The Doctor Who Ratings Guide: By Fans, For Fans

Virgin Books
Ghost Devices
A Benny Adventure

Author Simon Bucher-Jones Cover taken from the excellent Doctor Who books page
ISBN# 0 426 20514 6
Published 1997
Cover Mark Salwowski

Synopsis A three-hundred kilometre high artefact attracts great interest when it turns out to fortell the future. But Bernice and her archaeological team are not the only ones interested in the artefact...


Puzzled Commentary by Robert Smith? 3/7/98

Upon reflection, perhaps the most striking thing I can say about Ghost Devices is "It has a pink cover". The quote on the back is also the very first sentence in the book and the new New Adventures' passage at the front is a completely inconsequential scene, not featuring any regulars. Somehow these two things fit in with my impression that not a lot important really happened...

Which is odd, because the book certainly gives you the impression a lot is going on. There's the mysterious archaeological artifact (done about a billion times better than anything in Decalog 5, not that that's saying much, admittedly), a number of interesting and strangely motivated races flitting about, a definite through plot and the recycling of the "Bernice gets to solve a murder mystery" plot. Twice.

It's certainly not badly written. I sometimes think I'm The Death of Art's biggest fan, but Bucher-Jones has clearly improved for his second book. The style works well, even if it is sub-Lawrence Miles. However, even though it's a fairly short book, the complexity (or something) made me struggle through it and not in a way that motivated me to keep going.

Benny is characterised quite well and the mini-subplot that gets her into the situation is marvellous. I was a bit wary at first, but when we cut to God midway through the book, I was laughing out loud. This is a great example of something the NAs do best: explore the nature of fiction vs reality, but not necessarily in a serious way (see also David). The fact that it was used sparingly made this work even better, IMO.

The original set-up, of the (very amusing) mysteriously malfunctioning weapons seems to all but disappear for the middle two quarters of the book. Which is a pity, because that captured my interest quite well and was then dispensed with for quite some time.

The murder-mystery plots were competently done, even though it wasn't too hard to guess what was going on (I'm not sure if that was intentional, but I'll be charitable and assume it was). I am a bit wary of the path the Benny NAs seem to be taking, with Benny as detective. It works well enough in small doses but is rapidly growing stale. To have two of them here is either overkill or parody, I'm not sure which.

It's probably obvious from this review (or rather 'puzzled commentary') that Ghost Devices is the type of book that needs to be re-read. I'm sure everything will sort itself out the second time round. Unfortunately, it's rather tough going the first time through. Which isn't to say that it's a bad book and I certainly applaud the effort to write complex and involved stories in this line. Like The Death of Art, I think this would be a very, very good book, if only it had had another draft. I look forward to seeing what Simon Bucher-Jones is capable of when he's finally mastered his craft. He hasn't quite done it with Ghost Devices, but he's certainly getting there.

A Review by Sean Gaffney 29/10/99

I actually finished this about a week ago, but waited a while before writing the review. I rarely do this. Most of the time these reviews are written as soon as possible after finishing the book, and tend to show that somewhat, being very stream-of-consciousness at times. But I wasn't at all sure, after finishing Ghost Devices, how I felt about it, so I thought I'd pause.

PLOT: It's Bucher-Jones, what do you expect? Complex as all git-out, yet I was able to follow what happened. One of the stronger points of the book. I don't really know, however, how necessary Morry was to the book, though he provided some laughs.

BERNICE: For some reason I got the feeling that Bernice didn't have as big a part in this book as the others. Looking back, that's not true. Perhaps it's just that she seems at times to be reacting to events rather than taking charge - more what the 7th Doctor Bernice would do. The Benny NAs have made her a hero, so it's odd seeing this. Still, she has some very funny lines, and is spot on for the most part.

GOD/CLARENCE: Comic relief in this book, for the most part, but Clarence gets an EXCELLENT scene towards the end.

OTHERS: Each of them was well-drawn, but none of them leaped out at me as classics. I'd like to see Elspet again.

STYLE: Odd. Veering between Douglas Adams type humour and dark serious angst. Dave Stone does this as well, but it seems more unbalanced here, as if the book was meant to be funny and suddenly the plot got away from the author. As this has happened with stuff I write as well, I can sympathise. ^_^

OVERALL: I still don't know how to review this book. It's very good, but except for the ending, it didn't grip me as much as other BenNAs. The ending, however, is brilliant, and worth reading through the book. And Benny's attempted suicide, no matter how unconsciously it was done, is still chilling. Still, I was left a tad unfulfilled.


Hilarious and Thought-Provoking by Isaac Wilcott 12/5/03

I found Bucher-Jones first New Adventure, The Death of Art, an incomprehensible mush, but thoroughly enjoyed The Taking of Planet 5 despite its mind-stretching nature. Much of the faults of the former had to do with the turgid prose style, something thankfully absent from the latter since (Mark Clapham actually wrote that one according to Bucher-Jones' outline).

Ghost Devices is only the second Bernice New Adventure I've read (the rather disappointing Down being the other), and was pleasantly surprised that this one was far better. It's also nowhere near as convoluted as Bucher-Jones' 7th or 8th Doctor novels, and has a liberal dash of humor to boot.

I think one of the main mistake I made while reading The Death of Art was that I read it too quickly. Bucher-Jones' novels should be read slowly, maybe 40-50 pages a day. That's how I paced myself with Ghost Devices, and the experience was much more rewarding than reading in great big chunks of 150 pages a day (a surefire way to get mental indigestion). His novels are filled not only with complex concepts, but are told using complex sentences. Even his action scenes are filled with fascinating explanations and intricate jokes! It is unwise to skim these difficult passages, since they are what the book is about.

The novel comes across as the product of a more knowledgeable Dave Stone or a slightly less loopy Lawrence Miles -- both are authors I enjoy, but they often go too far in their respective realms of nuttiness. Bucher-Jones gives just enough leeway to his plot threads and concepts to keep them interesting and wild, yet keeps them in control enough so they remain comprehensible. Even the cycle of self-negating temporal paradoxes at the end -- which has the potential for a real befuddlement-disaster -- is presented in a way easy to understand.

I must admit that I'm a real sucker for time paradoxes, so the whole premise of this book I found irresistible -- a massive artifact called the Spire that conveys information from the future, whose transmissions are collected and studied by the sentient lizards who have developed an entire culture around it. It is an impressive premise, and was consistently the focus of the book's attention, nicely enhanced by a lengthy side-trip to the homeworld of the race who built the Spire.

The opening page and a half -- with an senile, old, city-sized Factory complaining about the dirty water and subsequently being nuked by the anti-AI drones -- is some of the funniest and intriguing Who-related writing I've read. Although it seemed totally irrelevant for most of the book, it's nicely explained on page 190. However, the rest of the Prologue (featuring suicidal businessman Sul Starren), as well as the scene toward the end with a Watchmaker (a.k.a., a Time Lord) painting a door (?) seem totally unconnected to the rest of the novel. These apparently unrelated scenes are my only complaint about what is otherwise a very interesting, funny, and well-written book. Highly recommended.

A Review by Finn Clark 13/11/04

Ghost Devices is pretty damn goofy, but its goofiness has wit, originality and big SF ideas. The latter might even be the most entertaining he's given us so far... The Death of Art and The Taking of Planet 5 were overbalanced by their ideas and suffered on a story level, while the SF elements in Grimm Reality feel overdone in what's basically a fantasy book. (Don't even mention The Book of the War.) However here one genuinely wants to know what's going on with the Spire, the Vo'lach, the flower-arranging assassins and more.

What's more, the book's practically a comedy. It gets more serious later on, but it's a light-hearted novel with an easy style and playful ideas. One test of an ideas-heavy book is to see how well it rereads... I think I enjoyed Ghost Devices more second time around, though on the other hand this was partly because I hardly remembered anything about it. Its revelations surprised me all over again. I recalled the wacky timelashing ending, but otherwise all the stuff about the Vo'lach, the Spire, etc. had clearly gone in one ear and out the other. This may be because the story is driven mostly by revelations rather than its characters' actions. Everyone's entertaining, don't get me wrong, but they spend most of their time being driven from pillar to post or absorbing yet more exposition.

But having said that, it's good exposition! I was happy to sit and read it. The Big Secret Behind Everything wouldn't shame a Douglas Adams novel, while I appreciate the blend of gags and more serious moments. Benny gets a good scene or two, while I think this is where we meet Clarence for the first time. (If you're one of those lucky souls who escaped Virgin's People-obsession and thus still have all your mental faculties, Clarence is an ex-Ship of the Also People and an agent of God. Despite my simmering antipathy towards the People, I quite liked Clarence.)

There are references to other Benny NAs, which feels surprisingly appropriate for Who-related fiction since the Benny books were basically all set in the same place and time. The prologue even features someone whom I thought was the 7th Doctor, though later information suggested that he probably wasn't. Ah well. My illusion was fun while it lasted.

I'm not wild about the ending, though. The Benny NAs had a minor (and ever-undermined) tendency to explicitly set themselves in a non-Who universe, as for instance with Dead Romance or Dave Stone's surreal claim in some book or another that telepathy didn't exist in the Benniverse. Ghost Devices could be regarded as setting this up by throwing in some nonsense about alternate universes. You know how I feel about alternate universes. Slightly less desirable than having my bollocks stapled together with rusty hinges, but a modest improvement on galloping leprosy.

In summary... that was a laugh! This is an ideas-heavy book that doesn't feel that way, instead gliding past its readers with jolly and deceptive ease. You won't necessarily remember it a year later (I didn't), but you'll enjoy it while it lasts.