Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Reviews: 'Plague of the Cybermen', 'The Dalek Generation', 'Shroud of Sorrow'

One of the nice things about the return of Doctor Who to our screens is the way that it also gives a shot in the arm to the nigh-dormant book line. As someone who really spent most of his formative fan period during the Wilderness Years, I'm thrilled to see any new book. Was I thrilled after reading them? Well...

Plague of the Cybermen: This one was not so much "thrilling" as "standard". Everything about this was absolutely straightforward and done according to the tropes of Doctor Who, with just the minimal amount of energy to keep you from falling asleep while reading. The Doctor arrives in a vaguely European, vaguely pre-industrial village so generic that I literally expected the big twist to be that it wasn't Earth, and begins to track down the source of mysterious deaths and disappearances. (Hint: The novel is called 'Plague of the Cybermen'. There are a limited number of ways to surprise the audience with the cause of the disappearances.)

The actual plague is dealt with in about the first thirty pages, and proves to be more or less irrelevant to the plot; it's there mostly because "...stuff, I guess of the Cybermen" wouldn't have been a great title. The Doctor finds a villager who's sufficiently spunky-yet-vulnerable to be his pseudo-companion, and they investigate anachronistic technology, a castle with hidden passageways, grave robbings, and mysterious disappearances until Justin Richards has filled out enough of the page count. Then the Cybermen come out in force and rampage a bit, until the Doctor does something clever and vaguely inspiring and they all die. (I'd say "spoilers", but really, you can pretty much see this one coming from about page one.) I's not bad, I'll stress. Justin Richards is incapable of turning in a truly bad novel; he's just too competent on a fundamental level to make mistakes in plot, character or tone. But at the same time, he's not really trying to turn in a great one, either. Just "good enough". It feels weird to say that the two weakest books of the last few years have both been his, but that's as much a tribute to his work as an editor as it is an indictment of him as an author. Even so, I wish he'd done more of that great editorial work and commissioned someone else for this slot.

The Dalek Generation: Technically speaking, this is the work of a first-time author, but Nicholas Briggs has written a lot of Doctor Who. Just not for the novels. He's a veteran of the Big Finish range (where he wrote excellent stories like 'Creatures of Beauty', less than excellent ones like 'The Sirens of Time') and he's probably best known to the average passerby as the voice of the Daleks and Cybermen on the new series. So all in all, it's about time that he wrote a novel. How was it?

Well, the concept is glorious. It's set in a distant galaxy where the Daleks are the benevolent creators of an interplanetary utopia known as the Sunlight Worlds, and an entire generation of humans knows them as nothing other than benefactors. When the Doctor shows up and tries to denounce them as evil, he's prosecuted for incitement to hate crimes. Every part of this is nothing short of brilliant. Having seen the Daleks as often as we have, it's easy to understand (as the Doctor does) that this has to be part of some sinister scheme. But it's rare to see the Daleks portrayed as such utterly Machiavellian schemers; Briggs shows them as clever, patient, and manipulative, which is something that's more often told than shown. And Briggs revels in showing the whole thing from just enough of an outside perspective that we can see how the Doctor is reduced to utter impotence in the face of this gambit; he can't rally a population to fight the Daleks when they don't have anything they want to fight against, and seeing him reduced to a ranting nutter in the street is genuinely unsettling in a way that the series rarely is.

Next to that, the actual plot (Spoilers: The Daleks aren't really good guys after all!) is kind of boring, but it does provide a reasonable explanation as to why the Daleks are doing everything. My only real complaint is that it seems like they're heading towards an ending that makes the Doctor's hiding in misery in Victorian London make sense, but they pull back. The ending should be very bleak, and it's sort of "whew, that was too close! Better stop traveling and righting wrongs, then."

Shroud of Sorrow: Another new writer for the novels, and unlike Nick Briggs, Tommy Donbavand doesn't have a ton of Who credits in another medium. He's a genuinely new voice for the range (and as an aside, Justin Richards has been doing an admirable job of this lately. Oli Smith, Una McCormack, James Goss, Paul Finch, George Mann, Naomi Alderman...that's a lot of new authors getting their shot, and there've been a lot of successes in that batch. Yay Justin!) How did he do? Well, the concept is strong, and thematically linked to the 50th anniversary; the Shroud feed on grief, and the death of Kennedy (which, of course, took place the same weekend as the debut of a certain television series) has provided them with a feast to end all feasts. It's a strong idea, and for the first three-fourths of the book, it's quite well executed. Donbavand has a good ear for dialogue, and evokes the slightly fairy-tale feel of Matt Smith's character quite well. The plot also jumps straight into gear; there are no slow, creeping menaces here. The Shroud rapidly spreads over a whole city, and the Doctor's got maybe eleven hours before Earth is irretrievably parasitized. (Although I'm not crazy about the idea that if your grief gets "eaten", another emotion gets stronger to fill the breach. As menacing fates for the human race go, it's been topped.)

The book goes off the rails a tiny bit towards the end, when the Doctor goes to a planet previously victimized by the Shroud and, clown therapists. Who travel to Earth in a dimensionally transcendental clown car to battle the Shroud with laughter. I think this is one of those concepts that will either work for you or it won't. For me, it didn't. And after that, we get several more strategies deployed to battle the Shroud at the rate of about one every other page, which is a bit too fast paced even for me. On the other hand, this section does contain one of the finest sequences in the book, where the Doctor lures the Shroud to him with memories of the Brigadier's funeral. It's a wonderful tribute to one of the show's touchstones. On the strength of that, and some of the other vivid and clever sequences, I'd like to see another book from Tommy Donbavand, even if this one contains a few first-time writer flaws.

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