I have read a few of the Virgin New Adventures or Missing Adventures novels in the past (e.g. Lungbarrow, The Well-Mannered War and Human Nature), but this is my first experience of a BBC-branded Doctor Who novel (i.e. one starring the current Doctor and marketed as spin-off merchandising), so I don't have much comparable material to judge it against. But I certainly really enjoyed this book in its own right - which is lucky, really, as it would be a bit embarrassing having to write this review otherwise!
What I liked about it most was the meta-references to story-telling which are woven throughout the narrative - something which always presses my buttons, but I think was done especially well here. The book opens with an evocative snippet of the scary rumours which circulate around (what will turn out to be) the book's main setting, the city of Geath, using the opportunity not only to foreshadow some of the excitement and peril which will come later, but also to establish some important themes - particularly unreliable narration and the way that oral stories become embroidered in the telling, but also the way that they have the strongest power in the half-glimpsed semi-darkness and over people who are on their own.
Later on, as the story unfolds and the characters are getting to know Geath, we also meet a Teller whose stories have an inexplicable and politically revolutionary power over his listeners, and find the Doctor rigging up the alien equivalent of Renaissance technology to project cinematic images of ancient wars, and to beam TV-style communications into homes and public squares all across Geath. I very much liked the way all these different media - oral stories, films, TV - appeared together in a narrative all about the power of story-telling, and one which inherently bridges two different story-telling media in itself by virtue of being a novel about characters from a TV series. It meant that the central theme really was the power of stories writ large, rather than the power of stories told in one particular medium, which in this case I am able to add chimes strongly with what I know of Una as a person.
In much the same vein, I was also pleased but not surprised at the treatment of gender in the novel. Again, I know this is something Una feels strongly about in other people's stories, and it was great to see her getting the opportunity to Do It Right in her own novel. It's not just that as many of the major characters in the novel are female as male, or that the female characters have a strong sense of agency while also steering well clear of being tropish Strong Women without any meaningful flaws or dilemmas. What really told me I was reading a novel by someone who had thought about gender equality while writing it was the way that minor characters who were little more than the equivalent of extras in screen productions, and who so often simply default to being male in novels or on screen, turned out to be female. The example which particularly struck me was a knight who got killed when her horse bolted after being frightened by a hostile alien influence. It wasn't a speaking part, and of course the word 'knight' particularly invites a male-as-default reaction, but this particular character was quietly female. A nice touch, both in terms of portraying gender equality and prodding the reader to question their own assumptions.
I will admit that my attention wandered a while during the middle part of the novel, once the major characters had been established and there was rather a lot of impending war and capture-and-escape business to get through before everything could be resolved. But I get that that stuff is pretty much par for the course in this sort of fiction. Meanwhile, there was a lot more to enjoy than the two major points which I have outlined above - like the pre-industrial city-state setting, the central device of a gold-like substance called Enamour which has a hypnotic influence on those who come into contact with it, the strategies for dealing with a substance like this which are worked through in the story, some explorations of the disjunction between bureaucratic adherence to set rules and actual justice, and the fact that in the end the centuries-old alien conflict which constitutes the main drama of the story is resolved through discussion and negotiation, rather than fighting. I also thought the characterisation of the Doctor, Amy and Rory was very good, which is quite impressive given that I know from Una's LJ posts that she had to be given notes about what they would be like while writing the novel, as they hadn't actually appeared on TV yet at the time.
One slight 'Buh?' moment came from what appeared to be an extremely slashy scene between the Teller and the king whom he served, Beol, containing lines like "He rested his strong hands upon the other man's shoulders and smiled down at him", immediately before the revelation that they were, in fact, brothers. Come on, Una, spill the beans - was this originally straightforward slash which you were asked to tone down into brotherly love by a conservative editor?
Anyway, I don't know if I'm likely to read more Doctor Who spin-off stories for their own sake, but I'm definitely open to more by this author. ;-)
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