Monday, 23 February 2015

SEASONS OF WAR: Tales From A Time War - ed. Declan May (2015) PART 6

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

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

Friday, 20 February 2015

SEASONS OF WAR: Tales From A Time War - ed. Declan May (2015) PART 5

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

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

Thursday, 19 February 2015

SEASONS OF WAR: Tales From A Time War - ed. Declan May (2015) PART 4

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

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

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

SEASONS OF WAR: Tales From A Time War - ed. Declan May (2015) PART 3

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

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

SEASONS OF WAR: Tales From A Time War - ed. Declan May (2015) PART 2

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

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