Thursday, January 31, 2013


Overall, I enjoyed this book. We get a few interesting new aliens, a nice twist on the possession theme, very few asshole characters, and we get a more plausible Ace back.

Sometimes we get a reminder that Ace was always smart and tough, even in non-military ways, and that she is a good person deep down despite her recent jerkitude. The mini-bombs are cute, her way to get herself out of trouble in the garden was creative, and I deeply enjoyed the way she had to relearn that a gun is not always the solution. The Doctor's trust in her is clear and unquestioned. He also trusts her to keep an eye on him at need. I deeply enjoyed the scene where Ace realized what was going on before the Doctor did.

And yes, the Doctor makes a few mistakes here. His inventiveness and ingenuity get him out of most, of course, but there are casualties. Sadly, it seems the characters blow them off a bit easily. It's one of the book's weaknesses.

Speaking of weaknesses, I mentioned we get very few assholes. This makes the one or two we do get stick out, which is another weakness itself. However, the author is being careful to show us that even bad guys have reasons for what they do. By the end, I found myself thinking that even for Doctor Who, this was incredibly kind. I didn't need a mustache-twirling villain, mind, but at about two-thirds through it got to the point that introducing one would have been not just bad, but painful. I'm glad he didn't go there.

Monday, January 7, 2013


For a lot of people, Christopher Bulis has come to be synonymous with a certain style of Doctor Who writing. Sometimes it was called "trad", others called it "safe"...the more pejorative terms might have included "bland" and "hacky". But the basic concept behind all the definitions was the same. Find someone who can produce X number of words in Y number of days, with a plot that holds together reasonably well and a prose style that doesn't actively grate on the reader. If they can come up with a few witty lines of prose here and there, that's a benefit, but the main thing is that they should come up with Doctor Who that feels a lot like the Doctor Who people have already written and already read.

And yet, 'Shadowmind' isn't quite yet the work of the man who wrote 'The Eye of the Giant' and 'The Ultimate Treasure'. His regular characters don't feel on-model (the Doctor, for one, feels so much like a generic Wise Mentor figure that Bulis has him recite an actual list of old series monsters he fought, just to establish his credentials) and his prose is staid and straightforward, but his characters are likable (Kim Talevera and her grandfather are sweet and gentle people) and his setting exudes a certain fragile charm. The Shenn, for all that they're pretty much just Stock Sci-Fi Alien Race #22, are cute and fluffy and friendly, and Umbra, for all that he's Stock Sci-Fi Monster #27, at least has some interesting science behind him and exudes a sense of genuine menace in that way that evil, powerful children can.

Which is why the ending is all the more strikingly off-tone. We may never know whether Bulis was forced to end the book with a bloodbath by his editors (who were, let's face it, keen to develop a "mature" sensibility) or whether he felt that the book would seem more "grown up" if he killed off half the cast at the end, but it never feels like it fits with the rest of the book. The first three-quarters of the novel feel like he's developing a good Doctor Who novel for children; the last quarter feels like he's pulling the rug out from under those children instead of writing a book for adults.

That's not to say that there's nothing to recommend the book; again, the time spent on Tairngire feels calming and restful, and the crew of the Broadsword is likable and intelligent in a way that's just nice to read about. (John Rogers once called this "competence porn".) Even the plot, while not innovative, is a pleasant way to waste a few hours. It's hard to feel good about disliking Christopher Bulis, because there's not even anything really to hate. You just sort of want to give him a B- and explain to him that you'd like to see him try a little harder next time.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Chat: White Darkness

John: If we’re to start anywhere with ‘White Darkness’, it should really be the zombies. Because I think this one’s primarily known as “the Doctor Who book with the zombies”, and to some extent I think this misrepresents it. This one was very much a book about voodoo, not a book about “zombies” in the Romero sense. I think it did a pretty good job with that for the most part; how about you?

Dee: As I said in my entry, I was really relieved to see a book that didn’t assume all practitioners of the religion are assholes on power trips. Don’t get me wrong, we did have some negative stereotypes represented, but the implication was that these were also people being influenced by powerful beings with powerful telepathy, and it was a nod to the degraded rituals in Lovecraft. I give it a pass for that reason. I personally think that the followers of the loas are participating in a legitimate, positive religion. The Doctor’s actions and words gave credence to that within the world of this book. That mattered to me. But yes, to me it was more like Doctor Who Meets The Cthulhu Cult.

John: But we don’t really see much of the Cthulhu stuff until the end. For a lot of the book, it’s Doctor Who Meets the Sinister Germans, with a side note of “Hey, remember ‘Live and Let Die’? That was pretty cool, wasn’t it?” Don’t get me wrong, I agree that McIntee was trying to treat the religion with more respect than usual. Dubois, as the houngan the Doctor enlists for help, is a positive character. (Although the “You must trust me, a white guy who’s different from all the other white guys!” scene is a bit patronizing.) But there’s a lot of potent imagery that McIntee’s playing with, despite the fact that I think he knows he’s playing with fire, just because it’s so archetypal. The sinister voodoo ceremony undoes a lot of good intentions, but he can’t help including it because it feels like you have to have a big “evil voodoo ritual” set piece. Likewise, although much less problematic, the Germans are all stereotypical World War I Germans. We even get one with a duelling scar, don’t we?

Dee: See. I think you’re wrong, there. I think that there’s a lot of indicating that the Cthulhu cult is the dominant force. The Germans have a black guy on board, one they don’t even really know why they trust. The museum has it all there. It’s not as obvious as in a Lovecraft story, because McIntee is saying “What if Lovecraft hadn’t made all those cultists paper characters? What would a cultist be like? What would happen to people around them? What kind of place would they thrive?” And I think that is why I like it: I’m a Lovecraft fan who wants more depth in that world than good old Uncle Howie wanted. I think Uncle Howie would be horrified at this book, and I don’t so much mind that given his horrible racism. I like the world a lot more than I like him. That’s why I don’t mind Howard Phillips being something of a nice guy.

John: I can agree, Lemaitre has more depth and motivation than your average Cthulhu cultist. Again, I think there’s a long way from what McIntee wrote to actual racism, and I think he wrote with the best of intentions. I just think he also wrote in big, broad, sweeping brushstrokes, and not all of the details got filled in. And speaking of Lemaitre, is this the point where we talk about the “Hey, that’s French for ‘The Master’” red herring?

Dee: See, I missed that completely, because I realized right from the beginning who Lemaitre was. Given that, it never occurred to me to wonder. Sorry, Mr. Author David McIntee Man sir! So you can talk about it if you want, but I won’t have a lot to say. “Master” is loaded in the Whoniverse, but not so loaded I doubted my first ident of the character.

John: I missed it the first time too, but I caught it when I went back after reading his three novels with the Master in them. He’s kind of known for having a very...detailed take on the character. But we’ll get to that later. There are certainly plenty of villains in this one even without the Master...let’s see, we have Mait, Carrefour and Henri; Karnstein, von Stein, Reichmann, Froebe, the U-boat captain whose name I can’t remember; Bobo; Sam and I missing anyone?

Dee: The unnamed hotel clerk, possibly. Otherwise, no. I think you might be able to count Woodrow Wilson in there, briefly, for the racist remark McIntee reports and makes clear he justly dislikes. But yes, plenty for the Doctor and Companions to oppose. And thank goodness for good characterization, because I’m finally seeing what people like in Benny and Ace is having a reality check.

John: This is kind of where you start to realize how writer-proof Benny is. Her basic brief is, “I get to be the extremely competent smart-ass who knows all the tropes of adventure stories and doesn’t fall for them, and oh by the way I’m also a super-smart archeologist!” If you can’t make that work, you’re just not trying. And Ace...the next few books are where Ace really starts to sort herself out. It’s not all in one go, and it will get worse before it gets better (this is by way of a warning, because she does hit some pretty unlikable depths over the next six or seven books, and you don’t have the benefit of reading them out of order like I did and knowing she improves a lot.) And the Doctor is well-written, too, I think. Not so much to the Seventh Doctor’s brief of being always one step ahead of the bad guys and having a master plan, but that’s sometimes a plus. It can get tiresome if the Doctor always knows everything the bad guys are going to do before they do it.

Dee: I loved here how he was right so often, though. He knew what he was talking about, knew the history. Where he messed up, it was only nuance and not realizing what his Companions would get up to... like Benny picking up things in a museum in Haiti. And besides, this was supposed to be a holiday. I think this was the TARDIS putting him where he needed to be again.

John: Yes, it’s the perfect balance for the Doctor in that aspect. He’s generally knowledgeable about relevant topics, but he doesn’t have the kind of absurdly specific information that comes from time-traveling to after it’s all over and writing hints to his past self. It’s a nice change...and a trend that continues in our next book, ‘Shadowmind’. See you then!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

White Darkness

"Doctor Who and the Zombies" has so much potential, doesn't it? And indeed, that's what you get in this book.

"Doctor Who and the Cthulhu Cult" has tons of potential as well. We get that too.

Thank goodness that once again, we have the real Doctor here! Also, thank goodness, this book is better than Lucifer Rising. The TARDIS crew characterization is strong, as is the plot. The engine of this book rumbles along smoothly if sometimes a bit loudly. Bad guys? We have them aplenty. Best of all, the actual religion of voudoun is left unmaligned.

For a pagan like me, this is crucial. I know enough about the zombie mythos to recognize that the process of creating a zombi has been shown to be a bit different by more recent research, and I can live with that. What would have brought me screaming out of the story would have been uniformly evil followers of the loas, and we were spared this.

That's not to say there aren't racially problematic points to this book. There certainly are, starting with the fact that with one exception all of the good guys are white or mixed-race. But as I said before, there are bad guys aplenty, and we get lots of those with white skin. We are not left having to deal with black equals bad and white equals good, which also would have brought me right out of the story.

I could have wished for more subtlety here and there. I figured out one of the identity issues early on, and "Doctor Howard Phillips" screamed out in a book which had already mentioned the Great Old Ones by name.

I'll forgive it all, though, for the moments of clarity experienced by Ace. I'll forgive it for Benny being genre-aware and realizing what's going on, for her determination not to be a screaming female, for her wry sense of humor. I'll forgive it for the Doctor explaining that the Great Old Ones will act a certain way and being right, despite all hints to the contrary and for his not-at-all quiet rage at the way the people of the island are treated.

Does it have weak points? Sure it does. This is the strongest outing since Transit, though, and I really enjoyed it.