December Books

Non-fiction: 4 (2012 total 53)
The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, by Ronald Hutton
My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall, by John Major
The Bible
The Comic Strip Companion: the Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who in Comics: 1964-1979, by Paul Scoones

Fiction (not sf): 3 (2012 total 48)
The Ten Word Game, by Jonathan Gash
Bleeding Hearts, by Ian Rankin
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

SF (not Who): 2 (2012 total 62)
Non-Stop, by Brian Aldiss
The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 25th Annual Edition, ed. Gardner Dozois

Who: 6 (2012 total 75)
The Colony of Lies, by Colin Brake
Sanctuary, by David McIntee
The Burning, by Justin Richards
Scream of the Shalka, by Paul Cornell
Devil in the Smoke, by Justin Richards
Doctor Who Annual 2006, ed. Clayton Hickman

Comics: 2 (2012 total 21)
Ōoku: the Inner Chambers, vol 6, by Fumi Yoshinaga
Aldébaran 2: La Blonde, by Leo

~7,200 pages (2012 total 77,800)
1/17 (2012 total 65/259) by women (Yoshinaga)
1/17 (2012 total 12/259) by PoC (also Yoshinaga)
Owned for more than a year: 8 (The Burning, Bleeding HeartsNon-Stop [reread] The Year’s Best Science Fiction 25, Stations of the Sun, Sanctuary, Scream of the Shalka, The Colony of Lies, War and Peace [reread])
Other rereads: none (2012 total 20/259)</p>

Also started:
Making Ireland English, by Jane Ohlmeyer
Faces in the Pool, by Jonathan Gash

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December Books 17) The [Doctor Who] Comic Strip Companion, 1964-79, by Paul Scoones

This really is a book for completists, in that it's difficult to imagine anyone other than the diehard Who fan wanting to get hold of it, but it is equally difficult to imagine that diehard fan being anything other than tremendously happy with it.

I guess I was vaguely aware that there was a whole extra slice of comics continuity for Who beyond the TV series, the books and the audios with which I am familiar. But I hadn't appreciated that the decision to start a weekly strip in TV Comic (and its successors) from November 1964 until May 1979 would mean scores of different stories, some of them from the sound of things rather forgettable, but some of them much more interesting. Fascinating snippets for me:

  • The First Doctor meets Father Christmas, King Neptune and the Pied Piper, being less constrained by the sf vs historical format of the TV programme;
  • the comics strip, unable at first to secure a license for the Daleks, featured Dalek-like monsters called the Trods, who eventually get wiped out by the Daleks when the licensing agreement is reached;
  • John and Gillian, introduced in the first story as the First Doctor's grandchildren, survive almost four years until the Second Doctor enrolls them in university in August 1968, making them the longest-lasting companions of any medium in the 1963-89 era;
  • the Second Doctor is exiled to Earth by the Time Lords in late 1969 and has several months of adventures there before his appearance is changed and he becomes the Third Doctor – evidence of a kind for Season 6B;
  • Katy Manning was unwilling to allow her appearance to be used so the Third Doctor strips of her time feature UNIT and the Master but not Jo;
  • several Third Doctor strips, and one Second Doctor strip, were "Doctored" to become Fourth Doctor strips for the last year of the strip's run in TV Comic

Much of this information was already in books and DVD features which I already on, but it is fantastic to have it all pulled together in a single set of covers. An that is not all; Scoones also covers the comic strips in the Doctor Who annuals and the Dalek annuals and books, and the intense two-year Dalek strip from TV Century 21 in 1965-66. He even makes me want to read some of the early Countdown strips (the Doctor Who strip was moved from TV Comic to Countdown in 1971, though Countdown was then gradually renamed TV Action and eventually merged back into TV Comic in 1973). The only strips I had read of those covered in the book are the ones from the Who annuals, some of the Dalek annuals and books, and one Countdown annual.

One other point, though: the first female names mentioned in a creative capacity, as far as I could tell, were Louise Cassell and Christine McCormack, who recoloured the First Doctor strips for republication by Marvel in 1994-95 (Christine McCormack's sister Rosie is mentioned later as a colourist for the Second Doctor strips). They appear on page 570 of a 603-page book. Even more than the TV programme, the comics (at least in the 1964-79 phase) appear to have been a very male affair.

Anyway, excellent stuff, and a good end to my 2012 bookblogging.

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Most commented posts of the last year

Some rare evidence against the continuing decline of Livejournal: last year I counted only 26 posts with 12 or more comments from the previous twelve months, compared with 32 with at least 15 comments the year before and 42 with at least 20 from three years ago. This year I have 37 posts above last year’s threshold of 12 comments, though we are still down compared to previous years’ cutoffs (22 had 15 or more comments, 13 had 20 or more). Perhaps I was just writing more interesting stuff. The top posts from the last twelve-ish months were:

30 December: What to read in 2012? – 22 comments
30 December: December Books 23) A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee. – 16 comments
31 December: My 2011 books poll – 15 comments
15 January: Sunday number theory problem – 14 comments
15 January: Scotland the Brave – 23 comments
18 January:
Measures thou see art but trifles – 27 comments
29 January: When e-government goes bad – 30 comments
5 February: My second submission to the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland – 12 comments
11 February: Eastercon: I will be there; will you? – 36 comments
26 February: Scotland and Ireland in the British Parliament – 15 comments
26 February: Cambridge architecture question – 19 comments
28 February: “Mustard keen” – 29 comments
29 February:
paw/pour/poor poll – 20 comments
10 March: [locked post] – 14 comments
2 April: A post for World Autism Awareness Day – 30 comments
5 April: Bad writing – 13 comments
11 April: Eastercon – 18 comments
26 April: 45 – 18 comments
10 May: 2012 Hugos: Best Novel – 12 comments
19 May: My reading speed – 14 comments
23 May: Links I found interesting for 23-05-2012 – 14 comments
25 May: Links I found interesting for 25-05-2012 – 14 comments
31 May: The Book of Job – 17 comments
1 June: Links I found interesting for 01-06-2012 – 14 comments
8 June: Hugos 2012: The John W. Campbell Award (Not A Hugo) – 13 comments
12 July: Language quiz: answer and poll – 23 comments
26 July: Poll: The BSFA, Clarke and Tiptree winners – 13 comments
25 August: Geopolitics: Sweden vs the UK – 17 comments
3 September: 2012 Hugo voting analysis – 14 comments
11 September: Links I found interesting for 11-09-2012 – 12 comments
13 September: [locked post] – 36 comments
24 September: Culinary meme – 14 comments
26 September: Quick pop quiz – 22 comments – [What is a paradiddle?]
13 October: Election choices – 18 comments
29 November: November Books 15) Between the Continent and the Open Sea, by David Rennie – 22 comments
16 December – Getting all three to look at the camera – 12 comments
22 December- Locus Poll of Best Novels – 21 comments

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What should I read in 2013?

Dear friendslist (and other readers),

I have been greatly helped in thinning out the books on my unread shelf by your votes in previous years, and I would once again very much appreciate your advice on what books to read next, by filling in this poll. (I believe that even if you don’t have a livejournal account, you can sign in with your Twitter or Facebook credentials.)

I’m doing it a little differently this year, splitting sf into books acquired in 2012 and books acquired previously, and with a completely different question for the non-fiction books. Looking forward to your guidance.

As usual, please put any specific recommendations (or disrecommendations) in comments – I am still banking some from last year and the year before.

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December Books 16) The Bible

Apart from War and Peace, my other reading project for 2012 was to read the entire Bible, a few chapters a day (or an entire book if it is short). I therefore finished Revelation, and the whole thing, this morning. I have already written up my thoughts on the Old Testamentavant la lettre). I was struck by how hardline Paul is, particularly in the early letters, on the issues that hardliners still stick to today, and also on the question of justification by faith; but there is a significant counterbalance from some of the later letters, especially 1 Peter which seems to be a direct response in some ways. (And the Epistle of Jude seems strangely familiar after 2 Peter ch 2…)

Finally, Revelation is the most Old Testament-y of the New Testament books. (There is nothing like the letters in the Old Testament, and the gospels and Acts are quite different in style from the OT historical books.) Again, Revelation is an attempt to express in words that which cannot be expressed in words; it is clearly not meant to be taken literally, but as one person's attempt to concretise the underlying truths.

Unlike War and Peace, I don't particularly recommend that others repeat this experiment, or at least that they should not do it in the same way as I did. But it's worth getting more familiar with a book which is so central to our own culture.

Matthew October 14-23
Mark October 23-29
Luke October 30 – November 9
John November 10-17
Acts November 18-27
Romans November 28 – December 1
1 Corinthians December 2-5
2 Corinthians December 6-7
Galatians December 8
Ephesians December 9
Philippians December 10
Colossians December 11
1 Thessalonians December 12
2 Thessalonians December 13
1 Timothy December 14
2 Timothy December 15
Titus December 16
Philemon December 17
Hebrews December 18-20
James December 21
1 Peter December 22
2 Peter December 23
1 John December 24
2 John December 25
3 John December 26
Jude December 27
Revelation December 29-31

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Links I found interesting for 31-12-2012

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December Books 15) Война и миръ графа Льва Николаевича Толстого

A bunch of us have been reading War and Peace at the rate of a chapter a day for the duration of this year – a slight initial miscalculation led us to believe that there are 366 chapters, but in fact there are only 365, so most of us finished this morning, to general rejoicing. It’s a long, long book, and I think that reading it in solidarity with a group was a useful discipline as well as an enjoyable experience. I didn’t contribute all that much to the group discussions but I was very glad that they we there (my main contribution was supplying timetables at the start of each of the internal books to remind people which chapter to read on each day). We are more or less settled on the Chinese epic 三國演義, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, for next year (though there is also a Les Misérables faction).

One quite unexpected bonus of reading the book in this format was that the summer months almost exactly coincided with the 1812 invasion of Russia, from June to October. (I added to this by following the live feed of John Quincy Adams’s diary from 1812, when he was the American ambassador in St Petersburg, though in fact he got the news of the war very late and was anyway distracted by the illness and death of one of his children.) Tolstoy presumably did not plan it this way but it was a nice real time additional feature to our reading.

So what did I think of it? It is a grand narrative essentially about two Russian noblemen – Pierre Bezukhov and Andrei Bolkonsky – and their extended and intertwining families and love-lives, including particularly Natasha Rostova, who at the start of the novel is a young teenager, but ends up successively engaged to Andrei and then married to Pierre, and also Pierre’s unfaithful first wife Helene, who dies of a botched abortion (not a lot of those in classic literature); and also most of all the impact of the Napoleonic wars on all of their families – Andrei is injured at Austerlitz and eventually dies of further injuries received during the 1812 campaign; Pierre reacts to the times by dabbling in revolutionary politics but undergoes a cathartic experience as a prisoner of the French in Moscow.

It’s not so very different from Anna Karenina, but is more ambitious – the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, with several chapters about Napoleon himself, makes it a more political novel, and I was happier with the interweaving of the characters’ private lives here. I had first read it in 1990, and was surprised at how well some of the incidents came back to me after two decades. One of my former bosses claimed that after reading War and Peace he never needed to read another novel, and I can see how he might have come to such a conclusion. Just because it is done at such length doesn’t necessarily mean it is done well, but in this case it s pretty good. (There are a couple of minor flaws – the ageing of the Rostov kids through the book is a bit inconsistent, and the second epilogue with Tolstoy’s theory of history can be safely skipped.)

I am not really a Russian speaker – I can just about puzzle my way through a short text with a dictionary – but I am aware that one of the things we miss in translation is that in fact quite a lot of the dialogue between the leading characters is in French, decreasing as the story goes on to the point where the Russian elite start taking Russian lessons, The very first sentence of the novel, translated into English as

Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes

is originally

Eh bien, mon prince. Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des поместья, de la famille Buonaparte.

The English text doesn’t even hint at Anna’s clarification of the French word with a Russian equivalent (and unfortunately neither my French nor my Russian is good enough to pick up any significant difference in nuance between “apanage” and “поместье”). One can never get at the precise original meaning in a translation, alas.

A final rather random point: the character Platon Karataev, encountered by Pierre during his French captivity, is described as “the personification of everything Russian”, suffering while remaining true to his Christian faith. But I note that he comes from the Apsheron Regiment – Apsheron is in today’s Azerbaijan (the peninsula on which Baku is located, which at the time of War and Peace it had flip flopped back and forth between Russian and Persian control several times). Also Karataev’s surname would seem to indicate that he has Turkic roots. His Christianity as practiced is pretty eclectic as well. I think Tolstoy is actually sending a rather non-conformist message with Karataev, who certainly had Muslim ancestors and may be not terribly close to the Church.

Anyway, the discipline of reading a book, or set of books, over the course of a calendar year is a very healthy one, and this was a good book to do it with.

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December Books 14) Doctor Who Annual 2006, ed. Clayton Hickman

Since I'm rewatching New Who, I thought I should repeat my practice with Old Who and read the relevant annuals as I go through the episodes. I'm a little ahead of time here, in that the 2006 Annual wasn't published until after we had seen The Parting of the Ways and I'm only up to The Doctor Dances, but there's not much in it. Anyway the Annual appears to be written on the presumption that Ecclestone would still be the current Doctor – the stories are all about Nine and Rose (with one exception, which I'll get to at the end) and there is no hint of any future change.

Indeed, the most interesting bit of the annual for me is the two-page article by Russell T. Davies with the title "Meet The Doctor", which includesalmost everything we ever learn about the Time War:

There had been a War, the Great Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords. There had been two Time Wars before this – the skirmish between the Halldons and the Eternals, and then the brutal slaughter of the Omnicraven uprising – and on both occasions, the Doctor's people had stepped in to settle the matter. The Time Lords had a policy of non-intervention in the affairs of the universe, but on a higher level, in affairs of the Time Vortex, they had assumed discreetly the role of protectors. They were the self-appointed keepers of the peace. Until forced to fight.

Now, the story of the Great (and final) Time War is hard to piece together, because so little survived. Certainly, both superpowers had been testing each others' strength for many, many years. The Daleks had threatened the Time Lord High Council before, by trying to replace its members with Dalek duplicates. And one of the Dalek Puppet Emperors had openly declared his hostility. Though perhaps the Daleks' wrath was justifiable – they had been provoked! At one point in their history, the Time Lords had actually sent the Doctor back in time, to prevent the creation of the Daleks. An act of genocide! The Time Lords had fired the first shot – though in their defence, they took this course of action because they had foreseen a time when the Daleks would overrun all civilised life and become the dominant life-form in the universe.

Some tried to find a peaceful solution. While it's hard to find precise records of these events, it's said that under the Act of Master Restitution, President Romana opened a peace treaty with the Daleks. Others claim that the Etra Prime Incident began the escalation of events. But whatever the cause – and it's almost certain that the full story has yet to be uncovered – the terrible War began. The Time Lords reached back into their own history, to assemble a fleet of Bowships, Black Hole Carriers and N-Forms; the Daleks unleashed the full might of the Deathsmiths of Goth, and launched an awesome fleet into the Vortex, led by the Emperor himself.

The War raged, but for most species in the universe, life continued as normal. The War was fought in the Vortex, and beyond that, in the Ultimate Void, beyond the eyes and ears of ordinary creatures. The Lesser Species lived in ignorance. If a planet found its history subtly changing – perhaps distorting and rewriting itself under the pressures of the rupturing Vortex – then its people were part of that change, and perceived nothing to be wrong. Only the Higher Species – those further up the evolutionary ladder – saw what was happening. The Forest of Cheem gazed upon the bloodshed, and wept. The Nestene consciousness lost all of its planets, and found itself mutating under temporal stress. The Greater Animus perished and its Carsenome Walls fell into dust. And it is said that the Eternals themselves watched, and despaired of this reality, and fled their hallowed halls, never to be seen again…

Years passed, as the mighty armies clashed. And then, silence. No one knows exactly what happened in the final battle. And no one knows how it came to an end. All that is known is that one man strode from the wreckage, one man walked free from the ruins of Gallifrey and Skaro. The Time Lord called the Doctor.

Lots of references here:

  • The Halldons are mentioned in a 1970s Dalek annual, apparently nothing to do with the Eternals;
  • the Omnicraven uprising seems to be new to here;
  • "trying to replace its members with Dalek duplicates" refers to Revelation of the Daleks
  • I'm not sure about "one of the Dalek Puppet Emperors"; does this mean Davros?
  • "the Time Lords had actually sent the Doctor back in time" in Genesis of the Daleks
  • "the Act of Master Restitution" is a desperate retconning of the first scene of The Movie
  • "the Etra Prime Incident" is presumably that described in the Big Finish audio The Apocalpypse Element, which makes this one of only two references to Big Finish continuity in New Who and its spinoffs that I know of (this is the other);
  • Bowships are mentioned in State of DecayThe Web Planet), though if it has perished and its walls fallen to dust that may not be so likely.

A pleasing mix of canon-fodder and new stuff, signalling that the RTD Whoniverse is an expansion of the older version, rather than a completely new beginning.

I was also interested in the closing paragraph of the chapter:

And far away, across the universe, on the planet Crafe Tec Hydra, one side of a mountain carries carvings and hieroglyphs, crude representations of an invisible War. The artwork shows two races clashing, one metal, one flesh; a fearsome explosion; and a solitary survivor walking from the wreckage. Solitary? Perhaps not. Under this figure, a phrase has been scratched in the stone, which translates as: you are not alone…

I wonder if originally that had been intended to be the catch-phrase for a Season Two where Ecclestone stayed on? Or is it just early planning for what became Season Three?

The Annual features the usual stories, two of which jumped out at me for different reasons. The first, "Doctor vs Doctor" by Gareth Roberts, is an ambitious pastiche of locked-room detective novels featuring Dr Merrivale Carr (presumably a reference to John Dickson Carr's detective Sir Henry Merrivale) which must have sailed over the heads of most of the young readers of the annual. The last, "What I Did In My Summer Holidays, by Sally Sparrow", by Steven Moffat, is of course renowned as the Ur-text of Blink, but it's a charming story in its own right – Sally represents the reader, taken on an adventure by the (Rose-less) Doctor, and promised great adventures and a great personal future (she actually does a bit better than Sally Sparrow in Blink). Presumably the last published fiction about the Ninth Doctor, it's a good note to end on.

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December Books 13) Devil in the Smoke, by Justin Richards

Justin Richards seems to be on form these days; this is another tie-in e-book, intended as a prequel to The Snowmen (though as far as I could tell it was not available outside UKania until after the broadcast), a tale of Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax battling a smoke monster with the assistance of a small boy as viewpoint character. It is a pastiche of Victorian children’s stories with a nod to Leon Garfield (though his Devil-in-the-Fog was set a hundred years earlier), spooky and enjoyable. When we first met Vastra and Jenny, fandom cried out en masse for spinoff stories about them, and I think this and James Goss’s piece for last year’s Brilliant Book shows that fandom was right.

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December Books 12) Bleeding Hearts, by Ian Rankin

Most of this is excellent, a tale of a specialist assassin who happens also to have a milder form of hæmophilia, trying to find out who organised his latest hit, and of a private detective hired to find and kill him for a previous assignment. The detail of pursuit around the UK and USA, getting entangled in a nasty cult with links to spooky circles in Washington, is very good. But unfortunately I was completely unconvinced by the twist-in-the-tail resolutions of both main plot strands, which spoiled what was otherwise a very enjoyable read. (Not a Rebus book, despite my choice of icon.)

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Where I’ve been this year

List the places where you spent a night away from home this year, marking places where you spent two or more non-consecutive nightswith an asterisk.

*Strasbourg, France
*Tbilisi, Georgia
*Geneva, Switzerland
Skopje, Macedonia
*Barcelona, Catalonia
Heathrow, England
*Loughbrickland, Northern Ireland
Paris, France
The Hague, the Netherlands
Broadstairs, England
Portslade, England
Kidderminster, England
Letchworth, England
Dublin, Ireland
New York, NY
Cherry Hill, NJ

At 16, that’s more than last year but less than some others. There were a lot of return visits – five to Tbilisi, three to Strasbourg, three to Geneva. Also one overnight flight and two night ferries. Nine countries plus Belgium, plus another three (Austria, Turkey, Ukraine) changing planes and several times changing trains in Luxembourg, which makes fourteen countries this year.

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December Books 11) The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 25th Annual Edition, ed. Gardner Dozois

Big collection of sf short stories published in 2007, of which I had read very few – the five Hugo nominees (of which I remembered only three, Ted Chiang’s “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, Stephen Baxter’s “Last Contact” and Elizabeth Bear’s “Tideline”). Several stories new to me that particularly grabbed me: “An Ocean Is a Snowflake, Four Billion Miles Away” by John Barnes; “Sea Change”, by Una McCormack; “Against the Current”, by Robert Silverberg; “Of Love and Other Monsters”, by Vandana Singh; “The Mists of Time”, by Tom Purdom; and “The Prophet of Flores”, by Ted Kosmatka. No turkeys; as usual a good collection.

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Links I found interesting for 27-12-2012

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December Books 10) My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall, by John Major

This is a detailed and yet very readable survey of the British music hall, from early days in the 1850s to death by competition from cinema and broadcasting after the first world war. I was surprised by both how little I knew about this – I had read about some of the stage magicians, but otherwise it’s basically The Talons of Weng Chiang and my childhood memory of trailers for The Good Old Days and The Black and White Minstrel Show. In particular, the music hall is absent from my distant cousin Frederic’s survey of British (and American) actors of much the same period; he describes the 1860s, when music hall was in its first full burst of vigour, as a low point in British theatrical history. (Major does refer to the classical theatre; it was a rich source of material for music hall, especially parody and impressions.)

I had not fully realised just how rooted British popular culture is in music hall, even today. It was the source of many well-known catch-phrases. Harry Champion sang “Any Old Iron”, “Boiled Beef and Carrots”, and “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am”. Harry Clifton wrote “Paddle Your Own Canoe”, “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel”, “Up With the Lark”, and “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way”. Major credits Dan Leno, “the Funniest Man in the World”, with inspiring the surreal stream-of-consciousness humour of the Goons and Monty Python. Basically all later twentieth-century and twenty-first century British comedy draws from this well.

The book is neatly structured, looking at the origins of music hall from pleasure garden, glee clubs and legislative attempts at social control; then at the development of music hall culture, with particular focus on the most celebrated performers (Marie Lloyd gets a chapter to herself, Dan Leno and Little Tich share one), and he looks thematically also at female cross-dressers, comedians, blackface and various other styles of performance. At the end he devotes a short chapter to the career of his own father, who was half of a celebrated double act in the early twentieth century, until his co-star, also his first wife, died as the result of a scenery accident. The book movingly starts and finishes with the death in 1962 of 83-year-old Tom Major, his son and second wife at his side, also surrounded by the shades of his past in spirit and occasionally in body.

Major comments ruefully that “Whatever gifts my parents passed on to their children, the talent to entertain was not among them… although I often reflected that my chosen career was akin to show business.” It is more than twenty years ago that he rose without trace to become prime minister of the United Kingdom, and served seven forgettable years in the job. Yet I always felt that he was probably the only British prime minister of my lifetime who would be genuinely pleasant company in person. and on the evidence of this book he is too modest about his own ability to entertain. It’s a nice little gem of cultural history.

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Doctor Who Season One (2005), first half

I’ve been giving some thought to the pacing of my write-ups of New Who. When I did my rewatch of Old Who, I chose to group stories in blocks of six, regardless of their overall length and number of episodes. That gave me the neat result of grouping the great Tom Baker seasons together, but was otherwise pretty arbitrary. So far I have written up one standalone spoof and four webcasts with twenty-one episodes as a group.

I think what I will try to do henceforth is to stick to watching/listening to the stories in broadcast order, but breaking at ends and beginnings of seasons, and also probably in between. I don’t want to do entries writing up thirteen different stories at once; around six still feels right, but I won’t adhere fanatically to that number.

For the 2005 Season One, that means a natural break point between Dalek and The Long Game, six episodes and five stories in, seven episodes and another five stories to go. (Later seasons will get more complicated.) So here goes.

Rose is a great beginning to New Who. The mistake made by other reboots was to take for granted that viewers would take an interest in the central character. Russell T Davies turns convention on its head by making this a story mainly about the Doctor’s companion – with the partial exception of the first episode ever, Old Who had precisely one story which was companion-centric, The Massacre, though the Doctor-lite episode has now become a feature of New Who. Rose leads a fairly normal life – dead-end job, mum but no dad, boyfriend who is not quite on her wavelength – and the Doctor arrives to explode her workplace, break her mother’s furniture and drag her across London to face militant plastic aliens. Yet we move from Clive’s suspicions to the point where there can be few viewers who do not cheer Rose’s joyful slow-motion run to the Tardis at the end. One can see why the bat-shippers decided that this was a show about Rose rather than the Doctor.

The two principals are great here, and Ecclestone has some brilliant moments as the damaged soldier trying to stop things going wrong again. There are some minor flaws – Jackie’s seductive fumbling, the burping bin, the sequencing of the climax, the precise nature of the Nestene plans – but it is an excellent bit of television, in which almost the only elements of Who continuity are the Tardis and the Autons. In contrast to The Movie, or Scream of the Shalka (or indeed The Twin Dilemma) you end the story wanting to know what happens to these people next.

And we leap to the far future, to be precise The End of the World, an environment that manages to look like a vast space station visited by a wealth of alien life forms, rather than a Welsh civic building with some people in fancy dress, which itself is a major achievement. We learn more about the Doctor here – he is technically brilliant and saves the day, but he also flirts hilariously with the doomed Jabe. The two really scary bits are the Doctor’s battle with the rotating fans and Rose’s repeated problems with the solar shutters; apart from that it’s enjoyable enough but not too taxing. (And the Doctor barely speaks to the Face of Boe, which is a bit problematic for later continuity, though perhaps they are nattering away off-screen.) Odd fact which I only found out writing this – the rather memorable scene with Rose and Raffalo, who is the first person to die horribly, was a late addition to make up for cutting out a lot of expensive Cassandra special effects.

There’s an interesting survey to be done about the extent to which a Doctor’s second story is indicative of the future. The Daleks – yes. The Highlanders – no (apart from introducing Jamie). Doctor Who and the Sliurians – maybe. The Ark in Space – yes. This isn’t the strongest story of the season but it does at least scratch the sfnal itch; it’s actually the furthest we get from Earth in 2005, in time and probably also in space, until New Earth (another Doctor’s second story).

Though broadcast on 9 April 2005, The Unquiet Dead is very explicitly a Christmas episode, so it was rather nice to be watching it at this time of year. This feels much more solid than The End of the World somehow – it reminds me a bit of how the early Who historicals work much better on the whole than the early Who sf stories. It’s well written, Piper and Ecclestone are on form, and they are supported by a very strong turn from Simon Callow as Dickens and a good start for Eve Myles (though it’s difficult for me now to watch her and not expect her to be Gwen Cooper). It somehow looks better than The End of the World as well – beautifully lit, street scenes which are from a familiar genre but done very well, and excellent special effects for the Gelth. Watching it again I was also struck by the hints of character even for minor parts in the script, and the brief discussion of who and why the Doctor is. I had also forgotten how much the Time War underlies this season – as in Rose, the Doctor is here clearing up unfinished business from the conflict.

I had previously rated Aliens of London / World War Three as the low point of the season (I know that this is heresy; the weight of fan opinion is pretty clear that this honour belongs to The Long Game), but I have revised my views upwards a bit now. I still don’t like the fart jokes, and the topical references have dated (and in some cases, eg Britain needing UN approval to launch a nuclear strike in self-defence, were actually wrong at the time). But here for the first time in Who history we have a companion returned to their home after being thought lost for ever, as so many other companions must have been thought lost in the past; and we have it combined with a rather different alien plot which goes to the heart of government (incidentally, this year’s Autons have abandoned the strategy of replacing senior officials with duplicates, leaving that for the Slitheen). The Downing Street bits are fun rather than plausible. There are some great special effects as well – the initial spaceship crash, the Slitheen suits coming on and off; shame about the chase scenes.

Incidentally in the whole of Old Who there were only two people who appeared playing themselves – the late Kenneth Kendall and Courtney Pine. In this story alone we get the first two of many such appearances in New Who, Matt Baker of Blue Peter and political journalist Andrew Marr.

Dalek was one of the set-pieces that I most looked forward to in 2005, and delivered so well that I felt extra betrayed when later set-pieces were not as good. We wanted some kind of reimagining of the Daleks for New Who, and we got it – but also a fairly harsh light is shone on the character of the Doctor, and we wince for him at the line “You would make a good Dalek.” (Though if you think of the concept of the “good orc”, there may be another layer of meaning here.) When the Dalek finds a certain redemption at the end, it is a prefiguring of the Ninth Doctor’s own doom (as we now know). Ecclestone and Piper again are excellent here, Piper’s Rose now starting to grow up a bit and getting her turn at flirtation. I am less impressed with either Corey Johnson’s Van Statten or Bruno Langley’s Adam, but that’s partly because they look very orange through a peculiarly chosen combination of make-up and lighting.

NB that this is the first TV Doctor Who story, but not the last, which was set in this year.

Highlights of this run: Rose and Dalek, as I expected, and also The Unquiet Dead. Low point is still Aliens of London / World War Three but not as bad as I remembered. I had forgotten both how good Piper is as Rose (memories poisoned by her return in Journey’s End) and also how consistent the theme of the Time War is, to the point that I haven’t even noted it in the later stories above. I had not forgotten how good Ecclestone is in the lead role.

< The Curse of Fatal Death | The Webcasts | Rose – Dalek | The Long Game – The Parting of the Ways | Comic Relief 2006 – The Girl In The Fireplace | Rise of the Cybermen – Doomsday | Everything Changes – They Keep Killing Suzie | Random Shoes – End of Days | Smith and Jones – 42 | Human Nature / The Family of Blood – Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords & The Infinite Quest | Revenge of the Slitheen – The Lost Boy & Time Crash | Voyage of the Damned – Adam | Reset – Exit Wounds

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December Books 9) The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, by Ronald Hutton

A brilliant book which has been on my reading list for far too long. Hutton looks thoroughly and critically at the records of ritual celebrations in England, Scotland and Wales over the centuries, and comes out with some very revisionist conclusions. I had always assumed, for instance, that the Bonfire Night celebrations of 5 November were direct descendants of ancient Celtic Samhain ritual, shifted by a few days; Hutton shows that in fact the evidence is that Bonfire Night started as a direct commemoration of the events of 1605, that earlier Samhain celebrations are recorded, if at all, elsewhere in the country, and that if there was any calendrical shift it was in the other direction, from the 17 November anniversary celebrations of Elizabeth I’s accession.

Popular ritual seems to have always been in a state of flux and development, with even Morris dancing as a popular phenomenon dating back only to the 1560s. The only celebrations that Hutton ends up crediting with genuinely ancient roots are the solstices; fully the first quarter of the book looks at the changing nature of Christmas, and summer solstice bonfires do seem to go back to Celtic times. Not surprisingly, the Reformation and the flip-flopping of the 1550s seems to have had a very disruptive effect on ancient ceremonies, but that then opened up space for new practices to emerge, Bonfire Night being only the most widespread and visible.

The book is structured in terms of the calendar, allowing Hutton to take individual ceremonies one by one and look both at the records and the historiography. He is very critical of the folklorists of a hundred years ago as historians, including especially Cecil Sharp (who I knew of because of his Clare College connection) and basically anyone who bought the idea that all the rural celebrations were survivals of an otherwise lost pre-Christian past. In his conclusion, however, he finds space to praise them as inventors of a new literary movement which culminated in the development of Wicca. This leaves me with a couple of thoughts: one stat if Wicca works for some people, then it undeniably has its own truth; the other is that this is all happening at exactly the same time as Tolkien is creating his own mythology, as a consciously fictional (rather than wishfully historical) construction to fit more or less the same needs.

Anyway, Christmas is quite a good time to read this book, especially if you have encountered any recent nonsense about traditional Christian Christmas trees.

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Links I found interesting for 26-12-2012

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December Books 8) The Ten Word Game, by Jonathan Gash

Another Lovejoy book, from the later end of the series, and operating very much to the formula of richly realised foreign setting (in this case a cruise ship going round the Baltic, with special attention to St Petersburg), with Lovejoy mixed up in a heist most of whose details are incomprehensible (and remain so) and his supernatural sense of detecting genuine antiques a key plot point. The harder edges of the character from the earlier books are considerably toned down, no doubt under the influence of the TV series, and he doesn’t actually manage to have sex with anyone until more than half way through (though then vigorously makes up for the delay). It has been my insomnia book for several weeks (and I guess it is a good thing that it took several weeks to finish on that basis).

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Doctor Who: The Snowmen

Well, I really enjoyed that.

The Old Who fans like me will have been delighted by an origin story for, of all Old Who baddies, the Great Intelligence, in such a way that it All Makes Sense (apart from Downtime, of course).

And Moffat is on form, killing off poor Jenna-Louise Coleman again, and then giving the Doctor the quest of finding out who she really is – a neat contrast to the question “Doctor Who?” which of course we know we will never get fully answered.

Though I don’t think it is nice to mock anyone for their appearance, even Sontarans.

Must get on with cooking boar and sprouts and rosemary apples followed by Christmas pudding, but am very satisfied.

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Links I found interesting for 25-12-2012

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Links I found interesting for 24-12-2012

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December Books 7) Scream of the Shalka, by Paul Cornell

I was really surprised and pleased by how much I enjoyed this book, the novelisation of the webcast story starring Richard E. Grant as the other Ninth Doctor. Perhaps it is partly that, at least in the opening pages, it so consciously draws on the style of the Dicks and Hulke novelisations of the Third and Fourth Doctor stories which meant so much to fans of the same sort of age as the author and me. But also a lot of the sequencing that didn’t quite work for me in the webcast seemed to me to be much better here: the Master’s new situation, the reasons for the Doctor’s emotional coldness, the back story to Alison’s relationship. We do miss out on Conor Moloney’s performance as Greaves, though. Perhaps the last week of work before the Christmas hols was a bad time to watch the webcast; I am certain that if I had read the book before watching it, I would have enjoyed both more.

Some of the similarities between Shalka continuity and New Who are even more noticeable here: that the Ninth Doctor is suffering PTSD after an awful war in which many people he cared about were killed, and that the new companion chooses to travel with the Doctor rather than remain in a (dull) interracial relationship. (As in Rose, there is also a monster leader underground controlling its minions who burst into the normal world to terrify humans, and the Doctor must descend to their lair to do battle, but those are fairly standard plot elements.)

The book also comes with a long afterword – a quarter of its total length – including the original story proposal and the author’s account of how the story came to be made, told with Cornell’s typical enthusiasm, but with first-hand accounts patched in from the production team as well. This may have turned out to be just a sidetrack in Who history but we are lucky that it is so well chronicled, including the story of how Cornell, on honeymoon in New Zealand, had to get a friend to break into his house to transmit the script to the BBC after an email went astray. It certainly adds to what is already a good book for fans to track down.

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Links I found interesting for 23-12-2012

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December Books 6) Aldébaran 2: La Blonde, by Leo

I enjoyed the first of this classic bande dessinée series, and am glad to say that the second volume builds on the strong points of the first. Teenagers Marc and Kim, still struggling to reach the distant metropolis after the destruction of their home village, encounter the mysterious blonde woman who is associated with their enigmatic saviour from the first volume, and Marc finds himself fleeing with her from a sinister dirigible controlled by the government priest Loomis. For the first time our heroes hear that they have grown up under a repressive government, and realise that they have fallen in with a revolutionary group. But apart from the human drama, we can also see that the natural life forms of Aldebaran are in symbiosis with their human colonisers, but inhumanly grumpy about it, and that there must be much more going on under the surface of the planet’s mysterious seas. The flora and fauna again are glorious and surely inspired by Leo’s native Brazil. Very intrigued to find out what happens next.

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Locus Poll of Best Novels

Locus have published the results of their online poll of the best sf and fantasy novels of the 20th and 21st centuries, and as ever with these things they are a mixture of the expected and the facepalm. I give the lists below, with the usual bold if I’ve read it, italic if I started but did not finish, and struck through if I did not like the book.

20th Century SF Novel:
1 Herbert, Frank: Dune (1965)
2 Card, Orson Scott: Ender’s Game (1985)
3 Asimov, Isaac: The Foundation Trilogy (1953)
4 Simmons, Dan: Hyperion (1989)
5 Le Guin, Ursula K.: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
6 Adams, Douglas: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
7 Orwell, George: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
8 Gibson, William: Neuromancer (1984)
9 Bester, Alfred: The Stars My Destination (1957)
10 Bradbury, Ray: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
11 Heinlein, Robert A.: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
12 Heinlein, Robert A.: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966)
13 Haldeman, Joe: The Forever War (1974)
14 Clarke, Arthur C.: Childhood’s End (1953)
15 Niven, Larry: Ringworld (1970)
16 Le Guin, Ursula K.: The Dispossessed (1974)
17 Bradbury, Ray: The Martian Chronicles (1950)
18 Stephenson, Neal: Snow Crash (1992)
19 Miller, Walter M. , Jr.: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959)
20 Pohl, Frederik: Gateway (1977)
21 Heinlein, Robert A.: Starship Troopers (1959)
22 Dick, Philip K.: The Man in the High Castle (1962)
23 Zelazny, Roger: Lord of Light (1967)
24 Wolfe, Gene: The Book of the New Sun (1983)
25 Lem, Stanislaw: Solaris (1970)
26 Dick, Philip K.: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
27 Vinge, Vernor: A Fire Upon The Deep (1992)
28 Clarke, Arthur C.: Rendezvous with Rama (1973)
29 Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World (1932)
30 Clarke, Arthur C.: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
31 Vonnegut, Kurt: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
32 Strugatsky, Arkady & Boris: Roadside Picnic (1972)
33 Card, Orson Scott: Speaker for the Dead (1986)
34 Brunner, John: Stand on Zanzibar (1968)
35 Robinson, Kim Stanley: Red Mars (1992)
36 Niven, Larry (& Pournelle, Jerry): The Mote in God’s Eye (1974)
37 Willis, Connie: Doomsday Book (1992)
38 Atwood, Margaret: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
39 Sturgeon, Theodore: More Than Human (1953)
40 Simak, Clifford D.: City (1952)
41 Brin, David: Startide Rising (1983)
42 Asimov, Isaac: Foundation (1950)
43 Farmer, Philip Jose: To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971)
44 Dick, Philip K.: Ubik (1969)
45 Vonnegut, Kurt: Cat’s Cradle (1963)
46 Vinge, Vernor: A Deepness in the Sky (1999)
47 Simak, Clifford D.: Way Station (1963)
48 Wyndham, John: The Day of the Triffids (1951)
49* Keyes, Daniel: Flowers for Algernon (1966)
49* Delany, Samuel R.: Dhalgren (1975)

20th Century Fantasy Novel:
1 Tolkien, J. R. R.: The Lord of the Rings (1955)
2 Martin, George R. R.: A Game of Thrones (1996)
3 Tolkien, J. R. R.: The Hobbit (1937)
4 Le Guin, Ursula K.: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
5 Zelazny, Roger: Nine Princes in Amber (1970)
6 Lewis, C. S.: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
7 Mieville, China: Perdido Street Station (2000)
8 Rowling, J. K.: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
9 Crowley, John: Little, Big (1981)
10 Adams, Richard: Watership Down (1972)
11 Goldman, William: The Princess Bride (1973)
12 Martin, George R. R.: A Storm of Swords (2000)
13 Beagle, Peter S.: The Last Unicorn (1968)
14 White, T. H.: The Once and Future King (1958)
15 Pratchett, Terry (& Gaiman, Neil): Good Omens (1990)
16 Kay, Guy Gavriel: Tigana (1990)
17 Gaiman, Neil: Neverwhere (1996)
18 Wolfe, Gene: The Book of the New Sun (1983)
19 Vance, Jack: The Dying Earth (1950)
20 Bulgakov, Mikhail: The Master and Margarita (1967)
21 Rowling, J. K.: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)
22 Tolkien, J. R. R.: The Silmarillion (1977)
23 Leiber, Fritz: The Swords of Lankhmar (1968)
24 Jordan, Robert: The Eye of the World (1990)
25 Donaldson, Stephen R.: Lord Foul’s Bane (1977)
26 Bradbury, Ray: Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962)
27 Peake, Mervyn: Gormenghast (1950)
28 Rowling, J. K.: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
29 Powers, Tim: The Anubis Gates (1983)
30 Martin, George R. R.: A Clash of Kings (1998)
31 Bradley, Marion Zimmer: The Mists of Avalon (1983)
32 Hobb, Robin: Assassin’s Apprentice (1995)
33 Pratchett, Terry: The Colour of Magic (1983)
34 Holdstock, Robert: Mythago Wood (1984)
35 King, Stephen: The Stand (1978)
36* L’Engle, Madeleine: A Wrinkle in Time (1962)
36* Pratchett, Terry: Small Gods (1992)
38 Ende, Michael: The Neverending Story (1983)
39 Peake, Mervyn: Titus Groan (1946)
40 Howard, Robert E.: Conan the Barbarian (1950)
41 McCaffrey, Anne: Dragonflight (1968)
42 Orwell: George: Animal Farm (1945)
43 Feist, Raymond E.: Magician (1982)
44 Silverberg, Robert: Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980)
45 Lovecraft, H. P.: At the Mountains of Madness (1936)
46 Swanwick, Michael: The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993)
47 King, Stephen: The Shining (1977)
48 Garcia Marquez, Gabriel: One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970)
49 Saint-Exupery, Antoine de: The Little Prince (1943)
50 Hughart, Barry: Bridge of Birds (1984)

21st Century SF Novel:
1 Scalzi, John: Old Man’s War (2005)
2 Stephenson, Neal: Anathem (2008)
3 Bacigalupi, Paolo: The Windup Girl (2009)
4 Wilson, Robert Charles: Spin (2005)
5 Watts, Peter: Blindsight (2006)
6 Morgan, Richard: Altered Carbon (2002)
7 Collins, Suzanne: The Hunger Games (2008)
8 Gibson, William: Pattern Recognition (2003)
9 Mieville, China: The City & the City (2009)
10 Stross, Charles: Accelerando (2005)
11 Mitchell, David: Cloud Atlas (2004)
12 McDonald, Ian: River of Gods (2004)
13 McCarthy, Cormac: The Road (2006)
14 Harrison, M. John: Light (2002)
15* Willis, Connie: Black Out/All Clear (2010)
15* Chabon, Michael: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)

21st Century Fantasy Novel:
1 Gaiman, Neil: American Gods (2001)
2 Clarke, Susanna: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004)
3 Rothfuss, Patrick: The Name of the Wind (2007)
4 Mieville, China: The Scar (2002)
5 Martin, George R. R.: A Feast for Crows (2005)
6 Rowling, J. K.: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)
7 Bujold, Lois McMaster: The Curse of Chalion (2001)
8 Mieville, China: The City & the City (2009)
9 Fforde, Jasper: The Eyre Affair (2001)
10* Bujold, Lois McMaster: Paladin of Souls (2003)
10* Pratchett, Terry: Night Watch (2002)
12 Gaiman, Neil: Coraline (2002)
13 Wolfe, Gene: The Wizard Knight (2004)
14 Pratchett, Terry: Going Postal (2004)
15* Gaiman, Neil: The Graveyard Book (2008)
15* Lynch, Scott: The Lies of Locke Lamora (2006)

One of the things about these polls for me is to spot gaps in my own reading. I have read all but 9 of the 132 books listed above, which is not too bad (and a clean sweep in 20th century SF), but I have some more titles to add to my Amazon wishlist now.

One should not engage in too much analysis of what is basically a poll representing only the preferences of those who voted (I didn’t) and whose voting system is somewhat obscure (“algorithms that reward a 1st place vote twice as many points as a 5th or 10th place vote, but not 5 times or 10 times as many”, which seems to mean two points for a first place and one for every other placing). But I can’t completely refrain from comment.

The 20th century sf list feels rather old-fashioned. The average (and median) year of publication is 1969 (compared to mid-1970s for the fantasy list). But perhaps it is a better reflection of staying power than the other lists. Eleven of the 20th century fantasy list were published after 1990, compared to five of the sf list.

I find it difficult to believe that Old Man’s War won the 21st century sf category. My own problems with this book are wellknown, but even putting that aside I cannot understand how anyone could rate it ahead of most of the others on the list. Having said that, this was the list where I struck out fully a quarter of the books on it, so clearly my tastes are out of whack with the times. Also note that most ballots were received in the last four days, and that both Scalzi himself and Tor (whose readers also liked Old Man’s War) published blog posts on 27 November urging people to participate. There is nothing wrong with that, of course; I offer the explanation not as criticism of the self-promotion of Scalzi and his publishers, but as a partial explanation of my own bafflement.

The nine books I have not read are:

Beagle, Peter S.: The Last Unicorn
Bradbury, Ray: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Howard, Robert E.: Conan the Barbarian
Silverberg, Robert: Lord Valentine’s Castle
Swanwick, Michael: The Iron Dragon’s Daughter
King, Stephen: The Shining
Collins, Suzanne: The Hunger Games
Rothfuss, Patrick: The Name of the Wind
Lynch, Scott: The Lies of Locke Lamora

Any particular recommendations / disrecommendations from among those?

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Links I found interesting for 21-12-2012

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December Books 5) The Burning, by Justin Richards

Having recorded my disappointment with The Banquo Legacy, another Eighth Doctor Adventure just a few books earlier in the sequence which shares an author and a vague country house theme with The Burning, I felt that this time Justin Richards got it right; we have a well-realised late Victorian industrial/mining setting, a blasted heath, an alien presence which tempts gullible locals with promises of mineral wealth and military power, and some complex family relations among friends and foe. (Even some Biblical references, which is rare for Who.) The audio Industrial Evolution had a similar setting in some ways, but this is better. My only doubt is about the Doctor’s amnesia – not an immediate fan of that storyline – but there is so much else happening here that one can let it go, and indeed perhaps it makes the book more accessible for non-Who fans.

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPad.

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