Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Justin Robinson's EVERYMAN

I mostly know of Justin Robinson as a cleverly goofy writer of fun stuff like his Mr. Blank books and City of Devils -- imaginative, occasionally silly romps that take an entertaining premise and run buck-wild with it.* I only vaguely knew that he wrote more traditional genre fiction, too, with a bent towards horror.

What I didn't know was that when he does so, if Everyman is anything to go by, he achieves even more impressive results.

Everyman goes on my virtual shelves alongside the works of Tony Burgess (Pontypool Changes Everything, The N-Body Problem), Ben Marcus (The Flame Alphabet) and Colson Whitehead (Zone One).** What do these have in common? They're ostensibly horror, but they transcend the genre in various amazing ways.

Superficially, Everyman is treading through Tim Powers territory, and I don't just say this because it so lovingly traces its way through the geography of Los Angeles. Its monsters (well, at least one of them) would be at home in a Powers novel, as would its depiction of the warm and happy but doomed marriage at the heart of its narrative, and it has chills similar to those that Powers occasionally offers, but Everyman has emotional beats and trappings that are entirely its own thing.

The book can be read as an extended ad absurdam metaphor for identity theft; its antagonist, Ian, can do so with frightening completeness, just by rooting out what thing among all of a person's possessions actually carries the most of his victim's emotional identification and stealing it. Possession of this possession allows him to mimic the person so completely that even those closest to the victim believe that Ian is the real person and their loved one is a bad and terrifying imposter -- even if both of them are in the room.

The victim is quickly expelled from his paradise, and finds that not only those who know him or her, but everyone, reacts to him or her with a deep lizard-brain level of hostility.

Such happens to our first protagonist, David, in the first act, and we spend a lot of time with him as his new unreality sinks in. He is suddenly friendless, homeless, loveless -- his own mother, his friends and neighbors, even, most importantly, his truly beloved wife, Sophie (who winds up the real hero of this novel in lots of poignant -- and kickass -- ways) threaten violence or law enforcement involvement at the very sight of him. This material is every bit as gut-wrenching as you might expect, but never strays into melodrama, remaining merely deeply effective, and eventually, quite Kafkaesque.***

And then things get bad.

Ian's power works in weird and grotesque ways, ways that Robinson spent a lot of time and effort reasoning out (again, in a very Tim Powers way that I can't applaud enough. Yes, it's supernatural/magical, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be internally logical!). Ian's victims don't just wind up lonely and homeless: there is a far sadder, weirder and grosser fate awaiting them. And their chosen objects. Yuck.

I am seriously impressed.

*And as a hilariously snarky lover of television and movies of questionable quality, which he loves (?) to share with us over at The Satellite Show.

**I suppose Doris Lessing belongs there, too, but I've only read The Fifth Child and don't want to read any more as a result.

***I mean, really, is anything more Kafkaesque than a well-constructed doppelganger story? To be truly Kafkaesque I suppose our heroes would have to have gotten tangled up in the justice system's red tape, but still.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

THRAWN AND ON AND ON: A STAR WARS LITERARY PODCAST

With the release last year of the long-awaited Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a couple of my internet buddies and I naturally got to talking about the Star Wars Expanded Universe, no part of which is included in the film (that whole sort-of-canon has now been shunted off as Star Wars Legends, to much grumbling in some communities). As followers of this here blog know, though I've been a Star Wars fan since movie houses first went pew pew pew in 1977, to date I've only sort of explored said universe -- I've played a lot of KOTOR, read the Storybooks when I was a wee one, and I have read Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, and that's about it.

Well, that's about to change. We're going to swim in the bathwater that J.J. Abrams and Disney threw out.

Because those friends -- Shawn Duke, Rachel Acks and Sarah, the redoubtable tweeter we know as Bookworm Blues -- and I decided not only were we going to read, eventually, ALL THE STAR WARS together, but we'd podcast it, too.

And we just recorded our first episode, in which we talked about, yes, Heir to the Empire.

It's going to be lots of fun. We've got a diverse set of viewpoints on the EU -- Shaun and Rachel are both hardy long-time explorers of same, I've dipped my toe in some but am thoroughly steeped in the original trilogy and its game offshoots, and Sarah was a complete Star Wars innocent until The Force Awakens awakened her.

We're going to have guests, including author guests, and special features (including, yes, sonnetry from yours truly) and who knows what other craziness!

We'll be releasing it under the Skiffy and Fanty imprimatur, so we should be easy to find, but I'll also share a link as soon as the show goes live.

Oh yeah, and the name? Totally from an Abba song. Because we're not just dorks, we're shameless dorks. Represent.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

James S.A. Corey's CALIBAN'S WAR

The first Expanse novel, Leviathan Wakes was a Belter punk detective story in space opera clothing, and entertaining as hell, entertaining enough for me to set aside the books I was intending to read next and plunge right into the sequel. So what's the sequel, Caliban's War?

Man, the sequel is pretty much a horror novel with a sprinkling of military fiction in space opera clothing, innit? In fact, on reflection, it reminded me more than a bit of two favorites: the earlier Alien films, and Paul Elard Cooley's horror/petroleum punk The Black novels and, of course, Scott Sigler's Infected series. In fact, imagine a possibly omnipotent, physics-defying combination of those three menaces and set it in a human-settled solar system and you've pretty much got the protomolecule that is the main background threat of the Expanse series thus far.

So while I enjoyed meeting up with (almost) all of the characters I'd come to enjoy in the last novel, and my introduction to three new ones, it was really the horror/suspense elements of the plot, and the characters' (largely post-traumatic) reactions to them, that really kept me advancing the pages of Caliban's War. Especially the reactions. This book so successfully evoked the PTSD experience (at least as experienced by Your Humble Blogger) that it actually gave me quite a bit of trouble mid-novel. I won't say I had a full-blown attack, but I was pretty much a mess for the middle third of the story. Part of me is very upset about this, because triggering someone's PTSD is not at all nice, but the rest of me admires the effectiveness this had in absolutely freaking riveting me to what I was reading.**

But so, your mileage may vary there. A lot of people have whined that this book isn't as good as its predecessor (and they're not totally wrong in that lots of it does rehash/recycle elements from LW, right down to the Find the Missing Girl plot), but I don't see it. I was able to put the first one down, sometimes for days. This one, this one I barely slept.

But I wasn't just scared, reading CW. I also just enjoyed. I really dig all the characters from the first novel that carried over into this one (though I sure do miss [REDACTED]), and the new ones introduced here are just as great.*** Everybody gets a very satisfying character arc (well, except maybe Naomi, who has diminished into a stock girlfriend character who only occasionally gets to do something kind of important behind the scenes with her magical technological skills. Fix that, Coreys!) and their adventures with the Caliban-esque**** (in that they are supernaturally powerful beings imperfectly subjected to human will, only to of course throw off their chains and raise hell) protomolecular monsters are amazing, of course.

There was something else, though, that really fascinated me in CW, and that's the depiction of how Ganymede functions, and how it falls apart. Here the two-headed Corey monster really went to town, fully and convincingly realizing a complete world, a total artificial ecosystem on which not only its immediate inhabitants depend but on which most of the Outer Planets and the Belt do, too, and then tearing it all down in excruciating detail. It's kind of like watching a giant domino display of doom going down. Yes, I realize I'm probably a big ol' jerk for enjoying this aspect as much as I did. But I'm sure I'm not alone.

Now excuse me. I have to start on the next one. Because of [REDACTED] showing up at the end and not being [REDACTED] but instead [REDACTED]. Dude!

*Which, Bob help me, I always want to type -- and say -- as Leviathan's Wake. I'm sure there's something Freudian there but I don't care. It's just something that simultaneously amuses and annoys me.

**Much as in a full-blown event, I knew perfectly well that nothing was actually happening at the time and I was perfectly safe in my comfortable home and so was everybody else I care about, but knowing intellectually that nothing is wrong is not enough to stop me feeling it in my gut and shaking and crying, or to let me tear myself away from the horror show in my head. Because who wants to stop and do EMDR while reading a freaking sci-fi novel?

***Though man, the TV show sure did improve on Avasarala (even as the TV writers had to create her story out of whole cloth for the show, because she's not in the parts of the books that the first TV season covered). Not just because Shohreh Aghdashloo is fantastic and lends the character considerable gravitas and grace, but because she had to do something to get her point across besides swearing. I have no particular problem with cursing usually, but book-Avasarala relies entirely too much on the harmless-looking little old lady shocking everybody with F-bombs to get her point across. Jeebus!

****Read your damned Shakespeare.

Friday, February 12, 2016

James S.A. Corey's LEVIATHAN WAKES

So, a lot of people who are talking about these books and the rather good television adaptation they've recently spawned* seem to be very interested in having the argument over whether Leviathan's Wake and its sequels count as Space Opera or not. And maybe I should wait until I've read further into the series before I form my opinion, but I have an early contender for an answer to the question, and that is: it's not. Because it's its own thing, and the two-headed monster that writes as James S.A. Corey already done named it: it's Belter Punk.

At least this first book is. There are hints throughout, of course, that the series as a whole is going to have that galactic sweep and scale and sense of awe and alienness that people go to Space Opera for, but this book right here, this is Belter Punk, which within the text of the novel refers to a genre of (presumably) grungy and loud and unlovely but passionate music favored by residents of the asteroid belt/minor planets out between Mars and Jupiter, where they live inside hollowed-out rocks and aren't quite self-contained but sure do try but meanwhile they're still dependent on Earth and Mars and various shipping vessels to make sure they don't run out of air or water. It's an unglamorous life out there in the Sol system, and the people who have adapted to it have gotten a tad strange, and not just because a general lack or low level of gravity have made them tall and skinny and big-headed and knobby-jointed and a tad resentful.

But so it's mostly Belters we're dealing with, here at the beginning of the Expanse series, chiefly in the persons of James Miller and Naomi Nagata, he a terse, embittered gumshoe straight out of a Dashiell Hammet, she a tech wiz who starts out her novel-life serving on the crew of a space-freighter hauling water to Ceres, the minor planet in/on which Miller has spent his whole life...

But there are planetary types, too, out there among them, including Earther Jim Holden, the Executive Officer of the freighter on which Naomi serves, who grew up in some kind of official polyamorous group marriage in Montana and was supposed to take over/save the family's ranch there someday but instead headed for outer space; Amos Burton, also an Earther, and a smarter and more useful (and even more quotable) version of Jayne Cobb if ever there was one, who serves as a mechanic on the freighter; Alex Kamal, he of East Indian descent and Texas accent that mark him out as a guy who grew up on Mars and quite the pilot; and Fred Johnson, he of the colorful military past who is now the somewhat shady "unofficial prime minister" of the Outer Planets Alliance.**

It's a not-too-surprising combination of noir detective plot (enacted by Miller) and a mystery/assassination/perils of Pauline plot (enacted by the freighter crew) that bring them all into each other's orbits, as both investigations eventually lead the parties to the same place, where they make a creepy and potentially system-shattering discovery involving the secret origins of one of Saturn's moons and a nasty "protomolecule" that is a sort of weaponized version of the noocytes of Blood Music (Greg Bear) fame.

There are lots of space battles and starship chases and space station explosions and squicky evil to enjoy as the plot tosses the characters around, making this a fun as well as a politically interesting read, but what really sold me on it was the character of Miller, the washed-up detective who is tossed a case that's pretty much meant to be unsolvable but decides to give it his all anyway, with melancholy as well as explosive results. He's in every way a literary cliche that should make one yawn, but his background as a guy born and raised in space gives him just enough freshness to make all that old, sad stuff feel new again. And I'm not just talking about the fungal whiskey he drinks (though maybe more than a bit is due to what watchers of the TV series have waggishly dubbed the "Space Fedora of Justice" even though it is very clearly named several times in the text as a porkpie and not a fedora, but anyway). His story is absorbing enough on its own, but when it becomes entertwined with those of the freighter crew members, it all gets wonderfully complex, until there is a moment when the essential natures of Miller and Holden so perfectly clash and transform each other, and with that the plot, and I just sort of sat there stunned for a while and had to stop reading and unpack more boxes (I recently moved to a new house).

I have no idea if the other four books in the series so far are going to hold my attention as well as this one did because of [REDACTED], but the way my Own Dear Personal Mother is tearing through them (she's already on the fifth novel and sort of tapping her foot at me, but hey, she still hasn't read any of the Song of Ice and Fire yet, just seen the TV show, so, you know, that.) I'd say it's an even money bet at what's left of the casino on Eros that they will. I've already started on Caliban's War...

*And yes, once again, the TV people caught me flat-footed. I've had this series on my to-read radar for years now, but kept getting distracted by shinies, and now they've gone and made the first half-or-so of this novel and chunks of later ones into a whole season of high-quality TV! It's The Last Kingdom all over again. D'oh!

**One of several factions rubbing up against each other and not-quite-fighting over resources in this human-settled Solar System, with Earth and Mars the inner planet superpowers, the Belt a somewhat chaotic mess of colonial outposts and outright corporate properties, and the at-times seemingly terroristic Outer Planets Alliance, aka OPA serving as a catch-all for further flung outposts' interests and meddling a good bit in the affairs of the Belt, too. Which is to say that if you don't like a lot of political plottery in your sci-fi, these books might not turn out to be your favorites, but I'd still give them a try for the reasons I've outlined above.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Doctor, Doctor: Gary Russell's DOCTOR WHO: DIVIDED LOYALTIES

From the very first episode, "An Unearthly Child", the Doctor (Who) has been an enigmatic figure, about whom very little backstory has dribbled out over 50+ years. We know he's a Time Lord, a being with two hearts, at least 13 lives, and a vastly alien and nearly omniscient perspective on time and space. We've met a few of his fellow Time Lords, both of the sort who stayed behind on their home planet of Gallifrey to mind the shop and the handful of "renegades" who chose to come out and play in the rest of the universe. Of this latter group, of course, all but the Doctor are villains, and they are all generally as enigmatic in terms of back-story as he is.

Now there are some fans who hanker after every scrap of "knowledge" about the Doctor's history and upbringing and life on Gallifrey as a Time Tot and whatnot, and they would probably just love a once-and-for-all prequel/origin story all about this someday.

There are also those fans who hope this never, ever happens, who prefer the mystery, the room for speculation, the sense of sheer alien incomprehensibility that a character like the Doctor and a species like the Time Lords inherently have. I am one of this latter sort.

For those of the other sort, well, have I found the novel for you. And I wish you joy of it. For me, though... Eh.

Divided Loyalties brings the Fifth Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan face to face with one of the more enigmatic and unknowable -- and under-utilized -- Doctor Who villains: The Celestial Toymaker. It should surprise no one that he is one of my favorite Doctor Who villains (which is odd, because on the whole I don't like near-omnipotent heroes OR villains, but hey). For those not familiar with him, he is a being from a whole 'nother universe, who exercises near limitless power in this one -- he is supposed to be of a kind with the Black and White Guardians of Key to Time fame*** -- but who uses it chiefly to put lesser beings through a series of cruel and almost-but-not-quite unwinnable games in his Toyroom. Losers of his games he either enslaves or turns into doll-statues and imprisons forever as decor for said Toyroom. He dresses like a Chinese Mandarin (or at least like a British stage magician pretending to be an inscrutable Chinese Master dresses, minus the Fu Manchu facial hair and badly done stage makeup that's meant to suggest epicanthic folds to an audience who has never seen an actual Asian) and really, really hates the Doctor, who has beaten and will beat him at every encounter.

So this sounds promising as hell, right? Even if one isn't a huge fan of the Fifth Doctor, the poutingest pretty boy Doctor EVAR, I used to think, but then the Tenth Doctor came along and knocked his pouty prettiness into a cocked hat. He's still the Doctor, and so I at least like him, and here he is matching wits with the best villain, but... but...

Well, the Toymaker, aka the Guardian of Dreams, is messing with people via their dreams, dreams that play on their regrets and fears from the darkest moments of their past, on their guilty consciences, and when it's finally the Doctor's turn OH MY GOD IT GOES ON FOREEEEEEEEEEEEEVER. The middle third-or-more of this novel is just one giant (somewhat distorted, because the Toymaker is messing with things, so yeah, not all of it matches canon but get over it, nerds, the Toymaker is messing with things) dream sequence flashback to the Doctor's student days at Hogwarts the Prydon Academy and his youthful hijinks with his youthful pals in Gryffindor the Deca and remember how much I really don't like Harry Potter you guys? I don't like Harry Potter. Except for Neville Longbottom.*

Anyway, yes, it's all about the Deca, and this part is only sort of interesting in that we get glimpses of the young Master (except he's going by the name of Koschei, which name he doesn't canonically come up with until much later in his lives, but hey, Toymaker) and a young version of another fantastic but underutilized Time Lord villain, the Rani (whose real name is Ushas, which fits because that's the Vedic goddess of the dawn and "Rani" is a term for "Queeen" in Hindi)** along with young versions of pretty much other named Time Lord we've met in the TV series but it's really just interesting to see Lil' Master and Lil' Rani except no, we don't even get much of that, because it's all about the precocity of the Doctor (dur) and two other Time Cadets, Millennia and Rallon, who are destined to take on the Toymaker in their own little story and lose and...

Yawn.

But as I said, some of you fans who want everything explained and mapped out and whatnot are going to just love that bit.

What I wanted, though, was the Doctor and the Toymaker. Which I only kind of got.

But hey, the book does have other kind of cool things to offer. For everything except the Eternal Flashback, our point of view character is basically Tegan, a character who was never really a fan favorite but gets a bit of love here, because Russell portrays her as usually immediately regretting the rude and impatient things she's always saying, and always on the verge of apologizing and trying to make amends right before Trouble Strikes, and that makes her a lot more bearable, perhaps even likeable.

Adric, though, is still a cock. As for Nyssa, she's barely there, except when she has her own experience with the Toymaker and his torments.

But really, this is kind of Tegan's book, Eternal Flashback plot aside. For the planet the Toymaker has fashioned into his latest Doctor Trap is a populated one, and its population have a prophecy about a Chosen One who will come, and said Chosen One is Tegan. It's a nice chance for her to have a bit of her own story that, for once, doesn't involve her being possessed by the Mara (or at least it doesn't involve that very much) and does a nice job of exploring what an Earthling Companion's inner life might have been like before the modern TV series conveniently sonic'd everybody's cell phones so they could phone home from any point in time and space. I would have liked this story to have had a bit more prominence in the book, or at least get as much attention as the Eternal Flashback did. But, no.

As for my Arbitrary and Mercurial lists, here is the author list as of this book:

Alastair Reynolds
Mark Gatiss
Terrance Dicks
Jonathan Morris
Justin Richards
Gary Russell
Keith Topping

And the Doctors:

Ninth
Twelfth
Sixth
Third
Eleventh
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Fifth 
Seventh
First
Tenth

Yes! Five moved up a space, largely because he was kind of nice to Tegan in this novel. I got the impression that he was fully aware that she was trying not to be such a bitch, anyway, and that counted for something.

And yes, I wound up liking Tegan a bit more than usual this time around. She's still in the low middle of the horde, but were I tracking it more precisely, she'd probably move up a spot or two as well. Adric, though, Adric is way down there with Peri and Mel and Ian. Nyssa... I dunno how I feel about Nyssa. Big Finish has been good to her, though, so I like her a lot more than I did during her TV tenure, but she was pretty much just there because she was supposed to be there in this book.

On to a Sixth Doctor novel, now. Sixie gets all the best Big Finish stories, so my hopes are a bit high, in that I hope the prose authors are as good to him as the audio drama authors are. There is lots of overlap in these, so I feel justified in my hope. Plus, I'm that rare bird, someone who liked him in his TV run. I may even have had a bit of a crush on Colin Baker. Yes, even the coat. Dude got to have no ducks to give to rock a coat like that, and I respect that.

*Which, there is totally a Neville Longbottom figure here, Runcible the Hall Monitor, but they're way meaner to him than the Hogwarts crew ever were to Neville so there, I've found one tiny thing in the HP universe that is better than something in Doctor Who. Popqueenie is punching the air.

**Some extra fan service is to be had here, by the way, for this book has tied the Whoniverse rather explicitly to the Cthulhu mythos, via these beings. And there's a connection to Gene Wolfe, too (and I promise, I'm going to finish Suns, Suns, Suns, oh yes I am), in that Ushas is the name by which Urth comes to be known at the end of his Solar Cycle. Oh, and the chapter titles are all the names of OMD songs. Shrug.

***So really they should have gotten an Indian actress to portray her, but you know, Kate O'Mara pwned it, so that's okay.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Chuck Wendig's STAR WARS: AFTERMATH

However one may feel about the Disney purchase of the Star Wars franchise and the corporate decision to chuck out the hundreds of books and comics that make up the Star Wars Expanded Universe and start a brand new continuity, said new continuity is off to a remarkable start, and not just because The Force Awakens let us all breathe a sigh of relief that J.J. Abrams wasn't going to ruin everything.*

Star Wars: Aftermath, published to both acclaim and controversy (which controversy I'm not going to address here because I don't really understand it) a few months before The Movie was, is further proof that just because there has been some retcon doesn't mean there can't emerge some great stories from the new effort. The galaxy far, far away is pretty big, and there is room for a lot in it, and a lot of it is awesome.

That being said, I can see where some fans might have been a leetle disappointed to pick this book up, because it is mostly lacking in what people have been hankering for ever since the prequel movies stank up the theaters: Han, Leia, Luke, Chewie, Lando, Jedis and the Force... But by now we've all seen that the The Force Awakens took care of them just fine, so let's focus on what Aftermath does not lack, which is quality.

The title here is key. The events of Return of the Jedi are still very, very recent as this new story unfolds. The ewoks may well still be partying down on Endor's forest moon. Thank goodness we don't have to see that, but it might well be. But one victory, however spectacular, doth not a regime change make, and while the Empire was pretty well decapitated, that doesn't mean everything in the galaxy is immediately hunky dory. As we've seen in our lifetimes in the Middle East, taking out the evil dictator and his cronies causes as many problems as it solves: power vacuums, chaos, opportunism, economic collapse, weapons of mass destruction in unknown hands, troubled war veterans, disruptions in commerce and shipping... the list is long and grim.

And it's this stuff that Wendig has chosen to imagine, to tackle for this new trilogy of novels. Which means he is unassailably writing Star Wars for grown-ups, making the long, long ago feel more real and challenging and gritty than any amount of practical special effects and exposition dumping opening crawls could ever do. He takes full advantage of the opportunities the novel form offers to really explore and fill out a world, with fascinating, if at times disheartening, results.

But that's not to say it's any less fun than the movies, etc. we've loved all these years. Just because the real problems of regime change and consolidation are the focus doesn't mean there isn't plenty of action, character drama, and, yes, humor as an ex-Imperial official, a kickass bounty hunter, a hot-shot pilot, her crafty and gifted son, and a host of other new characters struggle to figure out their roles and places in this new world in the brief bit of breathing room everybody is sort-of enjoying while the New Republic tries to form and begin to heal the galaxy -- and while the Empire struggles to regroup and plan to reconquer.

Of particular note is a droid that stole my heart even more completely than BB8 did in the latest film: Mr. Bones. Mr. Bones is an old Imperial battle droid, of risible memory from the prequel films. You know rolling around, committing acts of incredible ineptitude and saying "Roger Roger" every few seconds. But Mr. Bones, Mr. Bones is badass, because young Temmin Wexley (the hot-shot pilot's son) rebuilt it (partly out of animal bones, hence its name) and reprogrammed it with a lot of weird software modules that have made of the thing a seriously formidable bodyguard that has a bizarre tendency to laugh psychotically and break out into mondo crazy song and dance routines while it kills and maims. I would watch a spin-off series of this droid's adventures, yes I would.

Also notable is an Imperial admiral, Sloane, who is stuck balancing competing interests as she tries to pull together what's left of the Empire's military to take stock and figure out new strategies. Notice again the female pronoun: Aftermath, like the film that has followed it, is an artifact of a much more inclusive universe that may well be one without sexism, or at least without very much of it. Just as the film gives us the fabulously competent, fierce and sensible Rey, this novel gives us a gifted and dedicated female pilot, Norra Wexley (who is dealing not only with her military role in the rebellion but also with the effect her career has had on her relationship with the son she left behind in his aunts' care). The bounty hunter character is also female, and never once is anybody's gender an issue; never once is there any suggestion that they are exceptions to any rules, no "great pilot for being a woman" backhanded compliments, none of it. Even Sloane, who is on the receiving end of a lot of contempt as her side falls into in-fighting, doesn't get it for being a woman; she gets it for making a plan and sticking to it in the face of bullying opposition and dirty dealing.

It's all just so damned refreshing! Too bad it's just science fantasy. But it's pointing the way, and doing so without giving up any of the pew-pew-pews we go to science fantasy for.

But so, I'm pretty psyched to read the other two books in this trilogy when they're available. But then, I hope Wendig goes back to writing his very own stuff. His very own stuff is really, really good. Better than this, even. I mean, come on, this is the guy who brought us Miriam Black. I don't begrudge him his payday, but... cough. Thunderbird. Cough.

*I had to be physically escorted from the theater when I made the mistake of going to see Star Trek: Into Darkness, and got a scorching migraine for my troubles My concerns were real! To say nothing of all of the other ways that film sucked.

Doctor, Doctor: Jonathan Morris' DOCTOR WHO: FESTIVAL OF DEATH

First and foremost, let us contemplate the glorious awesomeness of the title: Festival of Death. Is that not the pulpiest pulp that ever pulped a pulp? Even before we throw in the goofiest of Doctors, Number Four, and his robot dog, K-9, and his best straight-man-cum-Time-Lady, Romana?

Then the reader quickly realizes that author Jonathan Morris was rather more ambitious about this project than these pulp promises portend (heh), because this is a proper time travel story of the kind that modern fans like to refer to as "timey-wimey"; even as the TARDIS crew arrives at the setting for this story (about which more anon) they come upon the aftermath of a terrible disaster -- and crowds of people clamoring to express their gratitude to the Doctor, Romana and K9 for saving them.

But so, look at the cover art, here. Look at the expression on Tom Baker's face. Isn't that exactly how a person reacts when he's congratulated for deeds of derring do he hasn't performed yet? Um, whut. And yes, you could say that he should maybe be used to this, being a time traveling hero and all, but generally he and his friends are locked into the progress of a linear narrative as soon as the TARDIS lands because they thus become "part of a chain of events," so I say he is legit stunned, here.

Festival of Death really, really wants to be the perfect Fourth Doctor novel, and really could have been except for how hard its author tried to make it so. There is so much plot crammed into this novel that there's really not room for anything else, but Jonathan Morris had to cram in as much as he could of what he understands the Fourth Doctor to be all about -- namely the oeuvre of one Douglas Adams -- so that the reader is constantly being distracted by all the rib-digging cleverness of recycled Adamsiana (there is even a character named Hoopy, for Bob's sake), to the detriment of her being able to enjoy the plot. This is a terrible shame because it's quite a good and clever plot, one that sends the TARDIS crew back into their own time stream many times over, so that they are having constantly to avoid meeting themselves and destroying the Web of Time. Which is awesome.

Equally awesome is the setting: a hundred-plus spaceship pile-up crash, trapped in a hyperspace bypass (sigh) and turned into a tourist attraction called G-Lock (short for "gridlock"). Which tourist attraction has become a bit old hat and is seeing a decline in visitors until a mad scientist shows up to put his demented life's work in motion to revitalize the G-Lock's reputation and economy. Which demented life's work allows tourists to lie down in a coffin and have, not merely a near-death experience, but an actual death experience, and then come back forever awed and changed by it.

So this should be a great Doctor Who novel, but it winds up merely being a good one. My assessment of this one might change on subsequent re-readings, which this intricate and crazy plot kind of cries out for, but that might not ever happen because to re-experience the plot I'll have to re-experience all the eye-rolling, and who wants to do that when so much other fun fiction yet beckons?

And yes, some of it by Jonathan Morris, who is going to be impossible to avoid because he's written a great deal of Doctor Who for every medium but television, including quite a lot of Big Finish audio plays, some of which I have already heard and enjoyed so... Hmm. But for now, my Arbitrary and Mercurial Author Ranking after Festival of Death is:

Alastair Reynolds
Mark Gatiss
Terrance Dicks
Jonathan Morris
Justin Richards
Keith Topping

But my A&MDR is unchanged:

Ninth
Twelfth
Sixth
Third
Eleventh
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Seventh
Fifth
First
Tenth
As for companions, I'd forgotten just how much I like Romana II. She's right there after Evelyn with Donna and Jo.

Now, onward to a Fifth Doctor novel, which I've already chosen, and about which I am super excited. Stay tuned!

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