Wednesday, December 30, 2015
Oh, there is plenty of the usual struggling for social justice and reform, striving to keep a mining concern going, wrangling with friends, relatives and frenemies, and lush Cornish scenery porn -- it's a Poldark novel. And Ross Poldark is still very much the main character here, even as the story broadens still more to encompass more of the world of Cornwall in the late 18th century.
But there are so many more characters -- George Warleggan, Ross's rival since school days, now married to Ross' first love; Sam and Drake Carne, his worthy but lower-class brothers-in-law; Dr. Dwight Enys, his best friend and co-conspirator, whom he daringly rescued from a French prison in the climax of the previous Poldark novel, The Black Moon; assorted members of the local gentry some of them friends and admirers, others of the sort who still haven't forgiven Ross for marrying his kitchen maid; assorted other miners and laborers and churchmen and crooks, all of them with fully-realized personalities and circumstances and lives of their own outside of their roles in Ross'.
And also, and ostensibly most importantly for this novel that is sort of named for them, there are four women whose lives are very much intertwined with Ross' own: his wife Demelza, his first love Elizabeth (once married to his cousin, now married to the hated Warleggan), Caroline (wealthy sweetheart and then wife of Dr. Enys), and Morwenna (Elizabeth's cousin, who last novel had a love affair with Demelza's brother Drake but was forced to marry an odious churchman who was deemed a more "suitable" match for her by, yep, George Warleggan). Alas, a bit, here. I'd had hopes that this novel would perhaps turn more on them as individuals and characters in their own right, but, well, the title again says it all, though the scene explaining it occurs near the story's end, as Ross takes a nature break and sees four swans floating by on the water and decides they represent these four women, but only insofar as said women relate to him.
That's not to say they don't get story arcs, these Cornish ladies. It's just that, with the kind-of exception of Caroline, who finally gets to marry her man (though she has to share him with his medical practice and the lingering after-effects of his imprisonment and harsh treatment in France), their story arcs are terribly, terribly dark and ugly and highlight in all the most unpleasant ways that it sucked a whole to be a woman back then. Cousins Elizabeth and Morwenna, especially, suffer through the novel, the one subject to suspicion and jealousy at the hands of her increasingly powerful and important husband and with the continuing fallout from an encounter with Ross two novels ago that still has me very angry at Ross; the other married against her will to a thoroughly unpleasant but well-connected and socially acceptable creep who just gets creepier as the novel progresses, while Morwenna still pines for her hard-working and deserving but low-class true love. Elizabeth's and Morwenna's scenes with their men are hard to read, icky, unpleasant and angry-making. I don't think they quite merit trigger warnings, but they probably come pretty close. I came very close to just tossing this book aside after a scene between Elizabeth and Ross that left me in about as dark a mood as I can recall ever experiencing from a work of fiction, and I'm still pretty angry about it.
Too, there are of course more than four women in Cornwall, and two of them have significant stories of their own in this book, but since it's Ross' point of view governing the title, this book isn't The Six Swans. But new characters Rowella (Morwenna's sister) and Emma, carry a more than a bit of this novel's narrative and are some of the most interesting characters (apart from Demelza, which, you've just got to love Demelza) Graham has yet given us. Rowella is Morwenna's little sister, and I'd go farther into spoiler territory than even I like to if I said much more about her; Emma is a lower-class woman whose good -- but not overwhelmingly beautiful -- looks, relative poverty and strong independent streak serve to earn her a reputation as a village Jezebel, and who comes to Sam Carne's notice in a story that kind of unpleasantly parallel's Rowella's but has a less icky overtone because Sam Carne is a better person than the jerk Rowella gets to deal with -- though it is pretty annoying to watch the dude hanker to save Emma's soul over her own protests. And oh, yeah, Sam & Emma are this novel's courtship story. Every Poldark novel has a courtship story. Eyeball roll.
But you know what? I wouldn't be feeling all of this if Winston Graham hadn't been such a tremendous writer. Though the narrative voice is definitely of the patriarchy, and keeps yanking the reader's attention away from the women's plights and stories and back to the More Important (man's) world of politics and trade, both sides are compellingly depicted. Six novels in, I'm more than invested in these characters, and even after what this book put me through, I still am, and not just as a hangover from the prior five books.
Developments late in The Four Swans promise to bring a yet grander scope to subsequent Poldark novels, too, which excites me. I reckon the rest of England is going to matter more, to say nothing of the rest of Europe; it's 1797 in the closing pages, and a little guy named Napoleon is becoming a big deal across the channel and beyond.
Bring it, Mr. Graham.
Monday, December 21, 2015
And Terrance Dicks wrote a story in which the Third Doctor and Jo travel in time and space, to the far future and another planet! The last time this happened for me was, well, when Alastair Reynolds took the Third Doctor out for a spin in Harvest of Time, which was brilliant. So, whoa. I mean, I had to sit down and catch my breath before even starting this.
Marvelously, that was the perfect frame of mind for me to be in as the action of Catastrophea (the title being an in-universe joke playing on the name of the planet on which this story takes place, properly named Kastopheria) as The Third Doctor and Jo are just coming away from their adventures on Spiridon, which means Jo's time with the Doctor is almost over and she's going to meet her husband very soon and so immediately there are ALL THE FEELS, which the Doctor experiences right along with us because Terrance Dicks knows his audience...
And BOOM. Right in the middle of the
Not that we get to them immediately, of course. No, first we have the colonists, straight out of the reign of Queen Victoria (except, of course, not) fretting over what to do about a myriad of problems, including a resurgent John Company-type exploitation firm, a host of meddling bleeding hearts who want to protect the natives from said Company, various flavors of evil mercenary scum and smugglers, and a growing tendency among the docile natives for individuals to go berserk and kill everything in sight -- and enter the Doctor and Jo, who were making a beeline back to good old 1970s Britain until the Doctor was overwhelmed by the projected psychic pain of a whole planetful of beings that he couldn't ignore.
Now, you don't think it's the human colonizers' pain he responded to, do you?
The resulting tangle of competing interests and big blustery personalities has a very predictable and familiar feel, but contains just enough twists to stay fun, helped along by a cast of well-developed and engaging supporting characters, and just enough Venusian Aikido to keep things moving right along. The Third Doctor is elegant and active; Jo is cute, spunky and insightful. It all hangs together beautifully and one can almost convince herself it's the novelization of a late tenth season serial that she just kept missing on television. Which only makes sense, because Terrance Dicks!
And so now, just for fun and maybe to be a bit of a crank, in addition to my A&MDR, I'm going to start an A&MAR, too (A for Author, dur). So far, including Harvest of Time, I've read five, count them, five Doctor Who novels, by five different authors, and I'm going to read lots more because Terrance Dicks did his job and re-ignited my excitement for this project, but here they stand for now:
I'll just tell you right now, though, that Reynolds is going to be very hard to beat, because he is one of my favorite authors, full stop, and so anyone who's going to challenge him for the crown is going to have to really really bring it -- especially if, as I dearly hope will happen someday, Al writes another Doctor Who novel. I'd love to see what he could do with, say, the Ninth Doctor. Or, OMG, the War Doctor!!!!
Speaking of the War Doctor, you totally owe it to yourself to pony up for Big Finish's amazing and splendid and damned near perfect Only the Monstrous, which is a full-cast War Doctor adventure and yes of course it's John Hurt as the War Doctor. I'm pretty sure that this thing could make a believer of even the crankiest foot-stampy old school fanboi (I know there are some out there who think the whole Time War/War Doctor thing is a load of hooey). I'd blog about it as its own entry but it would pretty much just be a series of exclamation points, and that's boring to look at. So just go! If you've ever trusted me about anything (and, of course, you like Doctor Who), go!
So with these things in mind, my Arbitrary and Mercurial Doctor Ranking after Catastrophea and Only the Monstrous:
*Though yes, I started with a Second Doctor novel, but that's because lots of people screamed I was underrating that Doctor and they were right!
**Who wrote for the original show, served as script editor for the show, wrote a whole lot of novelizations of TV episodes, and is the author of a whole lot of original Doctor Who prose fiction as well. As in WOO-HOO TERRANCE DICKS!
***Though the double-episode that introduced us to the Ood, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, owes a very, very great deal to this book in oh, so many ways. As in all of the good stuff in those episodes is more or less lifted from Catastrophea, but none of the bad except for, you know, the Tenth Doctor and Rose Tyler.
Friday, December 18, 2015
And no, I have no idea why the exclamation mark is there in the title.
But so, anyway, Byzantium. The city that will be called Constantinople during the rule of the Byzantine Empire, and Istanbul when the Turks take over, started out life as a strategically placed dump of a Greek town when the Romans muscled in, and is still kind of a dump (according to its inhabitants) by the time the TARDIS has one of its messier landings there near the start of our story (I say "near" because we get quite a lot of background detail before the TARDIS shows up, including a pretty graphically described crucifixion of another one of those pesky Christians that are starting to be such a nuisance ca. 64 A.D.). A dump we shall explore in exhausting and somewhat repetitive detail as our four heroes... all pretty much enact the same plot four times over after they get separated by the Team Separating Crisis du Jour.
But so, the Doctor winds up hiding among a small but ultimately very important and influential band of early Christians (as in they're friends at just one or two removes from some of the original Disciples as well as of Saul/Paul etc -- and are in the process, as the Doctor encounters them, of writing what will become the Gospel of Mark); Barbara winds up in the home of a high-ranking Jewish priest, more or less at whose bidding a horde of violent Zealots occasionally raise hell at public events in Byzantium and at whose orders any Christians (er, sorry, Followers of the Nazarene; call them Christians in Barbara's host's presence and he gets psychotically angry) get crucified; Vicki winds up sheltering with a kindly but strict Greek family who is all about teaching her to behave like a properly meek and obedient first century teenager, even if they have to beat it into her; and as for Ian...
Oh, Ian. Ian lies his way into the household of the Prefect of the city, where he is constantly and unsubtly hit on by every female who lays eyes on him (and "hit on" is really too soft a term; it's practically sexual assault), leading him to participate a little too gladly in round after round of "who can make the most misogynist joke" with the men of the house, over and over and over again. But eventually he sort of gets sucked into a slightly more interesting plot, involving a conspiracy against the Prefect and a popular general. Anyway, by about halfway through the story I was pretty much hating Ian, though I knew that it was author Keith Topping that was really horking me off because he portrayed all the women Ian encountered as single-minded, one-dimensional narcissists who would fail the Bechdel test so hard that they'd spill over and wipe out the passing scores of 20 other novels and thus seeming like they justified the treatment they got. Ugh.
The book is not without virtues, however. It manages a very good portrait of the First Doctor, crotchety, old, tired, fragile, impatient, compassionate in only the gruffest of ways, and ticking all of the boxes that made him unique among the Doctors: He has pretty much no sense of humor. He has gadgets with the word "Year" in their names. He has unexplainable and detailed foreknowledge of the ultimate fate of one of his companions. He takes none of his companions' crap. He is super-unimpressed with the efforts of the dudes writing the Bible and basically calls them hacks.* He changes into period appropriate clothing. No, for reals. Dude dons a toga before leaving the TARDIS, yo.
Another thing this novel did well is something I've really got to admire. I mock "Doctor Who jeopardy"** quite a lot on this blog, with good reason, and, again with good reason, tend to extend that mockery to situations that seem to threaten his Companions. Somehow in Byzantium!, though, I found myself empathizing with the burden of unknowing with which all four members of the TARDIS crew were struggling following their split-up. Barbara's worries that her friends were all dead were especially moving (though I can't say the same for Vicki's; she got pretty much the same treatment that all the bitchy Roman and Jewish ladies did, though instead of being depicted as vain and rapacious or violently controlling, Vicki was just whiny. So whiny. The major turning point in her story is when she gets to sit down with a nice old man and whine out loud to him instead of internally to us. Sigh.). And hey, while I'm on Barbara again, yay Barbara, the only one of the four who extricates herself from her (icky) situation and actually goes looking for the others! Even though by that point in the story almost every one of them has received some kind of intelligence as to where the others can be found!
But so, this book is a bit of a hot mess, and I can certainly see why a lot of people have hated on it. It's not a gripping read, for all that it's weirdly full of sex and violence (yes, there are sex scenes in a Doctor Who story! Umm?), the TARDIS crew are all stuck in iterations of the "outsider has to try to gain the acceptance of a mistrustful and insular tribe" plot, and Ian's whole story will turn many stomachs and could make people come to hate Ian. But it's a great portrait of the First Doctor, contains some pretty good writing, and handles one of Doctor Who fiction's greatest difficulties -- overcoming Doctor Who jeopardy -- very well. It's no Roundheads, but as I knew going into this project, very few of these will be.
As for what this has done for my Arbitrary and Mercurial Doctor Rankings, well, it actually made me like the First Doctor a bit less, for all that it was slightly amusing watching him chew out the scribes compiling the Bible. He displays no sense of humor in this story (at least all the other Bastard Doctors who rank highly on my list are funny when they insult people), makes zero effort to find his lost companions when they're separated (yes, yes, concussion, he's suffering from a concussion, but ZERO EFFORT PEOPLE. If [REDACTED] hadn't fortuitously turned out to know pretty much everyone in Byzantium and put two and two together and said "hey, you know this chick?" the First Doctor might still be in a Byzantine cave to this day, arguing with the distant descendants of those poor scribes over their translations of St. Mark's terrible grammar and handwriting and the other three would have died by the turn of the second century) and, well it doesn't help that I'm not a huge fan of these companions of his, either. Especially not after Ian's Roman Romp.
So the A&MDR after Byzantium! is as follows:
*And no, I couldn't help thinking about River Tam grabbing Shepherd Book's Bible and "fixing" it for him, here. Was she fixing what the Doctor broke? Probably not, but it's an amusing thought, no?
**Simply put, the absurdity of any cliffhanger or other moment of danger in which the Doctor's life appears threatened, which absurdity is the result of the viewer/reader/listener knowing full well that the Doctor has had/will have/is in the midst of 13 lives (and counting) and so the question of his survival is not ever a question at all, especially not in NuWho, when we know exactly when a regeneration is coming, and even know what the next Doctor is going to look like months in advance.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
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.
Monday, December 7, 2015
I've had a wild hair to make 2016 my year of reading a crap-load of Doctor Who prose fiction (those who follow me on GoodReads know I've been bingeing on Big Finish Audio plays this year already, so, big surprise). To date, I've only read two: Harvest of Time (by my favorite space opera maestro, Alastair Reynolds), and Gareth Roberts' Only Human. I loved them both, for different reasons. I'm curious and hungry for more.
Also, just for silliness, I'm going to track how my Doctor Rankings change over time. Last time I shared them, it went: Ninth, Third, Eleventh, Sixth, Fourth, First, Eighth, Seventh, Second, Tenth, Fifth. Since then we've had two seasons (one pretty ok and one jaw droppingly wonderful) with a new Doctor, the Twelfth-or-Thirteenth (depending on how we count the War Doctor, oh and then there's that stupid half-regeneration that Ten did, and...), played to crotchety Scottish punk perfection by Peter Capaldi, and I've been bingeing on early and mid-range Big Finish, which dramas have made Sixie into the wonderful Doctor he always should have been, and so as of today my current rankings are:
Yes, a few Big Finish stories have made me like the Fifth Doctor better than I did from his TV run (tainted by JNT and the horror that was the 80s). But things can change, there at the bottom. New audio plays featuring Ten and my favorite TV companion*, Donna Noble, are coming soon, and my Donna love could conquer my Ten hate. So we'll see!
BY THE WAY, I have a dumb idea about podcasting this, but only if MY WhoHos get involved. They know who they are. Trowels up, kiddies.
*She was my favorite companion, full stop, until I encountered that sublime chocoholic, Evelyn Smythe, in Big Finish's Sixth Doctor stories. And no, I haven't encountered Bernice yet. So all is in flux. But Evelyn, Evelyn is my GIRL.