Friday, 10 April 2015

SEASONS OF WAR: Tales From A Time War - ed. Declan May (2015) PART 13

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...

SEASONS OF WAR: Tales From A Time War - ed. Declan May (2015) PART 12

Well Barbaby 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...

 * and a new Cinder image by Paul Hanley!

Thursday, 9 April 2015

SEASONS OF WAR: Tales From A Time War - ed. Declan May (2015) PART 11

Paul Driscoll is in danger of becoming my favourite new author in this collection.  After his excellent initial offering, 'Stoarage 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 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.

SEASONS OF WAR: Tales From A Time War - ed. Declan May (2015) PART 10

[Seasons of War is a charity Doctor Who short story collection, edited by Declan May, with all proceeds going to the Cauldwell Childrens charity.  It's a long book, with a lot of stories, so I'll be reviewing it in chunks of 4-6 stories at a time over the next week or so...]

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 a 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 disaprate 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 withut giving thigns 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 anyway 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. to buy the ebook.  There's a paperback (and reviews of the next few stories) yet to come..

Friday, 3 April 2015

SEASONS OF WAR: Tales From A Time War - ed. Declan May (2015) PART 9

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.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

SEASONS OF WAR: Tales From A Time War - ed. Declan May (2015) PART 8

[Seasons of War is a charity Doctor Who short story collection, edited by Declan May, with all proceeds going to the Cauldwell Childrens charity.  It's a long book, with a lot of stories, so I'll be reviewing it in chunks of 4-6 stories at a time over the next week or so...]

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. to buy the ebook.  There's a paperback (and reviews of the next few stories) yet to come..

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

SEASONS OF WAR: Tales From A Time War - ed. Declan May (2015) PART 7

[Seasons of War is a charity Doctor Who short story collection, edited by Declan May, with all proceeds going to the Cauldwell Children charity.  It's a long book, with a lot of stories, so I'll be reviewing it in chunks of 4-6 stories at a time over the next week or so...]

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 of dialogue like ‘Princess in blue, run with me
’, and sentences 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… to buy the ebook.  There's a paperback (and reviews of the next few stories) yet to come...