being a through line the comic has about war and what the Doctor is tasked to do.  This ending is genuinely bleak: while the mercenary is not by any means a good person, he is still a human being and the Doctor’s actions come across as quite inhuman.  The Doctor here is a pacifist with the zany edge of Tom Baker’s characterization of Season 17, while wearing the Season 18 outfit.  This is all aided by Dave Gibbons’ art which as always is wonderful, though this time the setting of a barren planet doesn’t give him a lot to work with when it comes to artistic expression.


Overall, The Deal is a rousing success for Steve Parkhouse, showing that Parkhouse isn’t afraid to return to telling stories with weight.  While his comparison to Mills and Wagner’s sweeping eight part epics is yet to be seen, this one is a great start, though still shallow as a single issue comic of eight pages kind of has to be.  8/10.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Coldheart by: Trevor Baxendale


After two Doctor Who novels that succeed in taking the Eighth Doctor Adventures away into experimental territory, exploring the new relationship between the Doctor, Fitz, and the new human TARDIS version of Compassion and what it means to be on the run from the Time Lords seemed to be what the Eighth Doctor Adventures were going to be until the arc ends.  Then, Coldheart came around.  Coldheart is the second novel from Trevor Baxendale, who’s first effort, The Jupiter Conjunction, which showed strengths in writing conspiracy type stories in the vein of The Ambassadors of Death.  Baxendale does not continue with these strengths in the writing of Coldheart, instead looking at a dying civilization on a planet with a burning surface, but a heart of ice, hence giving the novel the title.  Eskon’s civilians have been slowly mutating into Slimers, genetically inferior creatures with wormlike abilities, and are shunned to the outskirts of the civilization.  The thrust of Coldheart is the mystery of the Slimers and what exactly they are, but the eventual reveal of what’s happening beneath the surface of Eskon is one of those twists that takes out quite a bit of dramatic weight.  The reveal is that there are alien worms that crashed onto Eskon and are secreting a pus that is rewriting the DNA of the citizens who drink from a contaminated water supply a la The Sensorites. While The Sensorites could justify this twist of a poisoned water supply being the cause of the deaths on the planet as it was a story exploring a culture and humanity’s interactions with other species, Coldheart devolves into a standard alien uprising story, except the Doctor actually isn’t on the side of those revolting.


Baxendale’s prose is where this book perhaps has its biggest failing.  The prose is full of cliches, including characters saying as you know, and a chapter ending with the shocking revelation that something might be wrong in a Doctor Who book.  It’s moments like these and this commitment to a style that doesn’t have much to distinguish itself above the other books in the range, and when surrounded by books by Paul Cornell, Lawrence Miles, and Kate Orman, Baxendale doesn’t compete.  It makes some of the genuinely harrowing imagery of characters vomiting snakes and becoming like worms not feel nearly as effective as it easily could have been with a few more drafts and an effort to play up the more disturbing elements of the novel.  As it stands the prose is something that just brings this book down.  Coldheart’s plot is essentially the textbook of a Doctor Who plot, going from story beat to story beat without any interesting characters or connective tissue.  This is a book which perhaps when read in isolation from the rest of the arc could be a lot better, but in the arc it feels like our TARDIS team are barely even characters.  The Doctor is back to being a kind of generic Doctor, not continuing that rather important conflict with Compassion about her rights as a TARDIS, nor including anything that resembles the Eighth Doctor.  It makes this feel like Coldheart might have been meant to be a Past Doctor Adventure which was converted to an Eighth Doctor Adventure.  Compassion fares slightly better, being written with at least an alien and as distant from the Doctor and Fitz.


It’s kind of Fitz who is given the biggest character issues here.  Fitz has yet another subplot where he tries to be romantically involved with a woman, and it is at this point where you start to notice just how common a theme that has been, when it is done badly.  The woman in question is Florence, a mute woman who doesn’t even get a name until Fitz actively names her which is something that Baxendale kind of intends to be romantic and humanizing but it just makes the objectification of this woman come into clearer focus.  Fitz’s arc is supposed to be humanizing this woman, but Florence doesn’t ever get any communication skills, and I’m not saying they have to be vocal.  There are ways to make mute characters work and communicate non-verbally, even giving them a deep characterization, but Baxendale doesn’t do that.  Fitz’s plot proves to be an almost pointless diversion and doesn’t actually give us anything new or deep about his character.  Florence could be swapped with any of the other characters to the same effect.  Overall, Coldheart is traditional Doctor Who from an author who originally had a novel which showed promise, but on the whole doesn’t ever rise above being a collection of tropes and cliches executed, rarely with any poise or drama.  It’s an easy book to overlook and ignore in the grand scheme of things and is a disappointment from a genuinely good author.  4/10.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer by: Rick Riordan


After exploring Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythologies in his previous three series, Rick Riordan goes to the obvious next step in exploring Norse mythology in his second trilogy of novels: Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard.  While The Kane Chronicles was set in the same universe as Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus through minor winks and nods, The Sword of Summer opens the trilogy explicitly in the same universe.  Magnus Chase, our narrator and primary protagonist, is the cousin of Annabeth Chase, who does appear at some strategic points during the novel.  There’s also a chapter title that is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Jason Grace (though Magnus has no idea who that is).  This kind of means that The Sword of Summer is a book expecting you to have read Riordan’s previous work, which isn’t entirely a bad thing, but when included here it makes the reader expect more than they actually get.  Now this is only the first installment of a trilogy and the end of the book implies that there is going to be much more crossover in the next two books with Magnus and Annabeth having a conversation where everything about each other’s secret lives as demigods is laid out on the table.  The relationship between Magnus and Annabeth is one of those subtle parts of the book where Riordan actually excels at creating something completely new.  There is this unspoken kinship as they both have undergone hardship and had their already decent familial relationship there under the surface.  Riordan establishes them as friends as children though a rich uncle kind of tore that relationship apart.


Magnus Chase as a narrator is honestly very odd.  His snark is essentially that of Percy Jackson, tripled, put on growth enhancing drugs, and allowed to simmer in Boston for sixteen years with no adult supervision.  This is a double-edged sword throughout the book with Riordan failing to dial it in at some of the more dramatic moments.  The sarcasm kind of makes some of the genuine fear which Riordan tries to inject at the climax just not work as well as it could.  And it doesn’t actually feel like Magnus is using sarcasm and humor to hide from anything, he’s just naturally that sarcastic from his time living on the streets.  Yes, Magnus at the start of the book is homeless and The Sword of Summer is essentially the story that helps him find a home somewhere which is a great character arc.  Magnus has to learn to accept other people’s help and deal with the responsibility of being a warrior fated to fight in Ragnarok as all those in Valhalla.  Oh, and Magnus dies about fifty pages into the book meaning that Riordan relies on magic to keep him living.  Well, not living, he’s technically a spirit who is allowed back into the world occasionally to go on quests.  He of course escapes because he is a rebel and goes on a quest to find the Sword of Summer which is fated to break the chains of Fenris starting Ragnarok.  The book literally ends by narrowly avoiding the end of the world and Magnus fighting for his own place at Hotel Valhalla.  Magnus being homeless is intriguing for a protagonist, but in this book it feels kind of like it was added in for flavor.  Riordan seems to try with the sarcasm, but it doesn’t quite work.


Having Magnus work outside of the formula of being given a quest to complete is interesting, as he has to make his way out and actually spends a lot of the book with Blitzen and Hearthstone, a dwarf and elf who happen to have been friends with him from his time on the streets.  They’re both subversions of the classic fantasy dwarf and elf: Blitzen’s creativity is in creating clothes while Hearthstone the elf is deaf and only communicates with American Sign Language.  They are both fun and dip in and out of the narrative which leaves Magnus essentially on his own at points or with Samirah al-Abbas, a Valkyrie, who sort of is the mentor figure for Magnus, but also has her own demons being the daughter of Loki and apparently that gives her a mischievous nature (it’s a thing that’s not shown, but told to us).  She also is mentioned to be in an arranged engagement which is kind of a rocky thing that Riordan kind of oversimplifies the arguments again, saying that it’s essentially fine because as a child she had some say in her engagement.  Yeah it’s a really weird thing to include, though it is nice to have some Muslim character in young adult fiction whose religion is treated essentially as a character’s Christianity would.  There’s also some interesting connections as Norse mythology did come out of a global empire.  The actual Norse myth stuff Riordan includes here is also excellent, without ever actually stopping the plot to retell any myths (though some of the scenarios are just myth retellings as is to be expected).  There’s a talking sword, Loki appears and is an utter delight, Thor is perhaps a bit too much of a slob (but is accurate), and it generally does make things out to be different from Percy Jackson.  It also feels like Riordan wanted to make this an adult novel to reflect some of the more mature themes, but then just didn’t for whatever reason.  Perhaps it should have been, or at least marketed above middle grade.


Overall, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard is off to a great start, though it is at least a bit flawed in creating a narrator who doesn’t always seem as real as he should and some rather touchy cultural elements bring it at least a little down.  There’s almost too much stuffed in this book which also doesn’t help, and it’s one that feels like things aren’t actually finished (and that epilogue does bode very well for the other two installments).  8/10.

The Fall of Yquatine by: Nick Walters


Anyone who has to follow up Paul Cornell was invariably going to have a difficult time, doubly so when it’s a book like The Shadows of Avalon which changes the trajectory of a range and knocks it out of the park with its imagery and characters.  The difficult task came down to Nick Walters, whose first novel Dominion was perfectly serviceable a story with the Doctor, Fitz, and Sam, a style of EDA that seems to have been going by the wayside with the change in Compassion.  The Fall of Yquatine is a novel with a less than stellar cover, not really setting itself apart from several other BBC Books covers which sport a spaceship (The King of Terror, Imperial Moon, and Warmonger all come to mind).  Its description is less encouraging, sporting a general the Doctor and companions try to save a doomed world plotline which other stories have done before.  Yet Nick Walters manages to provide a Doctor Who novel that while not boasting a completely stand-out in terms of plot, is enough to attract readers throughout the book to grab onto what Walters is attempting here.  Yquatine is a planet which is fated to fall in a war which occurs right as a treaty is meant to be signed achieving peace.  The Doctor has only come to Yquatine to visit an old friend, Lou Lombardo, who runs a scalping business for various space and timeship parts, in the intent to acquire a randomizer for Compassion.  The Time Lords are clearly on Compassion’s trail and the Doctor, without telling anyone, realizes that if a randomizer worked for the Black Guardian then it will work this time around.


The Doctor’s attitude towards Compassion here is a fascinating one: while he is motivated by keeping her, Fitz, and himself safe, he does not give her any real choice in implementing the randomizer in her circuitry.  This sends Compassion into a rage, leaving the Doctor and taking Fitz with her.  The randomizer clearly hurts her, and the Doctor never actually apologizes for taking advantage of his friend’s vulnerability.  While Walters in the middle of the novel only includes Compassion in two interludes where she is wandering the time vortex, no longer in control of herself, even these interludes give us something new to the character.  While before The Shadows of Avalon, Compassion was a very distant person, letting her emotions stay beneath the surface, but becoming a human TARDIS has made her actually able to see the wonder and joy in the universe, as well as the terror and horror.  Her relationship with the Doctor is something that cuts deep, but is still rocky.  She actually has more of a relationship with Fitz: taking him with her and trying to get him to take the randomizer out of her while it slowly integrates itself into her systems.  Fitz is the one she trusts because he is so simple.  Fitz, despite his now extensive travels with the Doctor, is still human and still that scruffy man from the 1960s.


Fitz spends much of the middle of the book trying to survive and figure out a way to save Yquatine, as the tragedy around him unfolds.  He ends up in a relationship with the mistress of the President of the Minerva System, Arielle, and like many relationships it’s one that gives Fitz a chance to shine just who he is.  Fitz’s relationship is one where he actually finds some sort of purpose in the time he spends away from the Doctor and Compassion.  Arielle is kind and inquisitive, learning xenobiology and actually gives Fitz a reason to live and stay on Yquatine.  He eventually makes that decision to stay right around the time that the fall is set to happen, though as this is an Eighth Doctor Adventure, the tragedy is actually averted by the Doctor.  The Doctor here is actually where a lot of the book falls a bit flat.  The Doctor is characterized well enough, as he infiltrates politics and is essentially running for his life, however, the actual point of changing history makes both Fitz and Compassion having to come to terms with a civilization dying feel a little flat.  The civilization doesn’t actually die, even when Walters attempts to pull sequences of the book where it’s stated that history cannot be changed.  The emotional impact of the previous 200 pages are essentially undone.  There’s also a supporting character who is hinted at representing or possibly being a reincarnation of Samantha Jones, but she is never actually explained.  Walters implies that Fitz is just seeing Sam and missing Sam, but it is never really clear what that means.


Overall, The Fall of Yquatine is at least a good follow up to The Shadows of Avalon, continuing Compassion’s development excellently and putting her and the Doctor in a more rocky relationship as to what she has become.  It’s a book that slightly falls apart in the end as the book insists on including a happy ending instead of letting death have any lasting consequences in this range. 7/10.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The Heroes of Olympus: The Blood of Olympus by: Rick Riordan


Identity.  Death.  Trust.  Love.  Acceptance.  These are the five themes of The Heroes of Olympus in order and Rick Riordan somehow managed to write a series of children’s books that thematically serve as mirrors for one another.  With each theme the cast of viewpoint characters expands and the depth with which Riordan includes these themes makes the capstone to The Heroes of Olympus nearly the best work yet.  I say nearly, as outside of the theming of the story, The Blood of Olympus does have one major flaw that sadly makes it the weakest installment: the climax with the giants is rushed past and Gaea rises before not really doing much as a villain.  Gaea’s raising which has been built up for five books as something to be avoided and only done with sacrifice, occurs when Percy has a nosebleed in a fight and that blood hits the ground.  This is a subversion of expectations that perhaps could work if Gaea actually then posed a real threat to any of the characters.  Deus ex machina is something that is expected in a story which bases itself in a mythology, but when it doesn’t allow any real emotional resonance with the characters to defeat the villain the climax becomes weak.  Riordan also includes a second climax with the Camp Half-Blood conflict being a race against the clock for Reyna and Nico before the Seven actually meet up with them.  This aspect of the conclusion is actually where Riordan shines as it feels as though The Heroes of Olympus was really about the camp conflict and Gaea was simply a red herring.


Nico and Reyna being paired, and both getting point of view chapters throughout The Blood of Olympus.  They’re both broken characters dealing with their own arc to acceptance.  Reyna’s before this installment has stayed in the background as this stoic leader, strong and loyal, but willing to listen.  This book actually allows several peeks behind the curtain to show her inner turmoil.  The reader already knows from The Sea of Monsters and The Son of Neptune that Percy and Annabeth were responsible for ruining one of her homes, but she also comes from an abusive home.  Her father was a soldier in the Iraq War and suffered from untreated PTSD, causing him to become delusional.  He saw enemies where there weren’t any and it was by luck that Reyna and her sister were able to escape.  There’s also the identity of being a daughter of Bellona, a goddess only found in the Roman pantheon and a goddess of war.  Bellona is different from Ares or Athena, as she is more the embodiment of the tactics and politics of war, including creating peace.  It makes sense that Reyna, as her daughter, would be the one sent to try and stop a war from happening.  She’s also a character who shows this stoicism but like many stoic characters, doesn’t actually figure out what she wants in life in this book which is kind of an important lesson as it’s one way Riordan leaves these characters in a satisfactory place without making the ending overly saccharine.


Nico’s acceptance is perhaps the most obvious in the book: he comes to terms with his sexuality, spending the book with Reyna and by the end of it at least flirting with someone.  Oh and actually providing himself come closure with Percy (who is clueless about that fact).  He admits to him that he’s had a crush, but Percy isn’t his type.  Much of his internal monologue involves him trying to push down his sexuality, essentially going through the five stages of grief.  Especially interesting is how he denies to himself that he would have eventually admitted it to himself (which is probably false) and by the end of the book he’s flirting with Will Solace, a relatively minor character who at least gets some characterization in this book.  Will is a son of Apollo and a medic and the flirting is at least fun.  He’s also a bit of an idiot who poorly camouflages himself on a whim after delivering a baby.  Riordan implies a romance between them right at the end with Will representing Nico’s acceptance.  Annabeth has an interesting point of acceptance: the fact that Percy has flaws.  In The House of Hades Percy came very close to killing an immortal goddess, something that traumatized Annabeth on top of their shared trauma of being in Tartarus.  They both have to adjust to not being constantly attacked by almost going further into each other with their relationship and taking it further: the book ends with them on the track to being as close to normal teenagers as demigods can be.


Meanwhile Jason has to accept his position as a leader, but not in the way of leading a camp.  He takes a position of a high priest as an emissary of both camps to continue the work begun at the end of Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  Jason takes a position where he is responsible for bringing the minor gods to the same status as the major gods.  He also is injured with essentially a cursed injury which essentially represents his own stubbornness in trying to save everyone, where he isn’t exactly meant to be.  Frank then has to undergo the opposite arc, learning to take up leadership as he will be a praetor for Camp Jupiter as ambassador with Hazel supporting him on the sidelines.  Overall, The Blood of Olympus is a touch disappointing.  There’s still that absolutely brilliant character work and everyone shines.  The book is absolutely brilliant right up until that final battle with Gaea and after Gaea is defeated there is a slight redemption as the stuff at Camp Half-Blood is excellent, but this is sadly a weaker entry.  It’s still very good and worth a read and it doesn’t ruin the series or anything, but it leaves the reader wanting more in one of the absolutely worst ways possible. 8/10.