The Psi Powers Series
The Death of Art
Psi Powers Part Seven
|ISBN#||0 426 20481 6|
|Synopsis: A clandestine brotherhood and a bizarre alien race threaten all of Europe in late nineteenth century France. Just how far will the Doctor's companions go to save themselves and others?|
"There just isn't room for another conspiracy in Paris." by Jill Sherwin 7/9/99
Room available or not, I groaned at the thought of yet another 19th Century Europe 'strange things are afoot at the Circle K' adventure. But Bucher-Jones fooled me by managing to create one of the most interesting NA's in this type of setting yet. Part horror, part dark fantasy, part science fiction, there's something in this book for everyone.
Despite the too common setting (a Brit [I'm assuming] setting a book in Paris is like an Angeleno setting a book in Vegas -- it's convenient and familiar), I was quickly enmeshed in the threads Bucher-Jones wove as he revealed his story.
The plot involves three psionically-gifted factions, the X-Fileish 'Shadow Directory' following them, and the alien race called the Quoth that these groups are unknowingly effecting. Rather like following multiple mysteries at once, The Doctor infiltrates one of the factions known as 'The Family', Roz bounces back and forth as captive and aggressor to the two other psi-factions led by the mysterious figures of the multi-lived Grandmaster and the seemingly immortal Montague. Chris is apprenticed to a Shadow Directory policeman and manages to learn a few things about himself and the Doctor in the process.
The Shadow Directory was introduced in Christmas on a Rational Planet, but was never explained or defined. The Death of Art not only manages to make sense of the Shadow Directory, but keeps all the plotlines up in the air to the very end with out dropping or forgetting a one. I just love it when a plot comes together!
This book seemed to follow Rational Planet logistically rather than Return of the Living Dad, the NA published between the two, as the relationship between Roz and Chris as described by Kate Orman in that book was virtually invisible here. Still, though elements from Rational Planet were developed in this book, reading that book is unnecessary to enjoy this one. The Death of Art stands alone and is a much stronger work.
Particularly noteworthy are the alien Quoth whose true nature took me by complete surprise though their parallel development with the psi-factions should have clued me in. It was nice to be surprised by an unusual new race that wasn't just humans with bumpy foreheads, talky-turtles or super-beings who are just too damn superior for us mere mortals to comprehend. Though if you aren't careful in your reading (as I apparently wasn't, 'cause I missed it), you might assume the Quoth fall into the last category.
There are several cute bits and tips of the hat, such as references to "Les Miserables" amongst others. An amusing subplot has Chris impersonating the Doctor only he can't decide which incarnation he's impersonating! A caveat to this: I don't remember when Chris met any of the other Doctors that he refers to -- did I miss something or have I just been reading too many of these darn books to remember? 'The Family' is very reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's stories of Uncle Einar and his Family; also of Clive Barker's "Cabal" which was filmed as "Nightbreed".
A few minor quibbles: there was such a HUGE cast of characters that some of them tended to blur together, especially those who kept changing identities! The worst of this was getting Montague and Montfalcon confused constantly as both seem to be referred to as 'the toymaker' and having the psionic key, the Doll's House. Also, the artists who join the various psi-factions blur their identities quickly and one is hard-pressed to distinguish them when they reappear in the end. Also, I hate the cover art. It's ugly and would definitely stop me from buying the book.
Those problems aside, there are dozens of wonderful lines and images that made me smile and pause to appreciate them. I won't quote them, as I'd rather you discovered them for yourselves. Bucher-Jones shows a bright wit, a deft hand with plot and characterization and a depth of interesting ideas. He has a closing scene that is more than a two-page quickie 'our work here is done'. He takes the reader along by showing the events rather than by telling and this is a refreshing break from the too-easy pattern of explication that writers may fall into and never leave. We are given enough information to gradually figure things out on our own and that sense of discovery is a rare joy.
I won't say this is a light quick read. It's not. It's dark and deep, but worth exploring if you take the time. Of any of the NA's, this is one of a very very few that I can happily say would've made one hell of a good episode!
A Review by Sean Gaffney 9/9/99
Hmmm. When I reviewed Christmas on a Rational Planet, I said that I was annoyed that I'd read Dave Owen's review before the book, 'cause he said a lot of the things I wanted to say. This time, I've read the book before that issue of DWM hits the states. Unfortunately, this time round I wish I had another person around to explain things to me.
This is a really weird book, both plot-wise and prose-wise. I'm really puzzled as to a review of its qualities, as I'm still puzzling them out myself. It reminds me a bt of my feelings after reading Time's Crucible. They're not similar in a plot-like way, but both books are very deep, ambiguous things, and it takes a lot of cider to wash 'em down.
PLOT: Remember I said that COARP had a complex plot? Hah! This thing doesn't let up for a second in presenting you with weird, inexplicable happenings. It also doesn't really explain them until the last minute. It reminded me a bit of The Man in the Velvet Mask, but then, so did the style.
THE DOCTOR: You get the feeling Simon wanted to write Hartnell. There are a lot of First Doctorish qualities in his persona this time, and, as with certain Cartmel books, he does sit a few chapters out. However, unlike Cartmel's books, he is very much in on the action at the end. The only other thing I'd mention is that his psychic headache, which prevents him from leaving the TARDIS for great lengths of time, seems to go away halfway through.
ROZ: Since the Doctor got ROTLD, it's Roz's turn to be tortured. And she's really ripped apart in this one, by freaky things. She and Chris have about two pages together, but there's still a few romance hints. Ben, I'm ready to hate you in November...
CHRIS: Best Chris book since Sleepy. He's significantly less perky here, and his attempts to imitate the Doctor are far more successful than I would have guessed. I was impressed.
VILLAIN: Um...which one? The Quoth don't count. Montague was totally hatstand, but a little too OTT for my taste. Tomas/Jean/Pierre/Henri/etc. was far better: a creepy ends vs. means guy who really projected sublime menace very well.
OTHERS: Emil was a nicely sympathetic portrayal of a man very much influenced by his family, in more ways than one. And Jarre reminds me a lot of that guy from The Sandbaggers.
STYLE: Nice mentions of Hercule Poirot, Slippery Jim DeGriz, and a few nice jokes. Overall, though, this is a very dark book. Not as dark as MITVM was, but still disturbing. The ending was especially cool, especially for us happy ending freaks.
OVERALL: This is a book where after you've read it, you can either decide to like it or hate it, and reasons for each. I've decided to like it. It's complex, but hey. It's got Chris and Roz down, if not the Doctor. And it's just...very good. There you go. One to reread a few times, if only to understand it.
A Review by Finn Clark 11/12/01
And the Psi-Powers Arc... nose-dives, crashes and burns.
The books of this era acquired a tag of "heads exploding in historical settings." In fact there's only two psuedo-historicals (Christmas on a Rational Planet and this) and I don't remember a single exploding head until Damaged Goods, but if you haven't remembered a throwaway line in Sleepy then these are the first two books of the Psi-Powers Arc. This is unfortunate.
Christmas was an incomprehensible mish-mash of cool ideas, topped off with some really weird science. Which, by an amazing coincidence, sums up Death of Art to a tee. The main difference is that while Milesian science tends to be sinister voodoo stuff that bears no resemblance to our Earth logic, Simon Bucher-Jones likes playing with weird shit from New Scientist. I think I prefer the Miles version.
Like Christmas, this has very loud prose. Simon Bucher-Jones is showing off. Like Christmas, it's set in a historical setting. And again like Christmas, we have lots of in-jokes and references - but this time it's not a game of "let's reference every Doctor Who story ever". Oh no, if only. Death of Art is crammed full of allusions, usually to literary characters or historical figures but occasionally to something as 1996-specific as a UK TV ad campaign. The former can be groanworthy, but at least they add to the period flavour. The latter... um, don't.
The actual writing isn't bad. Chris is lots of fun. He's a one-joke character, yes, but it's a good joke (and he'll soon acquire some depth after So Vile A Sin). Apart from the in-jokes, one couldn't ask for a much better execution of this particular plot. It's set in France and feels very French. That's one important thing nailed. It's just a shame that the plot blows goats.
Finn's Rule of Good Storytelling #1: one plane of reality at a time, please. Here we've got the Quoth, a bunch of multidimensional headcases with no apparent relationship with anything, wibbling on about irrelevant bollocks until you want to scream. Of course they'll eventually prove to have a complicated SF connection with what's happening to the main characters. No less certain is the fact that by then we'll have lost the will to live. This book reminds me of Chris Bulis's Twilight of the Gods 1, and that's a terrible thing to say about anyone.
Then there's the macro-world. The factions here include the Brotherhood, the Family, the Directory... zzzz. All can do weird shit. None can be differentiated from any of the others. I presume Simon Bucher-Jones had it all straight in his head, but he didn't get it on to the page. It doesn't help that the only element we recognise from Christmas on a Rational Planet is basically irrelevant to what's going on and was presumably shoehorned in for the sake of constructing the arc. Oh, and we see them helping a caillou instead of trying to kill 'em (which is sort of, like, their raison d'etre).
Admittedly the info-dump at the end helps. It's the SF equivalent of Poirot in the drawing room with all the suspects for the final chapter, explaining how the murderer did it.
Left completely in the dark about who's who and what's going on, the poor reader scrabbles for the incidental characters for something to cling to. They're quite good - Chris's Roz-a-like detective chum, Emil, the TARDIS crew, etc. The historical setting goes a long way towards redeeming things, too. Even the relationship between Chris and Roz from Return of the Living Dad is handled well, i.e. it's dumped, thank God, but in a respectful fashion that discreetly develops rather than hits the reset button.
As for the Psi-Powers Arc... well, it couldn't have had a worse start. The actual writing is really rather good, but reader comprehension has been left in the dust. One has a vague impression of lots of feuding superpowered factions, none of whom are clearly differentiated. What's more, Death of Art effectively ignores the only arc element it shares with Christmas in favour of setting up its own stuff and the Shadow Directory will never return in any other book. So what's that all about, then?
But at least it's got a nice cover.
A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 2/3/04
"Hello, have I reached the Death of Art tech support line? Great. I'd like to register a complaint about my copy of The Death of Art. Yes. The complaint is that none of it works. No, nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not a bell, not a whistle, and the only flashing lights are red. Everything that I expect from a novel utterly failed to engage. Is it possible I have a defective copy?
"Yes, actually, I did try rebooting it. Several times. No, no, that didn't seem to help. In fact, that made things much worse. Every time I came back to the book after putting it down for a few hours, the situation had actually deteriorated. The characters were so vague that after leaving them for even a moment, I simply couldn't remember anything about them. I'd open the book again, stare at the page, and couldn't figure out who these people were, what they were doing, or how they got to be where they were.
"Yeah, I did try flipping back to reread portions, but that didn't help either. No, I'm pretty sure it's not me; it's the way it's written. Well, okay, maybe it is me, but the way it's written doesn't do it any favors. Let me explain; do you have a copy in front of you? Open up to a chapter at random. Now, count the number of pages in that chapter. Five and a half? Okay, great. Now, go back and count the number of times that the scene changes. Seven changes, meaning eight different scenes? Okay, great. So, what do those two numbers tell you? Well, in virtually every chapter, the number of scene changes is greater than the number of pages. Almost every sequence starts and concludes in less than a single page! It's like a movie where no scene lasts for more than ten seconds. It's like reading a nervous breakdown! If they gave an award for Attention Deficit Disorder Theatre, this one would clean up. How am I supposed to give a damn about any of these people, when they don't even bother to show up for more than half a page?
"Oh, and how on Earth was I supposed to keep track of anyone when a) they all speak and act totally alike, and b) they all seem to pop in and out of each other's identities. I dunno, maybe you could talk to your engineers and have them include a flowchart in future releases. Well, I think it would be a helpful feature.
"Yes, I suppose it's very possible that some readers found the Quoth aliens to be interesting. But seeing as how I'm not a microscopic alien from a highly stupid plane of reality, I wasn't one of them.
"And what's with the whole Roz "I love you, you ugly alien chick!" thing? And, could you tell me exactly how many oh-so-mysterious secret societies there were? Yeah, I didn't think so... No, no, I'm not blaming you; I couldn't figure it out either. Oh, and how cheap was it to have those major info dumps in the middle of the book? I mean, yes, we definitely need to have the plot explained to the reader, but it seemed a bit of a cheat to have a telepathic character having a mind-meld with the plot outline.
"Well, to get back to the point of my call, it's obvious that my copy is defective and I'd like a refund. Oh, yeah, it's definitely been more than thirty days since I bought the book. But couldn't you make an exception? I mean, no, I don't consider "incomprehensible" and "turgid" to be prose features rather than bugs.
"Well, in that case, I think I should inform you that this load is getting a mighty One Out Of Ten. The only reason it's not getting a big old goose egg is that there isn't any actual physical scarring I can point to on my person. Emotional scarring, sure. I mean, the next time I fall into the tenth dimension, or see a 19th Century Frenchman suddenly mutate into something pointless, I'm going to have flashbacks from hell, I can tell you."
(The writer of this review would like to thank the late, great Mystery Science Theater 3000 show, from which I shamelessly stole the format for this tech support call.)
Phantoms of the Opera by Godfrey Hill 3/7/05
"It's dreams that I paint. Not the real world. Photography can do that: that is why it will be the death of art."
"Yet another civil servant who currently pretends to know about computers for the Home Office"
I must admit I was slightly worried when I read the back page blurb for this vastly different NA. By the end of the first fifty pages, the feeling had mushroomed into a all-out panic attack. OK, I got better later on - however, this Parisienne romp through dark alleyways and musty crypts should come with a slight health warning, especially for diabetics. The prose is overwhelming. Its like overdosing on honey and rolled nuts that have been doused in sugar overnight. It's like the power surge that you get when starting up generators.
Its very lavish, very sweeping and very, very Gothic. And yet it struggles to get anywhere. It almost dies a death on every page. The creepy and sickly smell of death and decay pervades throughout - this particular adventure could only come at the latter days of the Virgin range. Even the initials are ominous: DOA - Dead on Arrival.
Part of the struggle lies in the vast scenarios and cast - the book darts around more often than a crazy frog on acid (I couldn't help the reference - sorry!). One particular page has FOUR different scenes with nine major characters - that's a lot to take in. Once again, I used the NA Skill of following a certain narrative and/or characters through particular plot points and then retracing my steps to pick up other events through the same period. It might not be entirely time-accurate, but at least you're rewarded with a certain sense of what's going on - you don't feel as if you're swimming against the tide. The sense of relief you get when once again, against all the odds, everything falls into place - you know where the Quoth inhabit and what the Doll's House and the Blight actually are - is massive. Probably because of the difficulty of following the plot in the first place.
Also I sensed a disturbing recurrence throughout the book of pop-culture references from horror and comic books in particular - whether intentional or accidential, I found myself ticking the boxes as each one came along. Claudettes' mask is a straight take from Jerry Hall in Batman (or Phantom for that matter). A family of mutants who use their individual powers to good effect? That's the X-Men box ticked. Plus one death is straight out of Exorcist: The Beginning - and there are various nods to Manga and The Thing in the graphic effects and transformations. A good idea to begin with, but did become a little tiresome later on.
However, there are saving graces. The Doctor is on top form as usual - he's in his wistful mood, looking to various different times and places and imagining what terrible fates await. He's almost glad to stay in the background, letting Roz and Chris at most of the action, but has the vital decision to make. And once again he plumps on the side of Earth - and finds an alternative to genocide. So everyone's happy. Chris' impersation of the Doctor is funny and restrained - his natural hero instincts have to be put on hold in favour of a more studied and well-worked analysis instead. Of course, this means you have to follow the plot more closely - where the Doctor is mentioned, it might not be him - trust me, it makes sense - but it's refreshing to see an alternative to Chris' normal gung-ho, thump thump bang bang attitude. And thank God there's no or little mention of the Roz romance which so destroyed Return of the Living Dad.
And, as the book wore on, I found myself warming to and liking the Quoth. Completely aginst the run of play. So often the author can make the mistake of putting their cards on the table too early - cliched alien style, world domination, planet close to destruction, that sort of thing. Boring. The initial Quoth exchanges are so alien that you go the other way - no speech dialogue , completely mathematical and logical, yet beautiful and enticing at the same time. I wanted more as soon as I finished the current section - so to find a plot twist where the aliens were closer to home than anyone thought was a delight indeed.
And I now have "Naotalba's Song" blown up, printed and up on my wall - a hauntingly beautiful and lyrical poem full of morbidity and endless limbo - wonderful.
Art can mean many things to many people and Simon Bucher-Jones' debut Who novel is definately a curate's egg - hard work throughout and if approached wrong, it can spoil and be damaged. Stick with it, though, and it is a rewarding (and brave) work.
And it looks wonderful on the shelf.
A Review by Brian May 5/11/06
There's an interesting story at the centre of The Death of Art. Probably... Possibly... Perhaps... Maybe... But it's hidden under a pile of such convoluted, incomprehensible gibberish that it's impossible to tell. There's also a remote chance that this book would benefit from a second reading: after all, Ghost Light needed to be watched at least twice, but that just takes a little over an hour; however, given the painfully slow and stagnant experience my first reading of this was, I'm not likely to try again for quite some time.
It's a total mess. There's no atmosphere whatsoever; while there's authenticity in the author's descriptions of late 19th century Paris, it feels like nothing more than a geography lesson. The Dreyfus Affair is an interesting politico-historical backdrop, but the on-page result is similarly redundant. Another major contribution to the book's downfall is the multitude of characters. They're either changing into each other; transforming into various monstrosities; disappearing and popping up again pages later, long after we've forgotten about them; or just disappearing, full stop. They blend into a perplexing myriad. The only non-regular I liked was Inspector Jarre, although this is mainly down to his interactions with Chris. Accordingly, the sections of the book with these two are by far the best: I was always relieved whenever the narrative returns to them; a relief equally and oppositely matched by the despair when it moves back to any other scenario. Chris impersonating the Doctor is highly amusing, and I must admit I liked the Hercule Poirot joke on p.87; somehow I find it comforting that such a character has been validated as a real person in the Whoniverse.
Roz is wasted: there's so much padding, what with her various captures, escapes, moments of recapture, trudges through sewers, and those bastardised psychedelic flashbacks to her Overcity days. Despite Simon Bucher-Jones's best intentions, she doesn't come across with any sense of conviction, and given the amount of attention focused on her this can only be described as unfortunate. The Doctor isn't as badly realised as Roz, but nevertheless it's still a below-average characterisation. He just feels wrong. You might find this funny, or strange, but one of the most unconvincing moments is on the top of p.273, when he says "Okay." I just can't imagine the seventh Doctor saying "Okay." I don't know why. For all I know Sylvester McCoy said the word many times during his three years on television, but I've never registered it in my memory. The Doctor might also have said it on countless occasions in the last 53 NAs, but if he did then he must have been written exceptionally well for me not to notice.
The novel is a continuation of events outlined in Christmas on a Rational Planet, what with all the clandestine activities of the Shadow Directory. Unhappily it feels like a poor follow-up; indeed, a pale imitation. Lawrence Miles's book definitely has its fair share of weirdness, but there's an underlying method in its madness. It was also cohesive and well written; the two factors that guarantee The Death of Art as the inferior work.
Reflecting on the opening of this review, I actually do think there is an interesting story at the heart of all this. While the various descriptions of the Quoth are among the novel's unreadable parts, they're fascinating in theory - and the revelation of their actual habitation is arguably the book's strongest moment. But practically every other aspect of its execution is confusing, exasperating and badly written. It's no doubt one of the most forgettable of the New Adventures. And due to a memory lapse in a second hand bookshop I actually own two copies of it! Why couldn't I have bought two copies of So Vile a Sin or Lungbarrow? I could have sold one and retired! 1.5/10