Thursday, 23 July 2015

The Last Pharaoh - Iain McLaughlin and Claire Bartlett (Thebes Publishing, 2015)

Iain McLaughlin and Claire Bartlett’s The Last Pharaoh, the debut release from Thebes Publishing, arrives on the Who fiction scene during something like a period of renaissance.  It’s hard to deny that the official BBC novel releases have been underwhelming in the main, while the special e-short stories from Big Name Authors have been patchy in quality.  But on the plus side, the recent charity Seasons of War collection was excellent and it’s been surrounded by more than a trickle of other unlicensed anthologies.  Add to that, the launch of the Candy Jar’s Lethbridge-Stewart series, while plagued with release problems to date, could turn into a worthwhile addition to the prose ranks in the right hands (the appearance of David McIntee’s entry will be very welcome in that respect). 

What they’ve all been (with the honourable exception of Seasons of War) is very traditionally constructed books – and ‘The Last Pharaoh’ is a novel in similar vein.  But if you’re now thinking of Chris Bulis’ interminable Virgin titles, don’t!  This is nothing like that…

Actually, perhaps now would be a good point to explain about rad and trad Doctor Who books for the three people reading this who need an explanation?

Back in the bad old days, Doctor Who book fandom split into two distinct camps – the rad and the trad.  The former was the domain of Lawrence Miles, Dave Stone and Jim Mortimore, with multiple realities, dead Doctors and, you know, sex and swearing and shit.  The former attracted writers and readers more comfortable with, well, traditional style stories, in which the Doctor and a plucky assistant or two battled evil in the Home Counties.  They both had their good and bad points (and certainly didn’t deserve to be the basis for one jihad after another on radw and related newsgroups, mailing lists and web fora.


‘The Last Pharaoh’ kicks off a series of books featuring Erimem, the forgotten Egyptian Pharaoh from the Big Finish series of audio plays.  I’m afraid I don’t listen to those, so can’t say if the last audio fits in with the first novel in any way, but all that really matters is that Erimem turns up in modern England and quickly teams up Ibrahim, an Egyptian Professor, and sundry students and staff from the University.  Cue the type of set-up adventure all series need, in which the main characters are established, a means of continuing the story is acquired and so on.  In some hands, that would involve a slew of info-dumping, but McLaughlin and Bartlett know the character and know how to write, and as a result, I found myself knowing everything I needed about Eminem and chums without even noticing, like some kind of literary osmosis.  The plot is solid, without being flashy (exactly what you want from an introductory novel) but also not without some very pleasing surprises and some interesting misdirections (at one point, I thought the First Doctor was about to make an appearance!).  Best of all, the authors can write historical characters (not as easy as you might think) and present intriguing instances of both famous and unknown people from the distant past, which really fleshes out the text and brings the various settings to life.

The cover art is excellent, and unusually for any book I barely spotted an actual typo (though there were a handful of points at which entire words were missing – perhaps those small sections were late additions to the manuscript?).  All in all, a very worthwhile addition to the Who spin-off world, and an enjoyable read in its own right.  I wish I’d taken advantage of the subscription now!

Highly recommended.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Seven Cities of Old - Mike Wild (snowbooks, 2014)

Mike Wild is living proof – I hope – of the maxim that perseverance pays off. Thirty years writing top quality prose as a jobbing author for Abaddon, the BBC, World Distributors and many others, his work has always been intelligent, innovative and packed with ideas, but most of all written with a casual elegance which many far more well-known writers would do well to emulate. His writing rolls across the page with a smoothness which is, I suspect, impossible to teach or learn, but which comes straight from talent, and ‘Seven Cities of Old’ is no exception.

In some ways, it begins much as Wild’s last series (‘Twilight of Kerebos’) did, with a feisty female hero in a land which has regressed technologically from that of mysterious, half-forgotten forebears – but anyone therefore expecting a replay of ‘The Clockwork King of Orl’ would be in for a shock, as this tale of mutated cowboys and injuns unfolds. 

Leavened with a frequent dash of humour (the whole scene in which three literal rednecks try to decide if a half burned corpse is human or chicken had me howling with laughter), but built on a double sided base of solid characters and wild imagination, this first volume in a new ongoing series is both a splendid adventure story and a fabulous work of fantasy, which left me keen to read more.  Here's hoping that Snowbooks get the sequels (and there are surely going to be some) out soon!

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Seasons of War, ed Declan May - The Complete Review

Seasons of War is a charity Doctor Who short story collection, edited by Declan May, with all proceeds going to the Caudwell Children charity.

After a touching preface by Nicholas Briggs, remembering his friend Paul Spragg, to whom the book is dedicated...

The opening image, of a solitary man on a bleak crag overlooking a land of mist and swamp reminded me of the cover to the 80’s Penguin Classic edition of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo and while I’m aware that’s an extremely up-myself way to start a review for a Doctor Who book, it also seems strangely fitting for a collection of stories featuring a Doctor so dark as to make the Seventh seems positively uncomplicated and angelic.    At this point in time, two pages in, I’ve no idea if it’s an image which accurately reflects the remaining one and a half million stories (or at least that’s how it feels when you look at the two pages of contents– this is a book which gives value for money even if you buy the ebook then the limited edition paperback!) but it’s a quality I hope to see more in the pages to come.

Anyway, back to that first story..

If I had to describe it in a single word, I suspect I’d plump for ‘perverse’.  An opening story called ‘Epilogue’, which revisits another story titled, in part, ‘Genesis’, Matt Fitton’s timeless tale is more of an intriguing starter (or dessert - take your pick) than a fully-fledged story in its own right, but in a long collection such as this some stories serve as building blocks for others, and I get the feeling this is one of those.

Christ on a bike.  Next up is '1.  Karn’ by, I assume (it doesn’t say) editor Declan May.  This is the first thing I’ve read by the author, but bloody hell he doesn’t miss, does he?  Set a heartbeat after the events of the McGann-Hurt regeneration, this War Doctor isn’t the basically cuddly old curmudgeon we saw in ‘Day of the Doctor’, this is an absolute bastard.  Judged purely on his words and actions in these few pages, this is a Doctor to make the Master look kindly, a Doctor who cares about nothing bar victory, a Doctor who can forget the name of a dead woman in seconds and doom a mythical race in a moment.  I’m not sure I like him much, but it’s a brave decision and an impressive introduction to Mr May’s writing.

After two grim opening tales, ‘Crowsnest Past’ by Warren Frey comes as a welcome change of pace.  Where ‘Epilogue’ took place in a world of vicious peaks and ‘Karn’ featured a vicious Doctor, this one kicks off with a spot of fishing, as the Doctor (I’m just going to call him that, by the way - it’s only a missing adjective ,after all) sits in the door of the TARDIS and tries to catch a gumblejack or two (incidentally, this is the third story in a row to specifically reference an old TV episode – is this a deliberate thing, I wonder?).  Of course, it soon goes a bit horrible and scary, with burning eyed monsters attacking the helpless human settlement, but this is a ‘proper’ 21st century Doctor Who adventure, of a type I wasn’t sure we’d see in this book.  Kudos to the author for a solid Who story and to the editor for slotting it in here, just where it was needed.

I love Lee Rawlings’ ‘Eight Minute War’.  The writing itself is peculiar, disjointed and with an occasional lapse in vocabulary – exactly, in fact, as you would expect an alien to sound speaking a language not his own.  The fact that this is first person, and that the jagged nature of the text is consistent throughout makes me think this has to have been a deliberate choice by the author, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was impressed by the way the bewildered narrator describes events he doesn’t entirely understand and ends up confronting a Doctor who is a failure, no matter how you cut it.  We’ll never see something like this on television, in the new superhero version of Doctor Who, and in some ways that may be a good thing.  Rawlings’ Doctor is a hard man to respect…

Whereas JR Southall’s Doctor is very much the twenty-first century version, prone to doing what’s needed and feeling a little bit sad about it later.  Like Warren Frey’s story this is a story I can easily imagine being tweaked and used as the basis for a Matt Smith or David Tennant episode.  With echoes of ‘Journey to the Heart of the TARDIS’, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ and – for obvious reasons – ‘The Mind Robber’, this is the sort of tale I can picture Steven Moffat enjoying, as the Doctor does what needs to be done in what might be the Land of Fiction, and is lessened because of it.

That Southall’s less spiky interpretation of the Doctor leads straight into the second of Declan May’s ‘Doctor as uber-pragmatist’ can’t be co-incidental.  The differences are readily apparent and altogether striking.  It’s clearly the same character, but where Southall’s Stranger is taking a break from the front lines, May’s Man in the Bandolier wouldn’t function anywhere else (it’s interesting to see the various names the author give our protagonist, incidentally – seven stories in, and he’s yet to be referred to, even in passing, as the War Doctor).  As manipulative as the McCoy incarnation and as hard as very early Hartnell, had he wandered into the previous story, he’d have killed Alice on the first page and have forgotten her name by page two.  Nice to see the titular Corsair making a re-appearance too.

And now we come to an unexpected (because I’ve not checked out the contents page at all) treat.  A new Kate Orman Doctor Who story!  Easily in the top five prose authors ever to write for the series, it’s fair to say that ‘The Ambassador from Wolf-Rayet 134’ is one of her lesser works, if only for reasons of brevity, but even so, it’s a delightful piece, where Orman contrives – with only a few thousand words to play with – to sketch in an entire alien species in sufficient detail that this reader at least would have been happy to have heard far more.  The particular talent of the Ambassador’s people is reminiscent of Telos’ Time Hunter series, but Orman gives the concept a twist of her own, allowing that skill to become overwhelming and then perfectly reporting the exact alien reaction to being so overwhelmed.  As with all of Orman’s writing there’s a real sense of effortless ability on display, and I’m reminded again of my desire to see the publication of single author Doctor Who short story collections…    

In contrast to Orman’s relatively small story of one ‘woman’ and her need for peace, ‘The Amber Room’ by Simon Brett and John Davies remembers that other Who staple – the big set piece (with dinosaurs).  Kicking a story off with a time transported soldier being chased by an allosaurus does usually mean that you’re obliged to pull back on the throttle a little as you progress, but that’s not the case here, where the authors immediately raise the stakes by removing the entire Earth in the next paragraph!  If I have a criticism – and it’s a small one – it’s that Leo, the soldier grabbed from an early twenty-first world of terrorist attacks and IDEs, accepts the Doctor and his TARDIS with no apparent concerns.  But it’s a minor complaint, and in no way detracts from another solid, well told tale.

Andrew Smith and Matthew Smith – the two names from my youth which occasioned in me such feelings of jealousy that I might as well have had a big sign on my forehead that said ‘under achiever’.  Games’ buffs of a certain vintage will recognise the latter name as that of the teenager who wrote Spectrum classics ‘Manic Miner’ and ‘Jet Set Willy’ but it was the former who convinced the thirteen year old me that I’d already missed the talent boat.  Author of really rather brilliant tv story ‘Full Circle’ while still in Primary school (or so it felt at the time), Smith disappeared into the black hole which is the Police Force, and has only recently resurfaced in our little corner of the internet, producing work for Big Finish and now – more unexpectedly, perhaps – for Declan May in this book.

But enough of the slightly breathless history lesson, what’s ‘The Celephas Gift’ like, I hear you ask?  It’s damn good, actually.  The story has a complete shape which, for all their positive qualities, some of the other stories so far have been missing (though, to be fair, those without such a structure have been so for a reason) – a sense that this story has a beginning, a middle and an end.  It helps that there’s something of a pre-credits sequence, as the Doctor completes one (unseen) adventure and then suffers the ramifications of the fallout from that adventure, but Smith is clever in that, while there’s a definite sense that this story takes place against the background of a wider War, and that this is not the Doctor we’re used to, there’s enough meat in the story he tells for us not to care that we’re not seeing the bigger picture.  A high spot of the early part of the collection, even amongst strong competition.

The next story but one is a reworking of a chunk of Shakespeare’s Henry V, so it’s good that two such meaty pieces are constructed around a third Declan May (this time with the assistance of John Davies) entry, ‘The Girl with the Purple Hair’.  Less immediately about the War Doctor himself than about his new, occasional companion, Jenny Shirt, and her perception of him as he visits at various points in his own timeline, it still manages to add another brick to the character May has been portraying all along.

And so to the reworking of Henry V!  In some ways this is simply an extended joke, with key roles for Commander Maxil (primarily remembered on Gallifrey, we are told, for shooting an unarmed man), Castellan Kelner (similarly ‘feted’ back home for his craven behaviour during the Invasion of Time) and Commentator Runcible (a joke all in and by himself), as well as any number of other references to make the long term fan chuckle in recognition.  But is it too much of a stretch to suggest that almost the last line of the footnotes makes the key point of the piece in noting that the cowardly Runcible, post-regeneration, ‘became a War TARDIS flotilla commander and was known as ‘Lady Runcible The Fearless’, one of the most ruthless and capable soldiers in her field’.  There’s a warrior in all of us, if need be, apparently….

‘…half-crazed Robomen, force-mutated mounds of pain rejecting their half-destroyed mechanical prostheses, and time-distorted semi-corpses from unidentifiable races…  If you were expecting more belly laughs from ‘Here Comes the Doctor’ by Christopher Bryant then you’re in for a disappointment, though I suspect that would be the only one you’d experience.  I must admit the name is a new one to me, but I’m very keen to read more.  There’s an air of RTD about the way he punctuates the meat of the plot with carefully constructed lists like the one above, or drops unexplained references  - ‘I saw the birthing of the Final Pathogen’ – into the Doctor’s dialogue.  Equally, though,  there’s an old school feel to the Doctor turning up in disguise rather than waving the psychic paper around, then having to use his wits to convince people he’s the good guy.  For myself, I thought it was missing a trick to have the Daleks turn out to be the bad guys (though the clues were there, which I did appreciate, in retrospect) but the author makes up for that by allowing the story to continue beyond the point at which a common or garden short story would stop (read it yourself – didn’t you expect Aceso wasting the flying Daleks to be the end?).  And Bryant’s War Doctor – the Patient, as he’s known here – makes May’s look like the softest liberal bleeding heart ever.  “People change’, indeed.   Christ.

A really good short story feels like a novel in miniature – obviously not so detailed and maybe not so tricky, but with several characters interacting in several different ways, and a variety of plot twists and so on.  A really great short story does all that and yet still feels the perfect length.  This is a great short story, simple as that.

I’ve got a slightly complicated relationship with the novelist John Peel.  On the one hand, I actually enjoyed ‘War of the Daleks’ and think that a genetic cross of Chris Bulis’ workmanlike prose and Gary Russell’s flights of continuity fancy is something to be cherished, on some level.  On the other hand though, pretty much everything else’s he written has been too pedestrian to be linked to flying of any sort and has left me bored or confused (and sometimes both at once).  Fortunately, short stories allow Peel less time to get lost in his own canon-related knots and so what we have here is a competent, solid Doctor Who story, heavily laced with references to previous adventures, and none the worse for that.

Sonnet’ by Jenny Colgan, conversely, is anything but pedestrian or boring.  Rather it’s exactly what it claims to be – a short poem in which Shakespeare considers the Doctor and his past adventures.  A peculiar choice, perhaps, but like the earlier pastiche of Henry V, an enjoyable – if brief – experience.

Moving onto a more commonplace story telling format, Elton Townend-Jones wins the award for best image of the book so far.  ‘Five wet fingers…and a grasping, groping hand’ appearing from within a mug of tea is not your everyday occurrence, but it is the type of unexpected juxtaposition which the 21st century iteration of Doctor Who is very good at.   The amusing way that the author then skips over anything approaching a genuine technical explanation for what’s just occured also echoes one of the better tropes of the new series, as does the bittersweet ending – which, for my money, Townend-Jones nails more effectively than anyone else so far.  Another excellent story in a book so far filled with them.

One thing worth mentioning - the author’s choice of name for the female protagonist – Cass – is a little distracting, in that I expected it to be a call-back (or possibly forward) to the character from ‘Night of the Doctor’, but in the end it appears to be a co-incidence.

IV. Loop’ is another story by the Editor, though this one is considerably longer than previous such entries.  May makes good use of the extra space though, dipping inside the head of the War Doctor, early on in his mission, exhibiting his hopes and fears, but without descending to maudlin sentiment or (alternatively) jingoistic machismo.  Instead, we get a form of multi-Doctor adventure, complete with what I assume is the War Doctor just before he uses the Moment, and a rumination on the passing of time and the effect that can have on individual morality.

The last few stories have been something of a breathing space in the flow of stories – well crafted and well told, slightly smaller stories, with more emphasis on character building than pyrotechnics.  Exactly what any long collection needs at this point, in other words.

The Holdover’ by another name new to me, Daniel Wealands, throws us back into the middle of the Time War, however.  Clearly the Editor thinks that the Reader has had enough of the pleasant stuff for a while!  Wealands’ War Doctor is a cynic and a pragmatist, but more importantly, his Time Lords are most definitely no better than the Daleks (a position which the book as whole has only hinted at until now).  Internment camps, ethnic cleansing, conscientious objectors vilified and imprisoned – you can almost feel the stakes rising as you move from one page to the next, from one graphically described horror to the next.  Perhaps the links to the Nazis is a bit unsubtle, but it’s also effective in repelling the reader.  Indeed, if I had any criticism it’s that by the end you might well find yourself rooting for the Daleks, just a tiny bit, so revolting is the Time Lords’ plan and so vile its implementation.    The fact that the tv series demonstrates that the plan backfires horribly in the end is a consolation, I suppose, but still, this is dark, dark stuff…

It’s no surprise, given the comparatively little we see on screen of the War Doctor and his own description of himself, that most authors in this collection have opted to portray a dark and troubled figure, either a flint-hard soldier with the greater good always in mind, or a weary old soldier, longing for the end of the fighting.  Lance Parkin, predictably, chooses a different path altogether, and shows us a War Doctor who remains recognisably ‘our’ Doctor, a cunning trickster choosing the most sensible path, even if that means very slightly helping the Dalek war effort.  It’s a clever inversion of expectation – the reader gets to the end of the story, thinking Parkin hasn’t brought his A game (‘of course it must be a trick – we know how these types of stories go!’) and then has the carpet swept from under him and the expected twist turns out to be a straighten after all, and the better for it.  A nice switch in tone, just as the reader thinks he could do with a change from all these piles of bodies.

Like Christopher Bryant earlier on, Sami Kelish is a name new to me, but one I’m very keen to see again.  A complete change of pace from even Lance Parkin’s story, ‘Gardening’ does exactly what it says on the tin.  A quiet, small story of one woman and her garden, this is beautifully written (reminiscent, for me, of Mags Halliday’s lovely writing style), with what is probably the most three dimensional character in the book so far.  Kelish’s War Doctor falls somewhere between young street fighter and weary veteran, but – as with Parkin’s story – I really was ready for a gentler, less cold-blooded hero for a story or two.  Kudos to the editor for providing this brief oasis, and to the author for crafting so engaging a heroine.

Having said that, I’m inclined, if I’m being honest, to both criticise and praise the editorial work on the next story up, ‘Sleepwalking to Paradise’ by Dan Barrett.  Which is not to say that the story is poor – anything but.  It’s impressively layered and plotted, with several competing stands of action, at least two clever twists, and an ending which left me making an actual noise of surprise and pleasure at the author’s cleverness in staying true to the character, rather than providing a pat and easy ending.  Editor Declan May deserves credit then both for allowing the story to take up the space it requires (it’s quite a long tale) and for using this story at the edges of the War to gently slide the reader back into the conflict after two more pastoral stories.  Where I might perhaps quibble a little is that, following on from a story called and about gardening, the last thousand words of this story are very similar in tone to much of that story, as a character describes her garden using pretty similar phrases in each.  A very minor quibble, in truth, which swapping Parkin and Kelish’s stories round n the running order would fix in a trice (if it needs fixing at all – it may be I’m enjoying this anthology so much that I’m now looking for things to moan about, in order to keep my curmudgeonly reputation intact!)

Damn, and that's the stakes raised.  'Guerre' by Alan P. Jack and Declan May continues the theme of Doctor as Bastard seen in the earlier May-penned vignettes, but leavened now with a slightly softer (and older) War Doctor.  One weary of killing, but forced to kill, aware of the necessities of war but equally cognisant that those necessities can change a man.  This story (set, very effectively in World War I), even though it doesn't feature the most radical depiction of the Doctor, has convinced me that this is not the man we knew any longer.  He's not even, by this point, a variation on the Doctoral theme really.  This War Doctor is a man for whom the choices available keep narrowing until even the unthinkable is possible.  In terms of the plot, it does seem a little convenient that Vincent just happened to be returning home as the Doctor landed, but coincidence is hardly the worst of plotting sins.

The second short 'Girl with Purple Hair' story meanwhile is short and to the point, though again showing a very weary Doctor contemplating death, and serves as a coda to the story preceding it.  Hard to say anything further without giving everything away...

'V. Lady Leela' completes a triumvirate of consecutive Declan May shorts - and manages to be the bloodiest of the three stories.  Again, it's sufficiently short that too much discussion will give away too much away, but suffice it to say that I thought the characterisation of our favourite savage turned implausible army wife was spot-on and exactly how I imagine Leela would react to the Time War.

In passing, it's a pleasure to observe the way in which the editor has shaped the flow of stories.  Too often people think that deciding the running order in a short story collection is simply a matter of making sure no two consecutive stories have too similar a plot, but Declan May demonstrates here that the order of stories can create a story of sorts itself.  Impressive.

A few years back I picked up Nick Mellish’s self-published short story collection on Lulu, and was pleasantly surprised by the very individual prose voice he turned out to have.   In the intervening years, Mellish has improved as a writer (not that he was a bad one before), but that gift of unusual phrasing has clearly stuck with him – lines like ‘it would catch me, stun me, and either kill me or take me off to the camps where I would work until death, and even then they would probably find a job for my soul’ are sprinkled across the pages of ‘Making Endings’ to its great benefit. The story itself is also very well done – just when you think it’s one thing, it turns out to be another, and then a slightly different other still, and then it’s all done, and I found myself at the end feeling both happy and sad, just like a really good story always does.  Suddenly I find myself wondering where my copy of that Lulu collection might be…

The Book of the Dead’ by David Carrington sees the return of Jenny Shirt (who, frankly, I’m starting to think of as a tv companion I’d somehow managed to forget about – and if that’s not a pleasingly ironic piece of post-modern shenanigans in a book about the War Doctor then I don’t know what is).  This is good, as she’s a splendid character, with more personality than all but the very best tv assistants, but better still is the idea – introduced early on – of a library inside a majestic oak tree.  That, let us be clear, is the sort of image to win over the heart of this particular bibliophile reviewer!  Packed with splendidly wild ideas and images – I especially liked the proposed plant Daleks – this is good, solid Doctor Who writing, of the sort that the Big Finish Short Trips collections used to do, at their very best. 

On the surface, it’d be very easy – and very simplistic – to see ‘Driftwood’ by Simon Brett as something too similar to the tv episodes ‘Into the Dalek’ and ‘Dalek’, featuring as it does a Dalek apparently turned into something else, something less Dalek-y.  But that’d be wrong – this Dalek, Azrael as the non-Daleks call him, is more than just a prisoner or an enemy.  Named after the Muslim Angel of Death, I was unexpectedly reminded of Dante’s Satan, trapped deep in the ice at the centre of Hell, or even Milton’s deceiving, poetic devil – and if that seems pretentious, well even if it is, it’s no less true for all that.  As the story progresses, little clues build up, pointing the reader in one interesting direction, only for Brett to surprise every one (well, me anyway!) by carrying out a sneaky, and damn clever, side step at the last moment. Another high point in an altogether stellar collection…

I’ve come particularly to look forward to the ‘Girl with the Purple Hair’ stories which pop up intermittently in Seasons.  They’re short, precise vignettes which provide a spine for the book, without intruding into the flow of the other stories.  Which makes it a shame that number III in the series is, for me, the first mildly jarring mis-step in the collection.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s as neatly and concisely written as earlier entries, with some useful and touching commentary on the life of the War Doctor from the titular Jenny Shirt, but there’s an unexpected clumsiness in the key moment of the story, a moment which I won’t spoil but which felt, to me, a little too obvious and a little too keen to pluck at the heart strings.  It’s not a major problem – and even if it was, the quality of the other stories in this mini-series more than compensate for a very slight tonal issue like this – but it was enough to make me pause in my reading and wish that a more subtle approach had been taken.  One interesting aside is that, at one point, the author refers to ‘Kaled Deadnoughts’ rather than Dalek ones, which may have been unintentional, but did make me picture a Time War in which the Daleks go back to a time pre-Davros and absorb their own ancestors into the conflict…

Alan Ronald’s ‘The Ingenious Gentleman’ on the other hand is an absolute blast.  Cleverly starting with what appears to be the War Doctor on a white horse, Ronald throws the reader straight into the action as a famous Spanish writer and adventurer encounters a materialising TARDIS by a suspiciously giant-like windmill.  The tone throughout the first half of this splendid tale is firmly tongue in cheek, as Don Quixote and the Doctor trade stories of their respective quests and, after some genuinely gruelling (in the good, intentional sense) recent stories, it’s hard to deny that the change is a welcome one.  Even so, there’s room left later for the two heroes to interact at a less frivolous level – in fact, thinking about it, this is one of those stories where the plot is less important than the characterisation and perhaps the key thing the reader should take away from it is the idea that perhaps – one day – the War Doctor might feel able to drop the ‘War’ from his name.  Another thumbs up for both author and editor for slipping ‘The Ingenious Gentleman’ in exactly where it was needed in this increasingly impressive collection.

There's a strange line early on in Matt Barber's 'Fall' where the narrator remarks that the Doctor's face 'had a look of Don Quixote about it'.  Nothing wrong with that in itself, of course, but it does feel slightly peculiar to have such a comparison straight after a story in which he meets that Spanish literary eccentric - as though this is something significant, rather than merely an incidental effect of story placement.  That's about the only off-kilter moment in the tale though, as an elderly Brigadier makes his first appearance in the book, coming to the Doctor's aid against a Krynoid threat.  I have an admission to make at this point, though.  This isn't the best written story in the book, nor the one with the most interesting plot or the most unexpected twist on the standard Who tropes.  Which sounds like I'm about to say I didn't like it at all.  but in fact I loved it.  Everything in the story is more accurately described as 'competent' and 'solid' rather than 'brilliant' or 'exceptional' but there's something about the whole - about the mix of old and new favourites, about the obscure tv references and the knowing jokes, about the interaction between the Doctor, the Brig and everyone else - which works absolutely perfectly and turns this story into a real celebration.  This is how I picture the Brigadier in very old age, close, as he admits himself, to death.  Not slipping away in his sleep in a retirement home, but creating his only mini-army who he leads when the time is right and the old UNIT gang are required.  Actually, I tell a lie anyway - there's one element in which this story - rather than being 'merely' very good - is the best.  The author gets the elderly Brigadier spot on, from the straightening of his aged spine when called to action, via his feelings of pain when he allows one of his men (or women) to die, all the way to his own feelings of inadequacy and his realisation that war has chnaged his old friend, the Doctor.  It's beautifully done, and the ending almost reduced me to tears (it's also damn funny at points, I should add).  Another highlight in a book which positively sparkles with them.

Jon Arnold's 'Always Face the Curtain with a Bow', on the other hand starts with a bang and never lets up until it finishes.  With a combination of humour, pace and sheer brio, Arnold takes the readers on a terrific ride which reminded me at times of the work of the late Terry Pratchett and at others of the equally lamented Iain M Banks, as great jokes and mad ideas clash and collide in a frantic literary form of Brownian Motion.  I especially liked the mind eating penguins of Voltaria and the killer bunnies, but it's a slick story all round, with echoes of Philip Jose Farmer's 'Riverworld' and  the movie 'Groundhog Day' - which is just the sort of unexpected mashup Doctor Who is so good at, now I think about it...

'Help a Stranded Time Traveller' by Matthew Sylvester is considerably more straight-forward an adventure story, with the Doctor arriving as a ruthless and greedy criminal attempts to steal of wrecked TARDIS in order to sell it to the Daleks.  Sylvester is a confident, accomplished writer and if I don't say as much about this as other stories in the book, that's not an insult, but more a recognition that real professionalism is as often about creating something solid, comfortable and dependable than something wildly experimental or controversial. Sylvester has come up with a story which, in some ways, could be about the Sixth Doctor or the First as easily as about the War Doctor, and there's nothing wrong with that at all.

Quite a few of the stories in this book are pretty large scale, with whole planets under threat and entire armies wiped out.  That's an unavoidable consequence of putting together a large amount of stories about a War which spans all of space and time, but even so, it's a pleasure now and then to come across something slightly more small-scale (in a good way).  'Storage Wars' by Paul Driscoll manages to be both at once, which is the best combination of all, if you ask me.  Small scale, as the title suggests, in that this is a tale about something found in a Totters Lane junkyard and sold on a trashy bit of daytime tv schedule filler.  Small too in that the Doctor at this point in his life is living as a near tramp in central London, apparently taking a break from the War.  Small, finally, in the sense that the whole story revolves around a payment of a  mere six grand and possession of a child's toy, not millions of pounds or billions of mazumas or whatever.  But there's also grandeur in here, with the genocide of one species reversed and the Doctor rejecting a weapon against the Daleks because it would require that genocide to work.  There's paradox too, most obviously in Ruby's desire to weaponise something tiny in order to destroy something huge, but also in the War Doctor - in spite of his name - choosing beauty over destruction.  And finally, there's some really nasty stuff, as befits a book about a war - burned corpses and unmarked graves and human nature shown to be less than the ideal.  A lovely story composed of layer upon layer of meaning, and an impressive achievement all round.

There's a point in John Davies' 'The Postman' in which the author intertwines several disparate time lines into one action-packed sequence.  It works pretty successfully, and serves as a micro-version of the story as a whole, but it also marks the point at which Davies cuts the legs from under the reader and what seemed on the surface, at the beginning, to be a fairly jolly, at times humorous, story becomes something black as hell.  It's not the first story in this collection to be comfortable with the grim, but - more even than Daniel Wealands - this is brutal, brutal stuff.  It's hard to say much without giving things away, but remember that the postman of the title is one of the type who deliver black edged telegrams to waiting mothers and fathers and you get the idea.  Might just be me, but I found this enormously moving and the timey-wimey sequence painfully sad.  As with every other story, this is well-written, cleverly plotted and entirely affecting.

If I'm honest, I'm not sure how I feel about 'The Thief of All Ways' by Elliot Thorpe.   For the first time in the book - even allowing for the grimness of elements of the previous story - it feels like this is not in any way the Doctor I know and love.  This guy is an unknown now, sacrificing lives without really looking for an alternative, and then expecting the victims to thank him later.  It's deliberate, of course, and the author does indeed have the victim say 'thank you' and then acknowledge that in some way what the Doctor is being 'forced' to do is the 'right' thing - "The Daleks would have used me in ways I can’t even imagine. That’s a more horrifying thought than this...and it means I can at least do something right." she says at one point - but I found the former in particular a lot less believable as a sentiment than the "No! Wait! Please!" she cries out when the time actually comes.  It's hard to deny the maturity of this writing though - noble self-sacrifice is a lot easier when it doesn't look as though it'll be required, and panic when the moment comes is a perfectly normal human reaction.  But the 'thank you' at the end is, I think, a mis-step - more of a way of quickly re-humanising this callous, killer Doctor than a genuinely plausible reaction from someone who's just been murdered, effectively (and the entire story, of course, comes just a heartbeat after Paul Driscoll's very different take on the Doctor and his willingness to compromise his core values).  Like I said, I'm a bit conflicted about this one, but it did make me think and sometimes there's no greater praise you can give a story.

Paul Driscoll is in danger of becoming my favourite new author in this collection.  After his excellent initial offering, 'Storage Wars', his second story "The Time Lord Who Came to Tea' manages to continue at the same high quality level.  It's a deceptively simple story, with the Doctor and a child crossing a war torn landscape to collect some much needed supplies, but it's the incidental detail and the world building which impresses.  Dalek Meat Traders, Puritanians, the protection of rotting corpses and the promise of Arcadia - each element Driscoll introduces adds a little more to the world he has created until, in the space of a few thousand words, Jericho feels as real as any planet from the tv show or novels.  I'd be happy to read more about young Sophienna and her world - can't say better than that.

Damn, this next story, 'The Nightmare Child' is about as unexpected as anything I've read this year.  Normal narrative structure is abandoned in part, replaced by the bastard offspring of James Joyce and Kathy Acker (minus the sex references).  it's not clear who wrote this - mention of wardenmen suggest that it may perhaps be John Davies - but the plot here is subservient to the language, the nameless author playing with words and phrases, combining and dissecting them with controlled abandon.

It makes sense to follow this linguistic tour-de-force with a story from Paul Magrs.  In the past I've read similarly experimental cut-up approaches by Magrs to Sexton Blake, Sherlock Holmes and Iris Wildthyme and so in a perverse sort of way it feels right that he should be the one to return the collection to the everyday.  In fact, reading it, I wonder if the preceding tale and this are not both his, as Davros turns out to be an old disabled guy in a wheelchair, who lives in a tower block in urban London and dreams of the Nightmare Child.  This return to the setting of Magrs' and Jeremy Hoad's 'The Blue Angel' novel (my favourite Who novel), only updated for the new series, is both a surprise and a real pleasure and has, not to put too fine a point on it, quite made my day.

Next up - Barnaby Eaton-Jones can bugger off.




I'm tempted to say nothing more about his story and hell-mend him, but I suppose I have to be the bigger man here.  Let's see...

It's pretty damn good, actually, with a bone weary Doctor near the end of this incarnation and ready for death.  As I've mentioned before, it's unavoidable that a War Doctor has to be violent and amoral, a killer with little conscience, but I have particularly enjoyed moments like this, where one author or other demonstrates that - in the absolute end - the War Doctor will be bowed down by the weight of his actions, and regret all the things he's had to do.  Eaton-Jones effectively turns this necessity from subtext to (almost) text in relating one of the Doctor's memories concerning the death of one administrator who worked with the Daleks (presumably - it's not made clear) because he had no choice but to do so.  It remains unspoken, but the comparison with the Doctor is clear enough - forced throughout this collection of stories to do all manner of things he'd rather not, to sacrifice all the principles which made him the Doctor and, in doing so, become someone who, in his own words, doesn't deserve that name or, perhaps, his own life.

So, maybe it's not so terrible that Jenny Shirt dies, after all - for all that the Doctor says it would seem I’ve made the wrong choice, it's a dying Jenny who tells him that he hasn't - and that's pretty important.

"English. Therefore probably drunk" - Gary Russell wins the prize for funniest line in the book.  And his story 'The Beach' slots in very well as near the end of the book as the Doctor is near the end of his life.  Because the War is nearly over, the Doctor has a Plan, and it's time to wrap up loose ends.  Russell's writing has been accused in the past of prioritising continuity concerns over story, but that's the last accusation which can be levelled at 'The Beach', which is sweet and small-scale recounting of debts repaid and promises kept.  Quite lovely, in its way, in fact.

There's a reason that George Mann was chosen to write the sole War Doctor novel so far released by the BBC.  He has the happy knack of capturing the most interesting parts of the characters he writes, for one thing.  Not for Mann a War Doctor obsessed with fighting.  Instead, he shows us a War Doctor trying to please (and, perhaps, save) a single friend, and in doing so pleases this reader enormously.  The litany of rescued moments which the Doctor shows Cinder (and how nice to get what is effectively a deleted scene with that splendid girl) serve both as a touching opportunity to gain her own survival and an affectionate reminder of the multiple, wonderful, alien worlds of 'Doctor Who' as a whole.  That we know, as readers of 'Engines of War', how it all ends up does nothing to detract from that.  Fingers crossed that this isn't the last time Mann writes for Doctor 8.5...

Declan May obviously loves language.  You can tell that from any part of his writing.  It turns out he wrote the extravagant word gymnastics of  'The Nightmare Child', for example, but in this last story in this more than accomplished collection, that adoration for sound is equally evident and just as memorable.  Descriptions like 'cruel, twisted tailor-made naissance' and 'Gallifrey, spoiled in the heat of war and turned into a desperate, treacherous, brutal beast' abound here, but even if they didn't, his decision to list the thirteen Chronosmiths individually (Wigs, Rags, Hynchcliffe, Sheepskin, Plunder, the Baronessa, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, Spinach, Thurber, Myopapa and the Cigarette Crow, fact fans) demonstrates an unusually strong love of linguistic legerdemain which cannot be denied.  He even dips into French at one point!  As for the story...well, read it for yourself and see what you think.

Read them all, in fact...