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!