With the return of the series to our television screens this weekend, it felt appropriate to take a look at BBC Books latest Doctor Who novels, with all three published this week on the 28 April.
First up is James Goss's Dead of Winter. James has worked extensively in theatre, radio and television and is best known to Doctor Who fans for the audio dramas Dead Air and The Hounds of Artemis, his Torchwood play Golden Age for BBC Radio 4, for producing Scream of the Shalka and Shada for BBCi. He also oversaw the development of the BBC's Doctor Who website and produced the Cosgrove Hall animated missing episodes of Troughton story The Invasion that were eventually released on DVD. Among his published books are original Torchwood and Being Human novels.
Of all three books, Goss attempts something very different here in terms of structure and narrative with Dead of Winter, perhaps in tune with the Gothic nature of the plot itself. Here, he mixes diaries, letters and journals with interior monologues of all the main characters, including the Doctor, Amy and Rory. The story emerges out of a mesh of observations from different points of view, conversations, thoughts, the tension between them and the variations in vernacular.
A pastiche on the polylogic epistolary novel - a narrative created by the multiple authors/characters in the book - it reminded me very much of Stoker's use of the form in Dracula (there's even a dog called Stoker) and Shelley's use of letters in Frankenstein, both rather appropriate cultural references given that the book comes across as a mixture of these and the heightened European atmosphere of Ann Radcliffe's The Italian, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and the more contemporary chilliness of Lovecraft's tales of Innsmouth and John Carpenter's The Fog.
It's Italian coastal setting is very evocative and Goss has some fun misdirecting the reader about the behaviour of the main characters after they wash ashore at a clinic purportedly treating consumptives. Gradually, we realise that Amy, Rory and the Doctor are emerging from some form of group amnesia, not quite knowing who they are and why they are guests at the clinic.
The story is also generated through the excitable letters of a young girl, Maria writing to her mother about the recent arrival of strangers at the clinic, the odd behaviour of the other guests such as the bombastic Mr. Nevil, the peculiar Dr. Bloom and his wife Perdita, and the nature of Bloom's cure which seems connected to the fog that rolls in from the sea. Goss slowly begins to fill in the detail through the interaction of these monologues while also painting vivid character sketches of Nevil, the Blooms, the Elquitine sisters and the mysterious Russian Prince Boris who seems to be under the influence of acolyte Kosov. The clever thing is that not everyone is quite who they seem to be and much of the book's delight is in discovering just how 'familiar' they are.
Through the letters of the young Maria, and it's a bit like Mary Shelley spinning us a tale at the Villa Diodati (and again there are brief references to Lake Geneva), Goss taps into a wonderful sense of escalating dread seen from a child's perspective. Better than this though are the chapters that tell the story from Rory and Amy's point of view. Goss not only describes many of their recognisable physical traits throughout the book but also, in these sections, explores what makes them tick and how they both feel about each other, including a witty look at Rory's inferiority complexes. There's a wonderful passage about Rory dropping a banana skin on an alien planet that brilliantly sums up his relationship with the Doctor as well as the dangers of littering precious eco-systems. Amy's impetuous streak, her love for the Doctor (much to Rory's annoyance) and husband Rory (much to his delight) shine through.
Definitely the strongest of the three books, it has a very bittersweet ending that will leave you pondering over how close the Doctor attempts to get to a happy ending each time he's faced with an alien threat that seeks world domination.
They kidnap those who get in their way, those who lose heavily at the casinos and random victims like Harry Mossop and his family and dump them on the derelict moon of Gorgoror to be hunted down in cold blood. Rory unfortunately isn't able to maintain a winning streak in a space-age craps game and is carted off by Krauzzen's henchmen. Amy stows away on their ship in pursuit and the Doctor is left to consider posing as one of the big game hunters in order to expose the syndicate and rescue his companions.
Finch's novel shifts from contemporary, austerity struck UK, and a very grounded reality, to something akin to Blake's 7 with a multi-million pound budget. Indeed, I was happy to recall a particularly fine Robert Holmes episode Gambit while reading this, especially the early chapters when Amy and Rory explore the casinos of LP9.
The plot is straight-forward action adventure using the well-heeled, run-down dirty futurism of Blade Runner and its ilk but it's a high-octane tale, very descriptively written by Finch who clearly relishes in the colour and detail of the worlds and characters he has created. The result is a book that you can absorb yourself in, where the surface and dereliction of Gorgoror becomes a very tangible place, full of danger from disused installations and a variety of nasties. As soon as all the characters reach this desolate place, the novel becomes an exhausting chase, almost like the various levels of a well detailed and immersive video game environment.
One of the best characters in the book is Harry Mossop. An ex-policeman, Mossop is struggling to keep his family together and to find appropriate work. When he breaks into the security firm that made him redundant, just to prove a point about his expertise and advice to an unheeding boss, he finds himself and his family kidnapped and taken to Gorgoror as sport to be hunted by intergalactic gangsters.
We see Mossop develop from a man struggling to be someone, disparaged by his wife and daughter, and become a real hero, helping Rory and the Doctor fight off all manner of alien beasties in an attempt to defeat the gangsters and get off Gorgoror. His expertise as a police officer finally comes in useful when he finds himself back at Leisure Platform 9, attempting to deal with the station's own police force, its complex bureaucracy and persuade the officer in charge to mount a rescue attempt and arrest the culprits.
Perhaps the only downside is that the characterisations of the Doctor, Amy and Rory aren't as well defined as they are in the books by Goss and McCormack but don't let that get in the way of this well written slice of future noir that mixes alien gangsters and gritty action.
McCormack's style is pithy and precise, an economic prose that is succinct in getting across the narrative and characterisation. The Way Through the Woods takes some of the temporal paradoxes that are flavour of the month in the television series and marries them to police procedural and a contemporary Earth setting where the appealing central character of Jess, a local reporter, becomes involved in the disappearance of a young girl, Vicky Caine.
As the story progresses and McCormack jumps between the present day and 1917, we learn how a number of missing persons have been reported, vanishing as they pass by Swallow Woods. The local village is full of scaremongering about Swallow Woods and that it has claimed another victim in Vicky Caine. The Woods are anthropomorphised in the book, taking on the power of a central character and as a realm of distorted reality and a place where the forces of nature are rampantly out of control.
By the time Jess finds herself reporting on the case, Amy, Rory and the Doctor have already deducted that the Woods have a significant effect on the local area, its history bound up with the Bronze Age, old Roman roads and the modern intrusion of the motorway. These notions allow McCormack to exploit a sense of unease about the place and about a force that has had a presence there for thousands of years, tapping into the memories of those that have disappeared. It has a very Nigel Kneale feel about it.
After Amy contacts Jess in the local pub, she convinces her that there is more to this case than missing people. After all, Rory has lost himself in 1917, working undercover and charged with meeting bar maid Emily Lostock. Emily it seems was another victim of Swallow Woods and Rory has been despatched to find out what happened to her. Meanwhile, the Doctor has been arrested in connection with Vicky's case and local police Inspector Galloway is slowly losing his patience with the strange man obsessed by the broken venetian blinds in the interview room. Another influence here is ATV's Sapphire and Steel, the story hinging upon the disruption of time, the hijacking of memories by an alien machine mind in the woods, of a ship from a war far, far away, and the intertwined fears of a scared young deserter from the war of 1917.
Again, McCormack latches onto the physical and vocal mannerisms of the main cast, capturing very well Amy's feistiness and Rory's lugubrious nature. The interview scenes between Galloway and the Doctor and how the Doctor eventually persuades Galloway's colleague Porter to let him go and sort out the problem also illustrate her great ability to transpose Matt Smith's mannerisms onto the page and are often very funny. Galloway and Porter are also as vivid as Emily and Jess and that the book can maintain this level of characterisation, both with them and the Doctor and his companions, as the story transforms into a dark fairy tale, complete with shape-changing man-foxes and imaginary palaces, is to her credit. It's a little treat of a book.
Dead of Winter - James Goss
BBC Books / Published 28 April 2011 / ISBN: 9781849902380
Hunter's Moon - Paul Finch
BBC Books / Published 28 April 2011 / ISBN: 1849902364
The Way Through the Woods - Una McCormack
BBC Books / Published 28 April 2011 / ISBN: 9781849902373
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