The Talons of Weng-Chiang
|ISBN#||0 426 20415 8|
|Synopsis: In 1887 the Doctor teams up with Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson to investigate the theft of ancient occult books from the library of St John the Beheaded. Travelling to India, the Doctor and company discover a plot to open alien dimensions to British colonisation, whereupon they are transported to the alien dimension.|
Something Truly Special by Tammy Potash 11/7/00
All-Consuming Fire may be one of the best of the virgin NAs. Once you get past the idea of a fictional character meeting a fictional character, you'll have a blast. The first two hundred pages are a truly wonderful Sherlock Holmes pastiche, as he slowly becomes involved with the Doctor and Benny. Having Watson narrate the story is the crowning touch.
For continuity fans, the Doctor is staying with Professor Litefoot, though I would have loved to have seen their meeting! It seems that Holmes was peripherally involved in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, as well, which makes perfect sense.
The chapter openers (one can't really call them titles) are hilarious. One of my favorites is "In which Surd undergoes a hair-raising experience and a jolly travelling song is sung".
Mycroft is here, and so is Sherringford Holmes, and even the Napoleon of Crime himself.
Fans of the Cthulhu Mythos will also enjoy this. Liberties are taken, especially with Rl'yeh, but then neither it nor the Blind Idiot God are the genuine article. The idea of worship=physical change is certainly real enough though.
Once on Rl'yeh, Watson is paired up with Ace. They are an odd duo, but they work together well enough. Much has been made of Holmes' loss of purpose on Rl'yeh, but in all fairness he could not have been left behind on Earth. Besides, anyone up against the horror of the Mythos generally does well just to keep their sanity.
The Doctor, Benny and Ace are written skillfully. Track this one down; you won't regret it.
The Doctor meets Sherlock Holmes by Richard Radcliffe 8/3/01
I am a self-confessed Sherlock Holmes fan. I am a self-confessed Doctor Who fan. And the 2 are flung together by Andy Lane for this book. As a Dr Who book it succeeds admirably. As a Holmes book it only partially succeeds. Let me explain.
The book is very definitely in 2 halves. There's the 1st half, set in London of the late 19th Century. Very much Holmes territory this, with faithful descriptions in keeping with Conan-Doyle. Holmes and the Doctor work well together - as do Benny and Watson (who is not the bumbling fool, but the everyday man Conan-Doyle wrote about - thankfully). Ace is left a bit in the air, but she has lost her charm long ago in these books. The greatest character in this opening half is a building - The Library of St John the Beheaded reeks of antiquity and eccentricity. You smell the dust, feel the old pages as you join the Doctor in it. The 2nd half is more difficult to pin down. It's Dr Who most definitely, but Holmes on the alien world of Ry'leh - I don't think so. This half is most definitely not in the spirit of Conan-Doyle.
Overall this is only a partial success. If the Doctor and Holmes had stayed in London, it would have been so much better. 1st Half 9/10. 2nd Half 6/10. Overall 8/10.
A Review by Rob Matthews 23/4/01
Doctor Who meets Sherlock Holmes. That's probably a lot of people's idea of paperback hell. Not mine, however. Inspired after seeing those great Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce movies, I've been reading the original Sherlock Holmes' stories over the past few months. To tell the truth, I've stumbled somewhat about halfway through because after a while the stories are all so samey. So I knew that I could count on this book to be just a bit different from the Conan Doyle canon, and perhaps pep up my interest a bit.
First, of course, I had to do some detective work of my own to track down a copy. So I asked Tammy Potash where I might get one. Much like Holmes, her solution seemed obvious once I heard it, but, Dr Watson-like, I would never have thought of it for myself.
All-Consuming Fire is primarily a Doctor Who book with, if I can use a sort of computery analogy I picked up from The Quantum Archangel, a Sherlock Holmes book slaved to it. But I was pleasantly surprised by the lengths Andy Lane had gone to to evoke the world of Sherlock Holmes. The inclusion of Moriarty is rather predictable, but I was pleased to see Holmes' little-known brother Mycroft brought into the action. Not to mention a third Holmes sibling with a surname for a forename, and, in the bookends, Holmes' own father too. And spending his time with the first Doctor, if you please! Watson's narrative voice is captured well, and its interesting that he's made a more central character than Holmes himself. There are a few unlikelihoods in his account - how come he spells Iain M. Banks correctly and italicises the words Mission Impossible? -, and unless I missed something, there's a huge error in his having nothing at all to say about the transcendent size of the Tardis interior. Maybe after stepping through one rip in spacetime, the next holds no surprises. Better that than having his Victorian viewpoint trip over every anachronism, I suppose.
Also, no matter how accurate an imitation of Conan Doyle's style it is, you really can't expect it to convince as a Sherlock Holmes tale. A previous reviewer has pointed out that the feeling of a Holmes story slips away once the characters shuffle onto Ry'leh, and that he'd have preferred the whole story to take place in London. But you know going in to the book that a Doctor Who novel is going to be governed by the rules of the Doctor Who universe. Doctor Who can absorb the Sherlock Holmes world with ease, but Sherlock Holmes cannot accommodate the Doctor Who universe. So you shouldn't be surprised when the Holmesian patina starts to fade. And it's nice to have Bernice provide an almost diametrically opposite perspective on things (this was my introduction to the character by the way, and like a lot of other female characters in the novels, she's light years ahead of any companions we saw on the screen - would I be right in surmising she's some kind of archaeologist from future Earth?).
I think of old Sherley as a bit of a fictional antecessor to the Doc, and it was satisfying to see the similarities and differnces between the two men explored without the book losing momentum or getting bogged down in postmodern poncing-about. Both characters are essentially rationalists and iconoclasts (although I think the character as written by Doyle was agnostic rather than atheist), both have a distinctive dress sense, and both have comapnions whom they explain everything to. And when they meet each other they clash, much like when the Doctor meets his other selves. You'd suspect it's because they're so similar.
The book, however, draws a definite line between the two. Holmes' world is a predictable, clockwork, fairly stable one. He's not a traveller or an explorer. He has tied himself firmly down to London, (occasional excursions to hound-infested moors notwithstanding), the better to study it and master its intricacies. The Doctor, for all his experiences and all the corners of the cosmos he knows an awful lot about, is on a constant quest to see and learn more.
Essentially, as the story unfolds, Holmes simply becomes more and more bewildered and rather useless, while Watson gets more adventurous. There's some humour in seeing him thrive on Ry'leh while Holmes trudges dejectedly along behind the Doc and Bennie. And everyone, even Watson himself, finds time to snigger at Holmes. Indeed, you might think that Lane sees the character as a bit of a joke. Or perhaps he's just singing the praises of a more open mind.
Holmes aside, I think Doctor Who always works well in a Victorian milieu. Think Ghost Light. It works not simply because of the gothic trimmings and resonances, the baroque period details, but because it evokes a particular frame of mind, a zeitgeist - the casting off of old superstitions and the onward march of science and invention, the search for knowledge. The Enlightenment might have started it all, but the industrial revolution and the birth of the Darwinian worldview made it a real challenge to accepted dogma.
I have to use this succinct quote from HG Wells to show what I mean-
'The stuff accumulated by the discursive reading of my earlier years fell rapidly into place in the wider clearer vision of the universe that was coming into being before my eyes. The march of progress was still being made with absolute assurance, and my emancipation was unqualified. It must be hard for intelligent people nowadays to realise all that a shabby boy of fifteen could feel as the last rack of a peevish son-crucifying Deity dissolved away into blue sky, and as the implacable social barrers, as they had seemed, set to keep him in that path into which it had pleased God to call him, weakened down to temporary fences that he could see over and presently hope to climb over and push aside'
In the book, the Doctor makes a similar point to Bernice in explaining why he has afection for that time period - the sense of possibility, the hope of clearsightedness.
This is an important thing to remember while we picture those foggy streets, hooped dresses and round queens. Because by now, the beginning of the 21st century, a certain amount of disillusionment has set in (words and phrases like World War, Holocaust and Hiroshima come to mind), and old religions like the one the western world was lumbered with then and now have retained some of their stranglehold - in fact, have worsened, because the more facts they try to deny, the more obtuse and cruel their God appears, and the more they tow a warped line. Facts are coarse things to be ignored in their selfish quest to be God's teacher's pet. So it's good to mentally return to a time before the fallout began. And the plot of the novel works along those lines. Not just a MacGuffin, it's an almost allegorical look at the crisis facing Victorians. I love the way Bernice and the Doctor keep translating Azathoth and Sherringford's popmpous pronouncements. Indeed, one of the joys of Doctor Who in general is his flippant attituded towards power-mad gits who take themselves too seriously.
The plot twists and turns nicely with just enough surprises, and though the climax feels slightly abrupt (which the author even admits), the bookends featuring the first Doctor add a nice thoughtfulness. Just as Watson wonders whether finding stolen jewels for society types is really the best use of his energies, so the Doctor ponders the rather more callous, or at least disinterested, attitude of his earlier self. It's wonderful that the earlier Doctors can live on in these novels, and the two Doctors checking their watches synchronously is a nice touch.
So, a good introduction to the Virgin NA's for me. And now I must go, because I'm salivating to start reading Human Nature.
Only partially filling by Tim Roll-Pickering 24/6/02
There have been a number of Doctor Who stories which team up the Doctor with specific figures from ancient mythology, so it was only a matter of time before someone wrote a story in which the Doctor meets more a recent mythological figure and Sherlock Holmes is a good choice. In keeping with the style of most Holmes stories (certainly the more famous ones), the story is narrated for the most part by Doctor Watson, although there are times when he uses material from Benny's diary rather than the more usual tactic in the Holmes stories of rewriting the events into third person to explain events from which he was absent or the back story. Nevertheless the style is reminiscent of many of the Conan Doyle stories whilst the story itself owes far more to Victorian and Edwardian fantasy than to modern 'hard-edge' science-fiction. The result is an interesting tale that combines a nineteenth century mystery with a trip to an alien world.
Unfortunately it is difficult to accept the book as having been written by 'Watson' and embellished by Conan Doyle, as it claims, even allowing for the fact that such embellishments can cover any weak charecterisation of the Doctor, Benny and Ace or explain away any minor continuity quibbles. There are a number of sections that it is difficult to believe would have ever been included in a genuine Sherlock Holmes story, such as the description of sugar cane being purified with bulls' blood or the child brothel or the references to hidden scandals involving the-then Prince Edward (Queen Victoria's grandson), even though such things are completely accurate. Furthermore, although not an in-depth reader of the Holmes stories myself, there are some elements of the Holmes continuity that seem decidedly suspect. I can not recall Watson going to San Francisco for a year where he met and married his first wife who later died, which I believe contradicts The Sign of Four. The addition of Sherringford Holmes, another Holmes brother (whose name, if I recall correctly, was one that Conan Doyle originally considered for the Great Detective himself) seems a sensationalist addition and there seems little reason to tie the story directly into Holmes' family even though it does give the clearest indication why there is no reference at all to Sherringford in the published Holmes stories. The inclusion of Professor Moriarty may complete the appearance of all the famous characters from the Holmes stories, but this in itself clashes with the continuity of Holmes first mentioning Moriarty in The Final Problem (in which the Professor is killed) but in the later published and earlier set The Valley of Fear Holmes talks to Watson of Moriarty at ease. Whilst that continuity problem already exists within the Holmes canon it is still hard to accept its inclusion here. Furthermore Holmes is not handled the best, with Benny frequently dismissing him as a show-off, whilst Holmes himself is often unable to deduce things due to being thrown completely out of his element. An attempt is made to explain the presence of Holmes through the notion that Holmes and Watson were real individuals, albeit with different names, whom Conan Doyle transformed into the Great Detective and his side-kick, but this does not feel particularly satisfactory either. The result is a story that does not feel as though it is featuring the genuine article and it disappoints in this regard.
Otherwise there is a lot going for All-Consuming Fire. Andy Lane has certainly done his research and produces some very accurate and disturbing descriptions of late Victorian London. However he falls into the stereotypes of making Ace extremely cold and nasty (fortunately she is absent for most of the book), Benny very sarcastic and the Doctor as just plain mysterious and childish. Whilst for the most part this is admittedly a first person perspective upon some very astonishing events, it does just add to the artificial feeling about the book. Apart from this the plot of the story is good and makes sense as in any Holmes story, even one as radically different from the norm as this, whilst the descriptions are good and it is easy to visualise events. For the most part the novel steers away from chilling angst scenes, though there are some where Watson struggles to come to terms with everything that is going on, thus explaining his eventual decision to write up the book even though few will ever read it. All-Consuming Fire is a very readable book by itself, but in its attempts to be both a Doctor Who novel and a Sherlock Holmes story it ultimately fails to be either particularly satisfactorily. 6/10
A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 10/1/03
What an idea. Putting Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and chunks of the Lovecraft universe into a Doctor Who book is a concept that seems ripe for disaster. Too many incompatibilities, too many elements to draw on, and a question of where the focus should be. And yet All-Consuming Fire manages to be one of my favorite NAs despite the handful of minor flaws that appear. Holmes and Watson are effortlessly inserted into an imaginative Doctor Who story, giving the book a unique flavor. It's a dark and occasionally grim story, but strangely enough it somehow succeeds at being a whole lot of fun.
The tale starts in typical Holmesian fashion. During the beginning, Watson gets to play second fiddle while Holmes makes several detailed (though irrelevant) observations and deductions purely to demonstrate how clever he is. This sort of thing will be very familiar to fans of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Their involvement in this case begins with an important client hiring them to discover the whereabouts of several books that have been stolen from a strange and secretive library. During the course of their investigation, their travels intersect with the path of that mysterious and eccentric gentleman -- the Doctor (portrayed here as alternatively goofy and cynical). The two fictional juggernauts actually interact quite well. I was hugely entertained by their initial meetings; there's a very amusing sequence in which Holmes is totally unable to determine much of the Doctor's origins from telltale bits of dust and dirt. What could have gone so poorly ends up feeling really right.
The trail leads them first to India, and then to an alien world known as Ry'leh. The reactions of the two Victorians as their surroundings become more and more bizarre are handled realistically (or as realistically as possible) without being over the top. The conclusion to the story is satisfying, though the book suffers from having a beginning that is so wonderful that even an extraordinary ending would seem vaguely inadequate.
The story is told primarily from the journals/diaries of Dr. John Watson and Professor Bernice Summerfield. Andy Lane is excellent at recreating Arthur Conan Doyle's prose style without appearing to be doing a mere cut'n'paste job. The process of the investigation of missing books is very much in keeping with the flavor of the Holmes stories. The Library of St. John The Beheaded is a fantastic creation, and its description is pure Holmesian. A wonderful combination of concepts and prose.
The Lovecraftian additions near the conclusion are not quite as well handled as the Holmes portions. I am, of course, not the first reviewer to note this, and I'm afraid that I cannot break with conventional thinking here. Lovecraft succeeded by keeping his baddies just out of the corner of one's eye, where one wasn't quite sure what was there or what was going on. While this story does eventually come up with a good reason why it's breaking with the formula, the explanation doesn't make up for the fact that it simply isn't executed as pleasingly. This portion at times seems as if it was hastily bolted on to the main plot. Apart from some fairly superficial name-checks, the Lovecraft villains could have been almost any great evil.
The first time I read this book, I did feel that Holmes was horribly underused during the later series of events. While rereading the story, I was mentally prepared for this, and to my surprise, Lane didn't quite sideline Holmes as much as I had remembered. The great detective certainly doesn't have the same forceful impact on the story that he does in the beginning, but my memory had only retained the portions dealing with his shock and bewilderment. There are in fact several moments where Holmes does arrive at plot-advancing conclusions despite his unfamiliarity with the environment. On the other hand, Benny does seem to enjoy taking the mickey out of the famous sleuth at times and while those who take the detective very seriously may not be entirely pleased with that approach, I couldn't help but giggle. A slight mocking of Sherlock Holmes, perhaps, but one that allows him to come through the story with his dignity intact.
There are just too many little things that the book does well to mention them all. I was greatly amused by Watson's infatuation with Benny, perfectly in keeping with his enchantment for seemingly all of his female clients. The descriptions of the Holmes style of Victorian London are excellent. The delightful puns and jokes in the chapter titles are delightful, and had me flipping back to the beginning of the chapter after I had read it in order to get the joke. Too many fun things to recommend about this one.
A Review by Finn Clark 18/5/04
I'm full of admiration for All-Consuming Fire. Its first-person narration is delightful, with both Bernice Summerfield and Dr John Watson leaping from the page with charm and character. It's well-researched, full of extraordinary detail about both London and India in 1887. When it's being a Sherlock Holmes story, it's absolutely cracking stuff - both as a good book in its own right and as Conan Doyle pastiche.
Unfortunately it's also a festering pile of wank that I couldn't take seriously for a moment.
This book can be blamed on Ben Aaronovitch, who apparently thought the Whoniverse included Sherlock Holmes and Bernard Quatermass. "What a splendid idea!" thought Andy Lane, pausing only to rip off Leslie Charteris's Saint for a Decalog story (Fallen Angel), and wrote this book. Its general philosophy is like Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. According to Andy Lane, every fictional creation ever is wandering in the Whoniverse. One or two may have been omitted, but I'm sure 'twas accidental. Here you'll find Sherlock Holmes, Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, Fu Manchu references and Professor Challenger and Lord John Roxton from Conan Doyle's The Lost World. Wank encrusts upon wank. We walk into a pub and see Inspector Lestrade (the Sherlock Holmes stories) talking to Inspector Abberline (investigator of Jack the Ripper). You expected someone else?
Eventually it gets so stupid as to distract from the story. I spent a hundred pages waiting to be told that Tir Ram was the father of Mola Ram from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Even now I'm so astonished by this oversight that I can only think I missed it. In similar vein, you could have carted me away in an ambulance if we hadn't met the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Sherlock Holmes afficionados know that as an untold Holmes adventure, mentioned in connection with the SS Matilda Briggs at the start of The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire. Guess which ship takes our heroes from England to India!
There's Who-related wank too, of course. The 7th Doctor meets his 1st and 3rd incarnations, namedrops Redvers Fenn-Cooper and Professor Litefoot, visits the Library of St John the Beheaded, meets some mercenaries mentioned in The Ribos Operation (the Shlangii)... oh, you get the picture. Mostly this is just ridiculous, but the Lovecraftian elements are laughable. Even in Lovecraft's carefully crafted tales of eldrich horror, his story matter sometimes got a bit silly. And here? This book's Lovecraftian chants of "I-ay, I-ay naghaa, naghai-ghai, shoggog fathaghn!" feel like the punchline of a bad joke, while the shopping list of Great Old Ones on p221 does the same for the entire Whoniverse. I can't think why the Fendahl wasn't shoehorned in there too, but thank goodness it wasn't. At least that leaves us one big cosmic baddie that hasn't been explained away.
The whole thing is stupid enough to drain IQ points by diffusion. So let's take that as read and consider the story on its own terms.
Mostly it's wonderful. I loved the chapters set on 19th-century Earth, whether recounted by Dr Watson or Professor Summerfield. Andy Lane nails their voices perfectly. As pastiche goes, All-Consuming Fire is effortlessly stylish. The first half isn't Doctor Who, but instead a cracking Sherlock Holmes adventure with the Doctor as occasional guest star. Holmes and Watson get many opportunities to shine, as is right and proper for such distinguished literary creations. There's an honest mystery with an ingenious solution, albeit wrapped up in other-worldly trappings.
Their setting is fascinating too. This is a modernist take on Sherlock Holmes and his world, presenting a grotesque but accurate London of child brothels, strychnine in the beer, dollymopping and the St Giles rookeries. It's certainly colourful. Victorian attitudes come in for yet more bashing in what's fast becoming a cliche of 19th century Who stories, but it's hard to disagree with the actual criticisms. Occasionally Andy Lane's research clumps on the page in thumping great speeches, but I can forgive that for historical information this interesting. There's enough squalid local colour here for an entire series.
The portrayals of Holmes and Watson are revisionist too, which I found harder to swallow. I guess Watson might be almost naive enough to justify his realisations of "I say, Holmes, London contains poor people!", but the book also makes a habit of undercutting Sherlock. His first scene contains the expected "note the callous on the index finger of the right hand" string of deductions, in which he infers that a Reverend Hawkins is an undercover agent for the Crown... which may or may not be true, but what about Baden-Powell quietly sketching military secrets in the same carriage? [Any former Boy Scout could have picked up on that.] Andy Lane's Holmes is more ego-driven than the one I remember from Conan Doyle's stories, though it's a not unreasonable extrapolation. Nevertheless one is regularly reminded that this story was written in 1994, not 1887.
I also disliked the scene where Holmes is stumped by the Doctor's complete lack of the usual 19th century clues. Surely this point would be suggestive in itself? The absence of a clue can be in itself a clue.
The book moves offworld two-thirds of the way through and never recovers. It's a well-conceived alien environment, but everything that happens there is bog-standard Who nonsense and somewhat dull. Removed from his natural environment, Holmes is stifled as a character. (Even worse, New Ace returns to the action and promptly reminds us why we all hate her. This is Psycho Ace at her worst, throttling poor Watson on p235 for no better reason apart from the author thinking her a fruitcake.) There's a mind-controlling alien with schemes for interplanetary invasion and... uh, well, stuff. I'm afraid I don't remember those later chapters much. They were a bit boring.
However the ending isn't what you'll remember about this book. Everything until then is a wonderful read, crackling with style and character. I greatly enjoyed much of this book... but to do so I had to unplug my brain.
Elementary Dear Doctor! by Joe Ford 13/8/05
It was about a year ago that I first became entranced by the world of Sherlock Holmes. I stumbled on it entirely by accident when I had sod all to do and David Pirie's Murder Rooms happened to be on the telly. I was hooked, the fictional world of the Victorian detective came alive in ways that modern day detective thrillers rarely do. I realised that this wasn't genuine Sherlock Holmes though and I sought out Conan Doyle's own works and found them very similar in tone and content. I found Doyle's Holmes short stories made excellent bedtime reading, just half an hour or so before nodding off I could immerse myself in the criminal underworld of Victorian London and sleep sounding knowing that Sherlock Holmes had put the world to rights.
This book is written such panache (for the most part) it seems a shame that an author of Andy Lane's talent felt it necessary to include an excuse to include Sherlock Holmes in a Doctor Who story. The novel manages to avoid this problem by reading as a Sherlock Holmes story with the Doctor in it and the explanation we do get (suggesting Conan Doyle merely interpreted genuine events in his stories) is sloppy. Had the mighty Robert Holmes written this story he would have included whomever he liked and hang the consequences, as long as the story is a good one. And as Finn Clark points out Andy Lane does include other fictional characters within this tale and does not find he has to explain away their presence so why Holmes and Watson? It is the antithesis of The Crooked World's explanation as to why cartoon characters are roaming about that book, Steve Lyons also had no need to offer the reader an easy way of accepting the novel but he struck upon a brilliant, touching answer to the problem. All-Consuming Fire lacks that sort of answer and threatens to steal Conan Doyle's thunder.
However let us not forget how good the first 100 pages of this novel are. I was genuinely swept back into the world of Sherlock Holmes such was Lane's excellent grasp of Doyle's writing style. These introductory passages are packed with glorious detail that brings the setting alive. I loved it all, the exposed squalor of lower-class London, the mysterious walk around the musty Library of St John the Beheaded, the inclusion of Holmes' brilliant brother, the secret railway, the disgusting brothel... all told from the delightful point of view of Dr John H. Watson (MD). Obviously Lane had been OD-ing on Sherlock Holmes stories because he captures Watson beautifully and his invaluable account of Holmes' powers of deduction. I love how confident Holmes is in these early passages, dovetailing through the squalid underbelly and the rich secret societies with equal equanimity. To make this feel more authentic there is a glorious moment early on where Holmes subjects a character to severe scrutiny, an intriguing mystery offered to the two heroes from an unexpected source and a glorious moment where he uncovers a minor stratagem (on the Orient Express).
The only unsuccessful element in the first half of the book is the Doctor, who feels like an extra in his own series. He slips in and out of the background, pushing the characters in the right direction but not really making an impact. Aside from the hilarious scene where he stumps the third Doctor on a crossword puzzle he really is an unnecessary distraction to the intriguing mystery taking place. Whilst relegating the Doctor to the role of a secondary character might seem like a mistake to some, this is an experimental novel which allows Holmes and Watson to take centre stage. The series is capable of encompassing all sorts of stories and these Doctor-light tales are just as valid as long as the replacement characters are just as strong and those featured in All-Consuming Fire clearly are.
Unfortunately from page 120 onwards this stops being a great novel and becomes a great Doctor Who book. Benny joins the action and the book starts to alternate between her accounts and Watson's. I have seen this dual first person narration work a treat before (Andy Lane and Justin Richards refine the technique for their superlative work on The Banquo Legacy, which comes after this but I read it first) and Bernice's frank account of the action is well juxtaposed against Watson's far more level-headed version. It feels less unique however once Bernice is popping in continuity references left, right and centre... far more of what we are used to than Watson's unique account. The book is still well-written but it sparkles a little less.
Whilst Andy Lane is eager to replicate the feel of Sherlock Holmes stories, the further he progresses into the book the more he moves away into other steals. There is more than a little touch of Indiana Jones in the India segments (a hostile adventure in a foreign country), especially when our heroes are fighting against an entire secret underground army with supernatural connections. And touching upon secret societies, secret underground travel and slapdash heroes who discuss developments over drinks in plush lounges, there is more than a touch of James Bond here too. Sorry to keep mentioning Robert Holmes but this mixture of styles and steals feels very Talons of Weng-Chiang and only helps to make this a more entertaining story.
It is such a terrible shame that the book falls to pieces in its last act with all the intriguing mysteries of the first 100 pages peeled away to find a far more traditional tale underneath. Whereas I was concentrating intensely during the first half of this book I found myself wavering during its second half. Richard Radcliffe points out above that transporting Sherlock Holmes to another planet feels wrong and I have to concur, the book even goes out of its way to point out how impotent his powers of detection are off world. I realise the New Adventures like to take hold of every confidently presented television character in Doctor Who and subject them to a psychological beating but did they have to weave their same spell on poor Sherlock Holmes? It appears that Holmes' only contribution to the climax of this story is to murder his own brother which does capture the callousness of his character perfectly but seems a little less sophisticated than what I am used to, even compared to his brilliant deductive powers in the earlier sections of the novel.
What I can commend Andy Lane on however is his ability to capture various environments and make them come alive. Whilst his Victorian London scenes were my favourite (I just love that setting), he gives the audience a humming account of life in India too, suggesting a whole other universe exists across the waters. It is every bit as exotic and interesting as Ry'leth and these sequences team with a newfound energy and action that the London scenes didn't.
All-Consuming Fire pre-empts the strength of the New Adventures when Ace leaves by failing to include her for its first 220-odd pages. A shame they couldn't have omitted her altogether and just had her taking a bath throughout the story because she has very little to contribute when she does join in. Expect the usual macho-posturing and horrid dialogue, her scenes with Watson feel horribly wrong because these are two characters that should never have been put together. One is a literary icon and the other is a mishandled TV tie-in monster. Unlike the Doctor and Holmes who are on equal footing (in my eyes), the Watson/Ace action adventure climbing the mountains of an alien world felt totally wrong in every way.
Reading over what I have already written I feel I sound far too harsh on this novel considering how well written much of it is. Andy Lane is (in my eyes) the best writer on Virgin's staff and has not written a book that I haven't enjoyed. All-Consuming Fire's problem is that it starts out so wonderfully, offering us something very different and refreshing before moving into more conventional fare. It starts bleeding from the gut about halfway through and dies a slow death during its Ry'leth sequences.
However, the writing style remains strong, the characterisation is (mostly) brilliant and for the attention to detail alone this is a must-read.
Doctor Who and the Case of the All-Consuming Fire by Neil Clarke 2/10/08
Ooh, I really enjoyed that; that I read the majority in one sitting has to be a pretty good indication. It's not even amazingly written, by a long shot, but at the same time, it's nowhere near as tediously inept as some of the earlier NAs, like Parasite or Theatre of War, which can't even sustain their own internal logic!
One fault typical of the early NAs which All-Consuming Fire does share is that there is only the most basic description of the action or setting of any given scene; it's all quite literal, and there's very little emphasis on characterisation that really gets into the characters' heads. (I did find myself comparing this book slightly uncharitably with the Faction Paradox novel Erasing Sherlock, which is a much more rounded piece of writing. Incidentally, I'd urge everyone to check out the Faction Paradox series. Except the one by Lance Parkin. That was crap.) Having said that, Andy Lane does do a nice line in local colour - both in Victorian London and colonial India.
I get the impression that this book was never intended to be anything more that pure pulp, and on that level it's a huge success: it's fast-paced enough to not feel like thin material is being painfully wrung out of its settings (stand up once again, Theatre of War, which I had the misfortune of reading prior to this). The story is diverting, and has more twists and changes of allegiances than you could shake a stick at. The middle section seemed to borrow slightly distractingly from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (initially benevolent airy white palace harbours villains - including a young native noble - with their very own underground lair), but that's balanced out by interesting ideas like the Diogenes Club and the Library of St John the Beheaded (although the security arrangements didn't seem particularly tenable to my mind) - which nevertheless don't outstay their welcome. Even the concept of the manservant, Surd, with velvet-lined compartments in his head and chest cavity, is a memorably grotesque image!
One of the main pluses of this book is that its Seventh Doctor is very well written, and Lane actually manages to capture McCoy's mix of danger and apparent imbecility. It's actually kind of depressing how often the earlier NAs got the Doctor completely wrong - I love the manipulations and sometime-unscrupulousness of the Seventh Doctor, but to my mind this shouldn't mean he has permanently lost his morals (or at least, when he does do something that chafes against his innate heroism, something should actually be made of it in the text) - so often the NA Doctor became a humourless, unpleasant bastard. And this is coming from someone who loves the NA Doctor! So, it's a relief to have him written in such a way that his intermittent appearances in this narrative actually make you want to see him again, rather than making you wish he'd piss off for good.
What's funny though is that, as I say, Lane's take on the Seventh Doctor is very close to Sylvester's performance, and this actually makes some of the more unsavoury elements of the story's locales quite shocking (probably more so considering the level current on-screen Doctor Who is pitched at). There's some pretty strong stuff here: a dogfight, the degradation in the Rookeries, and even a brothel of child-prostitutes. I'm not one who's ever railed against the NAs' adult approach, so I'm reserving judgement on whether that is going too far, but it does seem very strange nowadays, given that Doctor Who has effectively been reclaimed for a children's audience. Actually, I like Doctor Who to be challenging and I think it's big enough to be able to take swearing and sex and drugs and so on in its stride (although preferably not because the author thinks he's being "radical"). But, it is interesting, with the perspective of the RTD series, to see what a sea change has occurred in what Doctor Who is "like" nowadays.
Anyhoo, from previously reading reviews about this book, I was a bit worried about everything falling apart when the action shifts away from earth, but, strangely, it wasn't that jarring. And Lane even managed to balance making it interesting (walnuts with five legs and an ice sky!) without it all becoming so self-involved that it vanished up its own arse (paging Parasite). Although I agree that Holmes is sidelined in these later sections, I'm not sure it damages the novel enormously.
Oh yes, Holmes. I've always had a sort of soft spot for Holmes, or, at least, for the idea of him (I've never actually read any Conan Doyle, he says, shamefaced), and I found myself enjoying the earlier sections of the book where he is essentially the main character (or, at least, "the hero" - in a way that the Doctor isn't until he gets more involved later).
I'm not even sure why I was compelled to write a review of All-Consuming Fire immediately after putting it down; it's not mind-blowing, just fun and entertaining. But maybe that's it; I'm working my way through a stack of Virgin novels I relieved my local Oxfam of, and I have to say, the majority (although, not all) of the first half - your White Darknesses and Dimension Riders - do very little for me. They really are dry and unimaginative and lousy with mediocre writing in a way that I've always persuaded myself the NAs aren't. Don't get me wrong: the best are genuinely amazing. But right now, it's a relief to have read one that isn't just a complete waste of my time. Ah well. Onward and upward.