Friday, September 30, 2016

Robin D. Laws' NEW TALES OF THE YELLOW SIGN

Man, do I love me some King in Yellow, Robert W. Chambers' most famous contribution to the Weird Fiction milieu of the early 20th century. "The Repairer of Reputations" is one of my favorite short stories of all time, with its bizarre blend of off-the-wall "predictions" (it was written in the late 19th century, and set in the "future" of 1920 and not a breath of any such thing as a World War, with or without a Roman numeral, appears, for instance), familial/"dynastic" intrigues, unreliable narration, cosmic horror mythology and the titular character himself -- man, that stuff never fails to delight me.

So yeah, I'm one of those people who lost her freaking mind when I realized the first season of True Detective was totally throwing around bits of Yellowiana like "lost Carcosa" and the Yellow King. Wish there'd been more of that. I'd be totally down for TD having continued to explore a world in which, say, some idiot Hollywood producer greenlights a lavish feature film adaptation of "The King in Yellow"* and mass insanity sweeps the globe, and whatnot. Alas.

But I'm not alone, obviously, because here we have it! New Tales of the Yellow Sign brings the Yellow King/Carcosa mythos into the 21st century, kind of like Amanda Downum's Dreams of Shreds and Tatters did last year. Except more so. So much more so.

The stories herein draw a great deal on the alternate history outlined in "The Repairer of Reputations", using it as a jumping off point for re-imagining the 20th century the way Harry Turtledove might if he wanted to write Weird Fiction. Thus, while the World Wars we remember don't happen, variations on them do, but result, not in the rise of the modern secular/democratic nation-state, but in a tightening of the grip of hereditary monarchy, or of totalitarian dictatorship. Or both. The dystopian feel of a Police State is an undercurrent in every page of these tales, giving them an extra helping of dark glamor they didn't really need, being Yellow Sign stories and thus plenty darkly glamorous already, but do just fine with.

There's probably a little something for everyone here. Usually at this point, when I'm writing about a short fiction collection, I highlight a few of my favorites for special praise, but it's been more than a week since I finished this for the first (but I guarantee not the only) time, and I still can't sort out what my favorites were. Which is to say that I liked them all. Laws pulled off a tour de force of expanding and updating Chambers strange little throwaway alter-verse, and I hope to Hastur he's not done doing so.**

*To clarify, the short story collection of Chambers' that inspired all this is called The King in Yellow. One of the matters the KiY mythos, which figures in just three of the stories, covers, is the existence of a play called "The King in Yellow" which basically evokes cosmic otherworldly supernatural forces by its very text or performance and drives everybody who reads it, let alone sees it, insane forevermore.

**And yeah, I know he's busy inventing amazing award-winning games and writing modules for other games and hosting and appearing as a guest on podcasts and whatnot but, hey, he started it. Nyah.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Kij Johnson's THE DREAM-QUEST OF VELLITT BOE

I hadn't known how much I wanted to explore the world of H.P. Lovecraft's "Dream Cycle" alongside a middle-aged woman and an intrepid cat until I found myself doing so in Kij Johnson's absolutely delightful The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.

H.P. Lovecraft's famously weird (and unpublished in his lifetime, because not regarded by him as finished or even worth passing around to his friends) "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" has long been one of my favorite of his works, both for its underlying message that what most of us are discontentedly seeking beyond the everyday things of ordinary life, is actually that very same ordinary life properly understood and appreciated, and for its crazy imagery, its monsters, its perils, and its madcap, deadly armies of ghouls and Moon-beasts and kitty cats, who are fearless and fearsome in battle, the cats, and then, once the battle is over, instantly resume their more amusing pursuits of chasing leaves. And I'm really not much of a cat person, yo.

But so, Vellitt Boe. Right away she is a most un-Lovecraftian protagonist, for all that she is a Scholar (perhaps his very favorite profession): a professor of mathematics and science in the Women's College at the great, the ancient, the venerated University of Ulthar, a position she holds only with the greatest determination and discipline, for in Lovecraft's Dreamlands, of course, the idea of a female academic, of a female anything except for a witchy figurant, is unheard-of and absurd. In our world, a woman has to be twice as good to get half the respect a man does; in hers, those figures are blown right out of the water, both ways. But she's held on, and helped hold her little school together, creating a place where it's okay to be a smart, capable woman in Lovecraft's men-only imaginary world (which, because it's Lovecraft's Dream World, is also chock full of petty, capricious, moronic and devastatingly powerful gods that mess with things with such abandon that even, say, mathematical constants, to say nothing of things like physical measurements like distants, are subject to ridiculous variation and contstant change, making it extra hard for anyone, let alone a Lady Professor, to teach anything like math or science, really).

Until, until, a Dreamer comes along. Dreamers are, of course, people from our world, who visit Vellitt's in dreams, where they wield unbelievable power, radiate unbelievable charisma, frequently rise to the status of kings, if not godlings. And said Dreamer attracts the romantic interest of one of Vellitt's best students, and convinces her to run away with him to our, "real" world.

For reasons that aren't totally clear but that I immediately bought into because Dream Logic as well as Feminist Critique, the student's eloping with a Dreamer would spell disaster for the very existence of the Women's College (perhaps because it would reveal that even supposedly scholarly women are really, deep down, just looking for a husband to do all that hard thinking and planning and deciding for them and expose the whole idea of educating women as a wasteful scam?), so even before some Big Secrets are revealed, it becomes clear that the student must be retrieved and persuaded against her lover at all costs.

So off goes Professor Boe, who, before she settled down and got educated and became a professor, was a long-distance traveler and explorer, and also happens to be an ex of one Randolph Carter (hero of the Lovecraft story that inspired this tale), who once tried to pin her down as his forever "love" but whose love for her didn't actually respect her personhood or existence as anything apart from a placeholding figment of his dreams. Did I mention feminist critique? This is feminist critique, you guys.

But it's also a cracking good story, and a lovely one. Johnson's fondness for Lovecraft's amazingly detailed and thoroughly imagined Dreamlands quite possibly exceed my own, and she makes of Vellitt Boe's journey through them in quest of a way into the Waking World an absolute delight to read. A lot of familiar creatures and places are encountered along the way without ever feeling like retreads, and the refreshing character of Vellitt herself is one I'd read any number of stories to share.

I'm not someone who spends a lot of time or energy worrying too much about Representation in literature. I'm just in it for the fun stories and the writing. But even so, it sure is nice to see someone like me, a middle aged single, childless woman whom society is constantly questioning the worth of, at center stage in an adventure/quest story. Even if she isn't kicking ass (but here, she does. Oh yes, she does. Lady is pretty deadly with a sharpened piece of obsidian).

More, please.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Doctor, Doctor: Mark Morris' FOREVER AUTUMN

Sweet Jeebus, there's a lot to like about Forever Autumn. A lot! Like, it would be a great seasonal read, a fun horror novel, all on its own, without its being a Doctor Who novel. But, sigh, it's not only a Doctor Who novel, it's a Tenth Doctor, Doctor Who novel.

Forever Autumn -- and see, I even love the title! -- blunders right into Lovecraft territory (albeit modern day Lovecraft territory, a smallish* New England town with a history of weird stuff, a mysterious black tree, etc.) and acts like it owns the place. Kids have the wild hair to dig at the roots of the mysterious black tree, which is so ancient there are Native American legends about how it got there, and dig up a mysterious, creepy, kind of "fleshy" book full of strange names and lettering. It emits a weird green glow, and soon the town is enveloped in creepy green mist. Then tall, thin, tree-like skellingtons are walking around town at night throwing the whammy on unsuspecting citizens. I mean, hell yes!

But then the Tenth Doctor, and his beautiful but boring-as-paint-drying companion, Martha Jones, show up, and start mugging for our attention. And here's the flaw. Novels and Big Finish have rehabilitated Doctors that I've not been too fond of for me, so I had at least some expectation that maybe this, my first Tenth Doctor novel, would maybe do the same. But no.

This book managed to make the Tenth Doctor worse! As portrayed by David Tennant -- who has been marvelous in everything else I've seen -- the Doctor is frenetic, twitchy, disconnected (if the Ninth Doctor is the PTSD Doctor, the Tenth is the ADHD Doctor. Unmedicated) and shouty. He's a distraction rather than a star or a protagonist.

As written, he's all of these things, but turned up to eleven (heh). Author Mark Morris must have been under special orders to emphasize all of these qualities, because in these pages the Doctor can't stand or sit still for even 30 seconds. Maybe because, without an actual actor with biology and whatnot to accommodate, there really are no limits to how spastic he can be? When he doesn't even have to take a breath?

I dunno.

What saved this book for me -- remember, to date I've only ever DNF'd one Doctor Who novel -- was the setting, and the incidental characters. The kids are kind of stock characters, but have personality enough to be enjoyable; the early victim of the novel's main monsters is compassionately portrayed (bonus that one of the kids knows better than to take him lightly as a figure of fun), and the novel's temporary companion, an elderly woman whose family has always had something a bit witchy about them, is a delight. Like I said, this would have been a fine, possibly Bradbury-ish read without the Doctor Who elements.

The climax is fun if kind of telegraphed from a long way off (*cough* Chekov's Evil Clown Costume *cough*), the monster-aliens, a delightfully weird riff on the Pumpkinhead, are cool and genuinely creepy and the book quite a good read. I would have absolutely adored it with pretty much any other Doctor/Companion team; as it is, I merely liked it a lot.

As for my Arbitrary & Mercurial rankings, they don't change a lot. I just get to add a few elements.

Authors:

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

Doctors:

Ninth
Twelfth
Sixth
Third
Eleventh
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Seventh
Fifth
First
Tenth

Companions:

Ace
Romana II
Jamie
Ben and Polly
Tegan
Jo
Barbara
Nyssa
Samantha
Martha
Bernice
Vicki
Adric
Rose
Peri
Ian
*Most of you would probably drop the "ish" but I'm from a town with a population under 1600 souls, and spend a lot of time in even smaller burgs, so this town, which is apparently populated enough to allow a year-round dedicated costume shop to not only survive but flourish, it's small-ish. In a true small town, you make your own costumes, or you buy them at the nearest big box store (well over 100 miles away) or luck into them at a second-hand joint if your town's business community manages to support such a thing.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Doctor Doctor: Justin Richards' THE CLOCKWISE MAN

Happy sigh. As anyone who's been paying attention to my Arbitrary & Mercurial rankings knows, the Ninth Doctor is my favorite Doctor. This is partly because Christopher Eccleston, but also because this Doctor has an angry edge we haven't really seen since the Sixth Doctor (another one that's high in my lists) but is still hilarious with how he handles it (bananas are good), and he's basically the PTSD Doctor, which I can relate.

Indeed his only flaw is his taste in Companions. I wish he'd met Mickey first. Or Jackie. But nothing's perfect, not even the Ninth Doctor.

But I'd love, love, love to read a an adventure of his without Rose Tyler along. I don't know if I'll ever get one unless I write it myself (call me, BBC Books!), but meanwhile, there are a these New Series Adventures that have Nine and Rose, and of these The Clockwise Man was the very first.

The place-time this time is London in 1924 and right away as we meet a domestic servant getting the crap beaten out of him for mysterious reasons and then follow the Doctor and Rose in escorting the servant back to his employer's house, there are definite vibes. Upstairs, Downstairs, tail end of the Forsyte Saga vibes. Oooh lovely!

But those vibes dissipate rather quickly, because in the master's house are... White Russians. No, not as in Lebowski's favorite cocktail. I'm talking exiled Russian aristocrats who, even though the Tsar and his family are long dead, are still plotting to overthrow the Communists and restore the old regime. And they've got a little boy on their hands whom they claim is the heir to the Romanov dynasty. Which little boy immediately decides that Rose is just the greatest, probably because she's the only person he's ever met who doesn't treat him like he's made of glass and actually encourages him to do stuff, like go see the Imperial Exhibition (the ostensible reason for the TARDIS Twosome's visit).

Meanwhile, domestic servants keep getting assaulted, sometimes even killed, and a mysterious masked woman is making the rounds accompanied by a man who speaks rather mechanically and ticks and tocks audibly when he moves about. They Are Sinister. And the TARDIS disappears. Think these all might be connected somehow?

And what's up with all the identical black cats? Is there a glitch in the Matrix?

But so anyway, Late Steampunk. And another "aliens messing about with Earth history" story. I'm longing for a straight-up adventure out there in space. The Daleks menacing some gleepglorks. A human colony has gotten addicted to the secretions of a giant space lizard. Something. But here we go.

Which is to say that I found The Clockwise Man a bit dull for stretches, though things picked up quite nicely at the end, which in a bit on-the-nose fashion takes place behind the scenes in the Tower of Big Ben. The final confrontation in there is a neat bit of intricate plotting, though it would have been even better if the characters enacting it were more developed. There are too many of these, and they've spent most of the novel feeling dully interchangeable until suddenly they aren't! Oh my! But I didn't really care to make the effort of keeping them straight at that point.

I will give the novel bonus points for using the Sonic Screwdriver in ways that actually matter. But otherwise, hmm, yawn. It didn't suck, but it's pretty forgettable, even just ten minutes or so after I finished reading it.

Nonetheless, onto... a Tenth Doctor novel. Oh, I'm not a Tenth Doctor fan, not at all. But maybe, just maybe, without the mugging and the shouting and did I mention the mugging, he won't annoy me quite so much. We'll see.

As for the Aribitrary & Mercurial, nothing much has changed, really. The Ninth Doctor is still my favorite (and he did get some good moments in this novel). I still don't like Rose very much. And Justin Richards gets a meh for now.

Authors:

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

Doctors:

Ninth
Twelfth
Sixth
Third
Eleventh
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Seventh
Fifth
First
Tenth

Companions:

Ace
Romana II
Jamie
Ben and Polly
Tegan
Jo
Barbara
Nyssa
Samantha
Bernice
Vicki
Adric
Rose
Peri
Ian

Friday, September 2, 2016

Lucius Shepard's THE DRAGON GRIAULE

One of the coolest things in the 1980s was the surfeit of awesome shorter fiction that came through snail mail in the form of fantastic little digest-sized magazines like Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and many others. Some of them still exist and circulate today, some even in physical form like they did when I was a spec-fic-hungry teenager, but it's not quite the same in this instant-on world. I can read their contents online the second they're published.

But I used to have to wait a whole month between hits. That's just how it was, kids. And believe me, growing up in tiny rural Wyoming, where there are only three malls in the whole state and I only got to visit them and their B. Dalton's, their Waldenbooks, three or four times a year (in a good year) meant that these magazines were my lifeline, yo!

It was in those pages that I first discovered Lucius Shepard. The story was "The Jaguar Hunter." It blew me away, and I promised myself that someday I'd read every damn thing this guy published. But none of it ever showed up in those mall bookstores, and then college happened, and then life happened, and I sort of forgot about him. It happens.

But somewhere along the way, I came across, probably in a buddy's collection of magazines at college, "The Man who Painted the Dragon Griaule" and that story has stuck with me all of these years. So when I found out untold years later that this was just one of several stories about this particular dragon, I dropped everything and got my grubby e-hands on the e-book collecting them all, this book right here. Because wooooooo!

The Dragon Griaule contains that first story I stumbled across way back when, and five more that were brand new to me. They're all of tremendously high quality*, as you might expect. They're also tremendously inventive, taking the idea of a gigantic (as in mile-long and 700 foot high) dragon that has been stunned paralyzed by a wizard's spell and lies in stasis on the ground for over a thousand years while towns spring up next to his body and even on his back, all manner of plant and animal life use his inert bulk as a habitat, and humans do things like scrape off bits of him to sell as medicines or charms or jewelry. All with the dragon fully aware, but unable to move, slowed down so that decades pass between beats of his enormous heart. The Dragon Griaule is a world, an ecosystem unto himself, and is utterly and uncannily alien, throbbing at the heart of every passage in these stories.

The stories in this volume show us the passage of, I'm guessing at least a century, possibly two, in the dragon's half-life, but really start with the killing -- but not the death -- of Griaule. "The Man who Painted the Dragon Griaule" is really a slow-motion dragonslaying, as an artist convinces the city fathers of Teocinte (the chief population center in the dragon's vicinity) to pay his expenses over a decades-long project to paint a mural on the side of the dragon's body, deliberately using all the most toxic pigments to color his paint and laying it on thick so that the dragon is very, very slowly poisoned. This is the story that started it all, and many might say it's the best, but it does have a little competition; it's one of three stories that I found absolutely brilliant and unique (the other three were merely interesting and good).

"The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter" focuses on a young woman who, being beautiful and poor and motherless, naturally grows up to be a bit of a tease and a stealer of other women's lovers and generally just kind of a horrible Heather type, but then circumstances drive her to hide deep inside Griaule's body, where she discovers a whole new world of plants, parasites, fungi, animals and even people who have made the dragon's guts and cavities their home. She winds up living there, too -- and discovers that she's there for a reason, because, see, Griaule is aware, and while paralyzed, he's not helpless. Lying there hating, and hating hard, has given his will tremendous amplification and power and subtlety, and he manipulates the world around him according to his alien and inimical whim. Whew!

The limits of that whim are the subject of the other brilliant story, "The Father of Stones," in which a pretty bauble harvested from one of Griaule's teeth is used as a murder weapon in a town somewhat outside the dragon's generally understood sphere of influence, and the accused insists that the dragon made him do it. But the accused is not the protagonist; his lawyer is. Yes, this is not a bog standard pseudo-medieval fantasy world, but one that is fairly advanced, perhaps not quite industrialized, but perhaps on a par with, for this story, the early 19th century or so. The legal system is sophisticated and complex, the economy mercantile, the civil structure fairly egalitarian and maybe even democratic. This lawyer has to work hard to investigate the case, find grounds to defend his client, and grapple with the big question of just how powerful Griaule's evil will is. Can it be borne and imposed via pieces of his body or bits of his secretions?

The other stories explore this last question in interesting ways. A scale from the dragon's back seems to function like a genie's lamp -- rub it and be transported back in time to when Griaule was much smaller and flying free, for instance. In another story, Griaule manages, in a weird, unpleasant and creepy way, to make a baby via a human surrogate. And in the final story, The Skull, Shepard brings the dragon up to modern times**, as dismembered bits of dissected giant dragon make their way all over the world, with the dragon's skull serving as a vehicle to haunt a fictional banana republic and keep on making us puny humans miserable.

The imagination at work in all of these stories is fantastic, taking the idea of dragons way beyond what Tolkein or Martin or even, say, Anne McCaffrey ever did. Shepard does an amazing job of integrating his ideas into the history of our own world -- not in a doofy way like "dragons vs the U.S.S. Nimitz" or "President Reagan meets a dragon" -- and weaving moving human stories around the dragon and his baleful influence.

I will say that it's all a bit heavy going to read all of these stories in one go, like I started to. Some unpleasant themes and authorial ticks (see asterisk note below) start repeating and becoming more noticeable, and I finally had to put the book aside after the fourth story "The Liar's House"

*But all of them have a slight tinge of -- misogyny is too strong a word, especially with the gold standard of Robert Silverberg still polluting my memory -- but a certain unpleasant attitude toward women that came really close to spoiling every story but the original. There is at least one fully realized female character in each story (again, except the first), and one of them is even a protagonist, but none of these women are likable or even trustworthy. They are unknowable alien beings or haughty bitch queens or amoral sluts or (the protagonist) spoiled little teases who have some growing up to do but don't really stop being nobody one would care to know. And I wish I hadn't read the story notes at the end and realized the kind of bad girlfriend stories Mr. Shepard might have told over a highball or two. Sigh.

**Indeed, as I learned in the after-notes, Shepard conceived the idea of Griaule as a sort of monster embodiment of all the ugliness of the Reagan era.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Doctor Doctor: Terrance Dicks' THE EIGHT DOCTORS

Terrance Dicks is perhaps THE name in Doctor Who fiction. Crafter of novelizations of uncounted (by me) television episodes from the classic series, former script editor for the show, gentleman, scholar. So who else would get to launch a series of further adventures for the poor isolated Eighth Doctor, wonderfully portrayed by Paul McGann, utterly wasted in a bad American TV movie and in danger of just being swept under the rug forever.

BBC Books and, later, Big Finish Audio to the rescue! The Eighth Doctor has become beloved after all due to some great prose and audio adventures, of which The Eight Doctors is the very first. Er, sort of.

Possibly out of concern that their British/Commonwealth readers were not prepared to accept the Eighth Doctor as part of Doctor Who continuity, the powers that were decreed that this first "novel" would basically be a very thinly constructed "plot" that forced the Eighth Doctor to hang out with each of his seven prior incarnations to accept a piece of the relay baton, and, er, reassemble it so he could get on with being the Doctor in other stories.

Yeah, it's pretty lame. But this is Terrance Dicks, so it's very professionally and well-informedly lame, so much so that at times, if you squint, it can look a bit less lame and maybe it's just walking through really thick mud or something. Except it's also maybe a little bit clever (though it could have been a bit more clever, about which more below), as each but one of the Past Doctor encounters serves as a sort of post-credits continuation of a famous TV episode. Thus we see the First Doctor towards the end of "An Unearthly Child" (after a silly frame sequence that just happens to take place in a certain junkyard in Coalville), the Second in "The War Games", the Third in "The Sea Devils", the Fourth in "State of Decay", the Fifth in/after "The Five Doctors", and the Sixth in "The Ultimate Foe" (aka the last serial in the infamous "Trial of a Time Lord" season). The Seventh is seen pretty much between "Survival" and his date with regeneration at the beginning of the TV movie, which is a bit of a gyp but o'well.

There's a lot going on here, chiefly in the form of Terrance Dicks doing the most Terrance Dicks thing he possibly could. As in long before there was the continuity-obsessed Stephen Moffat, there was the continuity-obsessed (at least for the writing of this novel; I dunno how much so he might have been during his time as script editor) Terrance Dicks, who must have had a checklist a mile long of stuff that had to be in here before it was the Doctor Who Novel That Made The Eighth Doctor Canon. And had obviously been tortured for years by little inconsistencies and plot holes and whatnot that this particular storytelling gimmick gave him a chance to fix and/or explain.

But so, this could have been a bit more fun for the kind of reader who likes this sort of thing. I would have enjoyed having had to do a bit more work to figure out at what point in each Doctor's timeline the Eighth was meeting them. The bit with the First Doctor at first seemed like it was just going to be the sort of nostalgic look at the show's origins with the Coalville stuff, and so I didn't notice that we'd plunged right into "An Unearthly Child" until I realized what was going on in the Second Doctor encounter. And then the Third encounter goes and blows it all by outright naming the episode on the very first page of that chapter. And the rest of them are so obvious that I don't feel at all bad about "spoiling" them by calling attention to this cute little device of Dick's. Pah.

I will say that, with Dicks being the practiced craftsman that he is, this all hangs together rather elegantly, especially once the Sixth encounter gets going. Dicks manages to broaden the issues at stake in the silly trial stuff and make it all more meaningful, which was very gratifying. BUT.

Ain't there always a but?

But, the framing device is ridiculous. It's not inherently silly to go back to Coalville, as Stephen Moffat et al have proven, but in The Eight Doctors we're going there solely to meet and pick up a new Companion for the Eighth Doctor, without really introducing said character, Samantha Jones, at all. We know she's a Coalville student, that she's principled and brave and... um. Because, you see, she only appears at the very beginning and the very end. She plays ZERO part in the Doctor's past self encounters. Boo. I'd much rather just meet her organically in a proper Doctor Who adventure, that's just telling one new story instead of retelling seven old ones. But hey.

Not much change to the Arbitrary and Mercurial lists. I was tempted to bump Dicks down a spot out of pique at the lame idea, but he did execute it well, so he stays at #3. The Eighth stays where he is. I almost nudged Romana II up a spot because (unlike the other companions appearing in this novel), she actually did some cool stuff in the "State of Decay" coda, but even so I still don't love her more than Ace.

As for new companion Samantha Jones? I've seen even less of her than I have of Bernice Summerfield, but what little I saw of Samantha was more interesting than Bernice, so in she goes above the professor.

As always, these'll change and change and change like a TARDIS with a functioning Chameleon Circuit.

Authors:

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

Doctors:

Ninth
Twelfth
Sixth
Third
Eleventh
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Seventh
Fifth
First
Tenth

Companions:

Ace
Romana II
Jamie
Ben and Polly
Tegan
Jo
Barbara
Nyssa

Samantha
Bernice
Vicki
Adric
Peri
Ian

Friday, August 26, 2016

Doctor Doctor: Kate Orman's THE LEFT HANDED HUMMINGBIRD


A long time ago, in a TV universe far, far away (smirk), a character known as The Doctor, a doddering old codger having adventures through time and space with his granddaughter and two of her kidnapped teachers took a jaunt to the height of the Mexica Empire to spend some time among the Aztecs. The chief tension of that adventure lay in teacher Barbara's efforts to stop the Aztecs' slaughtering prisoners by the thousands to appease the blood-hunger of their war god (avatar, a hummingbird, because dude, have you ever watched hummingbird's at war over a backyard feeder?). She of course failed, because the First Doctor wasn't about messing with or influencing history. Oh no.

Fast forward hundreds and hundreds of years, both in our time and the personal timeline of The Doctor, and in The Left Handed Hummingbird he returns to his old haunt in his Seventh incarnation, accompanied by his friends Ace and Professor Bernice Summerfield (a fan favorite* who first appeared in a short story that appeared in Doctor Who magazine and then spread to other media). Except first stop, modern day (OK, circa 1994) Mexico City, where they quickly meet a sweet but panicky guy named Cristian, who says he met them back in 1968 in London and sent a message through bizarre channels begging for them to help him yet again. Of course none of the TARDIS crew has ever seen him before.

Their effort to help the poor guy -- a latent psychic and Aztec descendant -- sends them back to Aztec times and to London in 1968. And then to other times and places, but we'll get there. In both milieus, the TARDIS crew encounters a terrifying psychic force Cristian refers to as The Blue, that has insinuated itself into the spiritual life of the Aztecs and into the acid-droppin' hippie life of a houseful of hippies who mistake its distorting effects on their lives for enlightenment, man. But it's not. Oh, no.

In the process, The Doctor trips balls several times, Ace gets into a ton of fights, and Bernice, who is a Space Archaeologist from the Future (decades before River Song was that), does a lot of research, and everybody runs afoul of another non-TV character, one Hamlet MacBeth ("my parents hated me"), a former member of UNIT who founded its short-lived Paranormal Division (which, see Milkweed from Ian Tregillis' triptych), who interferes as only a UNIT guy can.

It's a pretty good, tight but convoluted plot, which alone makes this an enjoyable read (especially since it explores Meso-America, which not enough speculative fiction does. There's Aliette de Bodard's Obsidian & Blood trilogy and then there's... what? If anybody knows of more, please tell me. I love me that setting), but author Kate Orman is also a lovely prose stylist, with some passages manifesting as downright lyrical, as when she describes the TARDIS' famous groaning noise as "the arrogant music of equations shoving aside the particles of the air."

Really, the book's only flaw is its awkwardly shoehorned and totally unnecessary side trip into the life of John Lennon*, for reasons I don't really get except maybe because he was a peace guy, and his influence was, like, so important that it thwarted the Blue? 'Scuse me while I puke and die. Ha ha ha ha.

But so anyway, Kate Orman zooms up near the top of my author list, which is a good thing because she's written a LOT of Doctor Who novels. If they're all as good as this one (which even made me like The Gnome a bit more), I'm in for happiness!

So, speaking of those author rankings, after this one and Palace of the Red Sun, here are all the rankings, which, yes, have changed slightly. As I always warn, they are both Arbitrary and Mercurial.

Authors

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

And the Doctors:

Ninth
Twelfth
Sixth
Third
Eleventh
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Seventh
Fifth
First
Tenth

And a reader has demanded that I take a stab at formally ranking companions. So, solely including what I've had in the novels thus far:

Ace
Romana II
Jamie
Ben and Polly
Tegan
Jo
Barbara
Nyssa
Bernice
Vicki
Adric
Peri
Ian

So next up is the Eighth Doctor, of whom I'm terribly fond because HELLO PAUL MCGANN. The TV movie was terrible but he's just wonderful in the Big Finish audio dramas he's made. So I'm excited. But instead of just picking what strikes my fancy to read first, since the Eighth Doctor Adventures really are, I think, meant to constitute his lost seasons, continuity might matter (as, actually, it does a bit with the New Doctor Who Adventures, as there was some stuff in The Left Handed Hummingbird that was carrying over from previous Seventh Doctor novels. O'well), so I'm going to read those in order as I go. Which means, yep, The Eight Doctors is next, even though it's by Terrance Dicks, one of whose novels I've already read in this first tour de Doctor novels.

Anyway, see you then!

*Which, funny about this, the few times when it really looked like the bits regarding the Beatles were looking to hijack my cool Aztec/Mexico story, I got super mad and started composing a rant in my head about how I'd always felt like Doctor Who was a sort of special present that the Silent Generation made for Generation X and why did the Baby Boomers have to go shoving their culture into everything, with an excursis into just how tired I really am of the damned Beatles, but then I looked up author Kate Orman and she's only two years older than Your Humble Blogger. So she was 12 years old when Lennon was assassinated and so that event probably meant more to her than it ever did to me and my ranty pants went back onto their hanger in my complainy closet.