The Doctor and the gang, still coping with a whimsically unreliable TARDIS, are still trying to get back to Ben & Polly's native London of the Swinging Sixties. Every time the door creaks open, these two are hoping to be back in 1966. Someday, kids, but not yet. But hey, at least it's London...
In the mid-1600s... At the close of the English Civil War... Right before King Charles I is to be beheaded... Which Polly kind of concludes must have already happened, Ben doesn't find too interesting, and Jamie might be expected to remember (he's from only about 100 years later, after all) but doesn't and needs some help from the Doctor and a children's book explaining the War and the Protectorship that followed it.* Which it takes the Doctor a while to find because it's not in the TARDIS library and of course he gets lost in there anyway and meanwhile...
Well, of course everyone gets split up. I mean, come on. That's a lot of people to manipulate through a single plot, and Gatiss has far more interesting plans for each. Sailor Ben gets shanghai'd onto a mysterious ship for a mysterious voyage full of madcap nautical derring-do, Polly gets overheard blathering about the Big Beheading in a pub and gets nabbed by some plotters who want to know how in the world that's even going to happen and can they maybe prevent it with her help, and as for the Doctor and Jamie, well, it's hardly a Doctor Who historical in England without someone getting imprisoned in the Tower of London, is it?
Mark Gatiss has written some of the most interesting episodes of the TV show, and his talent with the genre-unto-itself that is Doctor Who is wonderfully displayed here. Everybody's sub-plot is interesting, every plot well-paced and timed, and it all fits beautifully into, you know, actual historical events, without really changing any of them.
All that and a setting/period which is in itself perfectly fascinating, especially if, as I have, you've recently spent a big chunk of time re-enjoying something like Neal Stephenson's fantastic Baroque Cycle. I would not have been shocked at all if, say, Polly, happened to meet Drake, if not Daniel, Waterhouse in her adventure, or if the Doctor had maybe managed to pop in on Robert Hooke. Has he met Robert Hooke at some point? Or (though this is a bit later in time) Samuel Pepys? I'm not a walking Doctor Who encyclopedia and I'm too lazy right now to research that, but my gut says no. Man, that would be awesome. Maybe Mr. Gatiss will send the Twelfth Doctor out to Epsom during the Plague to dissect dogs with the Royal Society, or something. He could turn out to be the real identity of Enoch Root! Wouldn't that be a hoot. Hey, BBC, call me if Mark isn't interested...
But I digress. Surprise. At any rate, this book is a blast, and very nicely rooted in the essential natures of this particular Doctor (and not just because he toots on his recorder in his prison cell) and these companions. The Doctor is especially well served here as he drags Jamie around sampling the delights of the 1648 Frost Fair, his wonder almost but not quite childlike in that way that only Troughton (and maybe Matt Smith) had at one moment, and then "practically hopping with frustration" when the state of affairs deteriorates. Jamie the Jacobite, too, has a unique set of challenges in Roundhead England, as he's still none too good at explaining himself. He can almost get away with his slip that he was guarding Prince Charlie... but then he has to go and admit that it was not the future Charles II he's talking about. And Bonnie Prince Charlie hasn't even been born yet...
Their escape from this predicament -- and this is not a spoiler because, duh, Doctor Who jeopardy -- is a real thigh-slapper, by the way.
But there is far more going on here than just a lark through Revolutionary London. Real people of every station, with deftly sketched in back stories and everything at stake, are sharing the snowy streets and dreary corridors and cheerful taverns with the TARDIS crew. Even Charles I gets a turn as a surprisingly sympathetic character, both in his own right and in the reminiscences of Oliver Cromwell, who met the king when they were children, and found him sad. Mark Gatiss could have a nice career of writing straight-up historical fiction if he wanted.
I know not all of the Doctor Who novels I've piled onto Mount TBR are going to be as good as this one, but knowing that at least one of them might be has me very jazzed for this new project.
So now, dear readers, Who's next. Of which Doctor shall I read an adventure now? Hit me up on social media or in the comments!
And because certain crotchety fangirls are going to ask, yes, thiis reading has altered my highly arbitrary and utterly mercurial Doctor Rankings as follows, mostly because I'd forgotten just what a lovely blend of goofy/cranky Patrick Houghton brought to the role:
*Which book becomes, of course, a plot device when it falls into the wrong hands, which is both hilarious and a bit sad (the guy who finds the book gets his feelers hurt). This is also very, very Second Doctor; it's just the sort of mishap that he eventually got punished for by the Time Lords (who, of course, forced him to regenerate into the earthbound Third Doctor, who, at least, finally had some time to find clothes that fit.).