Cabinet of Light
1-903889-18-9 (standard hardback)
1-903889-19-7 (deluxe hardback)
|Synopsis: Everyone is hunting the Doctor. Honore Lechasseur, a time sensitive 'fixer', is hired by mystery woman Emily Blandish to find him. But Lechasseur is about to discover that following in the Doctor's footsteps can be a difficult task.|
A Review by Finn Clark 16/8/03
Reviewing Doctor Who books can sometimes get predictable. You discuss the characterisation of any familiar faces, usually the TARDIS crew. You discuss the book's flaws - the dumb, illogical, badly written or inaccurate bits that drag down an otherwise reasonable story. If you're running a bit short, you bash the godawful Black Sheep cover (always a reliable standby, that one).
Unfortunately none of the above apply to The Cabinet of Light. Even its Doctor isn't one we've met before (probably), while as far as I can see the story and its writing are flawless. (This doesn't necessarily make it a brilliant book, by the way, though fortunately it is indeed good. There's more to storytelling than avoiding flaws.) Much praise has already been heaped on this novella, to which I'll be adding... though I should warn you all not to expect a blow-your-socks-off thriller. The Cabinet of Light is intelligent, literary and thematically rich, but it's not really trying to be exciting. However that's the nearest I'll get to a negative comment in this review.
The most obviously striking feature is the prose. Check out the following passage from p17, in which Honore Lechasseur is chatting with his landlady:
"Besides, he liked Mrs Bag-of-Bones. On quiet evenings they'd talk together in her kitchen, exchanging war stories while she taught him how to enjoy tea. She'd lost a son in the Spanish Civil War. Like so many she was followed wherever she went by the faceless dead. London was haunted, she masked her eyes with pebble-thick glasses to avoid seeing them."There's something skewed about that; almost hallucinogenic. Admittedly most of the book isn't quite that startling, but it's not unrepresentative of the prose in general. What's more, it doesn't come across as the author showing off but instead a crucial element in evoking the rich, odd world of Honore Lechasseur. The fella's from New Orleans, which makes it interesting that the prose reminded me more than anything of Anne Rice, another famous New Orleans-ite. Maybe it's the occasional comma abuse?
However underpinning the prose and story is a theme. The Cabinet of Light is about identity. Honore Lechasseur has such a distinctive persona (black American ex-soldier from New Orleans) that he uses it almost as a shield or a weapon. To quote the man himself... "I like being a gangster. I like being an American in London." The first of those two labels is mere image rather than actuality, but that only makes him more interesting. Reflect on this: Lechasseur is an American doing detective work in post-war London, yet it never even occurs to us to compare him with Dekker or McBride from the novels of Terrance Dicks and Perry-Tucker respectively. O'Mahoney serves up false identities, mistaken identities and mislaid identities. A girl in pink pyjamas doesn't know who she is. Who is Emily Blandish? Who is the Doctor?
That last question is explored in considerable detail, but it also has a fannish twist. Not content with making his characters chase the Doctor's tail, O'Mahoney does the same to the readers. You couldn't pull this trick in a visual medium, but through Lechasseur's eyes we see a strongly characterised, vivid Doctor who's never bland or generic yet also makes us wonder which incarnation he might be. I've seen people speculate that he might be the 7th or the 8th instead of an as-yet unseen future version. Personally I think he's all-new, but it's thematically interesting to make us ask the question in the first place.
There are a few almost-references... one to Blood Harvest (I think), one to Curse of Fenric (maybe) and one to, of all things, Swamp Thing. Didn't O'Mahoney's debut, Falls the Shadow, also include cameos of comic book characters? Or am I getting it mixed up with Millennial Rites?
This is a book that you'll probably enjoy more and more with every reading. If you came in search of thrills and spills, you'll wonder what all the fuss is about... but once you've taken in what O'Mahoney's driving at, you'll find yourself relishing the subtle touches of theme, prose, characterisation and foreshadowing. Not many Doctor Who books keep unfolding like this one will on repeat readings. Even the introduction makes more sense if you return to it afterwards. A fascinating piece of work.
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 4/11/03
The novella format is perfectly utilized here for this brilliant example of DW at its best.
Right from the start O'Mahoney plunges us in the world of London, after the second World War. The book is rich in its descriptions of this hopeful, but uncertain time. The prose is heavy with the atmosphere of the period - and Honore Lechasseur lives right at the centre of this.
This novella could very well be considered the first of a new spin-off series - and on the basis of this book, that promises to be a hugely entertaining and interesting set of books. It's the fascination of the lead character that won me over - very like Doctor Who in fact - with a really brilliant creation on which the series spins.
Lechasseur is a black American, a leftover from WW2. He loves London, and is comfortable with his own shadowy presence in the metropolis. For this story he takes on the role of a detective, but that is not his usual occupation. He seems able to lend his hand to everything. As he is given the mandate to find the Doctor, so the Doctor's world is uncovered. He's mistaken for the Doctor too, during the course of the book, and you totally see why. This Time Sensitive is the way forward for the Telos range. The Doctor would have been better, but here we have a fascinating alternative for the novellas.
It's a cut above the rest in the writing stakes too. The setting is superbly created, but also the peripheral characters all have a role, and all are vital to the story and atmosphere as a whole. Some books demand you spend more time with them - such is the excellence of everything within. This is one of them - and as a novella that's wonderful. You really can go back and enjoy this book again and again - and at 120 pages there's so much brilliance crammed in.
But what of the Doctor? Lechasseur is trying to find him, the story is in effect about the search for him and the TARDIS. For most of the book the Doctor is absent, but in truth he's everywhere. Lechasseur is seemingly one step behind our main man, the book treading in his footsteps, so to speak. When he does eventually appear (in the magnificently atmospheric setting of a burnt out Toyshop), the one-on-one with Lechasseur is one of the best exchanges I can recall in DW.
As for which Doctor it is, I believe it doesn't really matter. I thought of the Richard E Grant version myself at first, but it's not quite that. Fact is, now we have had plenty of Doctors (Unbound), the 13 lives span of the Doctor is irrelevant. He's the Doctor, another version - and like all the others, a fascinating character.
Lance Parkin is writing the first of the Time Hunter series, and I will put my order in the moment I finish this review. As a beginning this can't be faulted - full marks to O'Mahoney for creating this brilliant character. This could very well be the spin-off series that kicks the rest into touch. 10/10
The Cabinet maker by Robert Smith? 22/9/04
I'm not really sure I get it. The titular Cabinet is the TARDIS and the act of opening the doors produces a light so intense that it devours a mansion? Unlike, um, every other time when the TARDIS doors open and not terribly much happens. In any other book this would be disastrous, but The Cabinet of Light is such a lavish feast of a novella that mere trifles like following the plot simply aren't that important. It's far, far better to sit back and enjoy the ride.
And what a ride it is! I know I'm probably the only fan of last month's Shell Shock, but I honestly thought that book was one of the best novellas yet, in large part because it was so deliciously written and fundamentally about character. The Cabinet of Light continues in this vein, with fabulous characters (both Honore and the Doctor are extremely well done, albeit in very different ways) and where every sentence sings.
Daniel O'Mahoney isn't one of the usual suspects, churning out a novel a year to finance his renovations. You get the sense that David Howe had to actively seek him out and that's exactly what an editor should be doing. It also means that there's a freshness here that probably wouldn't have nearly as much effect if this novella were preceded by eleven O'Mahoney novels in a similar style.
Honore is instantly likable, which bodes very well indeed for the Time Hunter series. You can see why they created a spinoff series around this guy, he's great. The most obvious problem (one which I suspect will probably either make or break the Time Hunter series) is the racism, both of the time and of today's authors. It's dealt with as well as it can be here, with the fact that Honore is American being of far more importance than his skin colour. I'm not sure I believe that would have been the case in 1949 and I'm not convinced that the colour-blind approach of basically not addressing the issue is going to hold up in the long term, but here it's okay, allowing us to move on. I'll reserve judgment on this one until later.
There's also a great trick with Emily's identity, which works even better when you come to these books late in the day. I thought Miranda might have been a Father Time reference at first, but later realised it was clearly a function of a) there only being a finite number of female names and b) my brain having been trained by books like this into looking for complicated patterns and cross-readings between Doctor Who media. Oh well. You get that.
Keeping the Doctor offstage and mythic really helps. It makes the book far more about Doctor Who than about the Doctor. I love the scene in the toyshop when we finally meet him... but then again, I love every scene in this book. It's also the very first time (not counting The Infinity Doctors, where the Doctor was clearly played by Paul McGann) that the concept of a future Doctor actually works. This sort of thing usually pops up in crappy short stories or fan fiction and has never been anything but awful. Here it works a treat. Of the many fabulous achievements in this book, that might just be the most impressive.
There are a number of references to An Unearthly Child, which seems a bit surprising at first. Mainly because not one of them involves the first episode. Instead the book concerns itself far more with the Tribe of Gum storyline. Yes, the episodes that no one ever watches. Well, you don't, do you? In a book that's trying to be mythic and about the series and its roots, that's... actually, that's awesome. Here we get a feminist reworking of the tribe of Gum, the Doctor smoking for the second time ever, multiple references to birds wheeling in an alien sky and, best of all, the last line paraphrases the last line from the novelisation.
Furthermore, while the feminist version on page 26 is told as a story, the vision that Honore sees when he makes contact with the Doctor on page 86 is this one, rather than the televised version. Which makes it a lot harder to disregard. On its own, the idea of the Doctor introducing radical concepts such as dissemblance to the tribe of Gum would be a fantastic reading of the first story. But the concept of the Doctor introducing the male principle, overthrowing the matriarchy and causing the beginning of history is so astonishing that you wish that was the version we'd actually seen. There's more continuity here than any novella so far, but when it's this innovative and used this thoughtfully, I have no complaints.
The Cabinet of Light is sumptuously written, with every sentence like a piece of music. It's got an extremely likable leading character, creates a workable future Doctor by keeping him offstage and deconstructs Doctor Who as a concept into the bargain. I'm not sure I entirely understood it, but that doesn't matter in the slightest. The first novella that left me wishing it were longer.