Friday, October 21, 2016

Doctor Doctor: Una McCormack's THE KING'S DRAGON

I'm just going to say this up front: the only way this book could have been any better would have been if it contained Brian Williams, father of Rory Williams (present), gonna-be father-in-law* of Amy Pond (also present), and gonna-be-grandfather-in-law** of The Doctor (duh). But pretty much every Doctor Who story, maybe ever, would be at least slightly improved by the presence of the elder Williams, and I just have to live with that fact, while still resenting that he's never gotten closure on-screen and probably never will. Ahem.

But that's neither here nor there. Here and there is The King's Dragon, which has shot right up there next to Harvest of Time on my list of best Doctor Who novels, largely because Una McCormack, unlike Amy's creators, actually gets what Amy Pond is all about and stays true to her from page one. But also because it's a good, complete and interesting story, told with elegant economy.

I'd like to visit the parallel universe where Ms. McCormack, and not Mr. Moffat, was the showrunner who took over when Matt Smith and Karen Gillan did. I can't promise that I'd come back, mind.

But so, The King's Dragon. The Eleventh Doctor (one of my favorites, recall), Amy and Rory have come to visit one of the universe's greatest civilizations, the city-state of Greath, a realm that has enjoyed over twelve thousand (12,000) years of peace, harmony, vigorous democracy, and restrained good taste. What a delightful locale to spend part of Rory's infinite stag night!

Of course, decades of Doctor Who watching/reading/listening has taught us all that no high and lovely culture visited by the TARDIS crew is ever going to be encountered at its height. No, no. If the Doctor & co. are going to land there, something is going to have gone horribly off-course. If it's not the TARDIS itself, its the place/time at which it stops. Duh.

So in place of a tastefully decorated and refined civic space of classical elegance, the TARDIS crew finds itself in a gaudy, blinged-out Las Vegas nightmare of a city. And instead of a thriving democracy steeped in humane tradition, the TARDIS crew finds a newly-minted monarchy-cum-cult of personality, centered on an impossibly charismatic and handsome king, Beol*** and his partner The Teller, and the impossibly gorgeous golden dragon idol they've brought into the city.

Plus an intangible but pervasive aura of impending dread, of course.

The best Doctor Who stories are mysteries of this kind. What's gone wrong with history? Why are people X behaving so unlike themselves and why don't they realize it? Something Is Interfering And It's Probably Aliens. Only the Doctor can set things right.

Except, mostly, it's not the Doctor who does so. It's Amy. And, to a degree, Rory. And a few key citizens of the visited world, notably the former democratically elected leader of Geath, a slightly cranky and unimpressed older woman (who I absolutely could not help picturing as played by Diana Rigg in her Queen of Thorns get-up), Hilthe, who seems to be the only person who remembers Geath as it was just months ago. The Doctor is just there to advise, really.

Don't get me wrong; this isn't a "Doctor-Lite" story. He's there in all of his lanky, absurd, slightly cranky know-it-all glory, on pretty much every page. But the plot is driven by his Companions and by the locals.

And especially by Amy. Amy Pond is at her nosy, stubborn, willful, smart, wise and capable best, as we've really not seen her since, say, The Beast Below.*** Even when she is under the influence of this story's Alien Menace (because of course there is one. This one is really, really interesting and original, by the way. Bling!), she's her own person, and that person learned long ago, when a certain Raggedy Man failed to come back for her, that she's really the only person she can count on (though Rory is going to be Rory and thus pretty damned reliable, but he's not yet the "wait until he gets here and I'll just wait and watch while he does all the heavy lifting of punishing you for making me cross" substitute for her agency that Moffat is going to make him), but that that's okay, even if she is pretty much lost in time and space and probably In Over Her Head. Amy can swim.

And again, like all the best Doctor Who stories, while there is plenty of ak-shun and things blowing up and existential peril and whatnot, it's ultimately about getting two opposing sides to understand each other, or at least try to empathize with each other, once those two opposing sides are finally discovered by the TARDIS crew and friends' careful sleuthing and thinking and deducing.

I read this in a single sitting, in a single night. Yes, it is a short work, but McCormack has packed a lot into it (again, like the best DW stories, like the best science fiction, Here There Be Allegories, but they are deftly and subtly handled) and hasn't wasted words. Its length might suggest that it's a lightweight, perhaps even juvenile, read, but don't be fooled.

And now for the Arbitrary and Mercurial rankings. I don't think they're going to surprise you much. The Eleventh Doctor moves up a spot because I just love his silly enthusiasm for things (combined with his old man crankiness and ridiculous physicality) and how he wisely gets out of the way and lets his friends handle things once in a while.


Alastair Reynolds
Una McCormack
Kate Orman
Mark Gatiss
Terrance Dicks
Gary Bulis
Mark Morris
Jonathan Morris
Justin Richards
Gary Russell
Keith Topping




Romana II
Ben and Polly

Now onward to a Twelfth Doctor novel, then holy cow, I just found a War Doctor novel, and then I'll start the cycle anew with another First Doctor novel. I'm going to keep going in this fashion for as long as there are enough novels for each Doctor, but alas, I'll run out of Classic Doctors much sooner than Seventh and Eighth Doctors, and then my enthusiasm might wane. We shall see.

*This story takes place before their wedding.

**No screaming about spoilers. It says so right at the top of my blog, right there in the header, "ware spoilers."

***I.E. since Moffat remembered that she is a woman and needed to be put in her place.

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