John: And the hits just keep on coming, don’t they? This is part of a stretch of books I absolutely love...which is funny, because I kind of hated them the first time I read them. I read the series out of order up through...oh, I think it was ‘Head Games’...and so I really didn’t understand at the time that this was a story arc that was deliberately ramping up the tension between Ace and the Doctor so that it could release it cathartically. I thought Ace was just being kind of a jerk. Mind you, she still kind of is, but so is Benny. The regulars don’t cover themselves with glory in this one, do they?
Dee: No, they really don’t. I love the book, but at this point I’d love to give Ace a swift kick in the tail. Except, of course, I’d get flechetted. Benny, I can understand behaving as she is to an extent. It must be decidedly uncomfortable on the TARDIS at this point, and who can blame her for wanting to leave?
And yet, holy cow, I love this story. The characters are so improbable, and they don’t realize it... and I never saw the original Land of Fiction story in its entirety, so I didn’t pick up on what was going on until the robots appeared. Once they did, though, I did remember what I’d seen: the distinctive noise kept going in my head. Then everything makes sense, but it’s not like the original Land of Fiction, so how are they going to get out of it? Especially with the tension and the team not working together, unlike the original trip to the Land.
John: Actually, I thought that Benny was worse than Ace in this one. “I’ve finally got Ace to confide in me! I’m going to go blab it to the Doctor now!” ICK. But yes, the main thing here is just how wonderfully deadpan Steve Lyons is. It’s this beautiful double layer of irony involved--on the one hand, he’s taking all these old shop-worn tropes and lame ideas from ancient adventure fiction, like the Famous Five and the Phantom Stranger, and putting them in modern, grim and gritty stories to show how utterly unrealistic and ludicrous they are...and then, he reveals that this approach is taken by a whiny, overgrown adolescent who’s run out of good ideas and is pissing in the sandbox because he can’t think of anything good to do with the toys anymore. That is absolutely beautiful to me.
Dee: That’s the only way this can work, and (at least for me) work it does. I love how the relationships in the Land weave together, as well. This character married to that character, a group of kids traveling to the beach when their parents seem to have been in the village without leaving for decades... priceless. Superhero meeting spy novel meeting thriller meeting Lifetime drama about abuse. It’s great. And at first the TARDIS crew grates in that somehow-harmonious milieu, and it’s only later that it becomes clear that the grating is all that’s saving them. He does great work here.
John: And he plays it all so straight. I think that’s why Phil thought that it was a serious book that was wrecking his favorite story, because Lyons never breaks character. He’s writing from the point of view of the Master of the Land, and he never deviates from that perspective even when it’s obvious that there’s a huge disconnect between what the narrative is saying and what the author thinks. It’s like watching Stephen Colbert work in some ways. The whole thing with the Famous Five’s dog going rabid and having to be put down is simultaneously funny and mean-spirited, but you’re meant to see both ends. That’s the book in a nutshell, I think.
Dee: Very much so. And, of course, your beloved Scrabble game moment. It’s beautiful and hair-raising at once. And at the end, when they confront the Master of the Land, you do feel sorry for him. How can you not? He’s a victim. You wish that the Doctor could rescue him as well. I think it was never quite explained why not, but I understand why: he’s too much a character himself.
John: Well, they’ll get into that a lot in Lyons’ next NA, ‘Head Games’ (um, not to spoil or anything...) But I think it’s more a case of the Prisoner’s Dilemma than any kind of physical barrier. The MoL is, to his mind, playing the odds...yes, the Doctor could theoretically get both of them out, and yes, he could even more theoretically defeat the villain behind all this who seems to have unlimited power and a long memory for grudges. But if the MoL allies himself with the Doctor and the Doctor loses, then he’s bound to be punished for picking the losing side. Better to try to the last to defeat the Doctor and hope for either a win or a merciful ally in defeat. At least, that’s the impression I got.
Dee: It’s a great ending. Reading it as an arc book, I can see why so many threads are left unresolved. I can imagine the frustration of fans at the time, though... Ace’s last action, again, makes me want to put her in time out. And Benny discovering the place wasn’t what she hoped is sad. None of this makes the book less to me. It did make me nervous about how they were going to wrap all this up.
John: I’m actually pretty sure I read the wrap-up first, so I already knew that it was heading for a great ending. Which is our next book! ‘No Future’, by the always excellent Paul Cornell. We saw him last weekend, and he visibly winced when we mentioned we were reading it. Let’s see if we can’t show him how wrong he is about it, shall we?