The Doctor Who Ratings Guide: By Fans, For Fans

Virgin Books
The Medusa Effect
A Benny Adventure

Author Justin Richards Cover image
ISBN# 0 426 20524 3
Published 1998
Cover Mark Salwowski

Synopsis: A lost experimental ship is finally returning home. But when Bernice is assigned to investigate a myserious death, she finds the past catching up with her...


Decidedly Odd by Robert Smith? 26/10/98

There are an enormous number of characters populating The Medusa Effect, but sadly few of them make much of an impression at all. It's a real shame, since one of the key points about the book is the relationship between the two main sets of characters, so it would really help if those characters had more of a hook for the reader. The two groups are just a bit too bland to be caricatures, which would probably have helped more than it would have hindered.

About a third of the way through, the book really picks up. This part of the book is gripping and fascinating and almost unputdownable. I found myself desperate to get back to the book during this period, so entranced was I with the situation and the actions of the characters. There are some absolute gems of both plot and characterisation in this period and also some beautifully underhanded tricks that are played on the reader.

The interesting parts of the book come to a natural conclusion and are tidied up satisfactorily... and then a superfluous plot is tacked on to pad out the book for a further 75 pages. This bit isn't actually that bad, nor does it have the boredom factor of the first third, but it really seems unnecessary, despite some attempts to tie it in to the rest of the action. After the brilliance of the middle third this feels like far more of a let-down than it should.

Bernice is quite well done, given that we're not always seeing her as she really is. The diary tricks work marvellously to confuse the reader and foreshadow what is to come. However, I found the premise that originally brought Bernice into the action to be terribly contrived. She just happens to exhibit a previously-unmentioned desire to attend funerals of people she met once? That said, the reason the Medusa Effect itself is not successful on Benny was absolutely superb and beautifully done.

Unfortunately Stuart isn't anywhere near as strong a character as the novel requires. He works well enough and his relationship with Benny is satisfactory, but one gets the impression that with some better characterisation this could have been something special.

The sudden shift to Jackson Hart's backstory works really well, given what has come before. My only complaint is that it's a little too obvious just what had happened all along. A little ambiguity here would have gone a long way. The final sequence with Braxiatel and Skutloid runs well enough and I liked the references back to the events of Mean Streets.

In summary, this is one decidedly odd book. It has elements that are superb and gripping and fascinating, but it also has shallow characterisation, too many characters and a superfluous plot tacked onto the end. On average, I'd have to say that I quite liked it, but that doesn't really reflect the bizarre meta-journey the reader has to go on to finish this book.

A Review by Finn Clark 13/2/00

No one's been commissioned to write as many Who-related books as Justin Richards, not by a long way. Fourteen's the count to date, but somehow I don't feel I know Justin's writing. You could recognise a book by Dave Stone or Lawrence Miles from a handful of paragraphs, but there's something more elusive about the work of Justin Richards. I suppose in theory this is a good thing. It means I'm generally surprised by his latest book, anyway.

The Medusa Effect is a classically structured novel. Admittedly it isn't a structure derived from the study of prose fiction, but laid down by Robert McKee when discussing cinema... but so what? You can almost hear the book's clockwork ticking. McKee's three-act structure is meticulously followed, with each act even getting its own title ("Investigation", "Discovery" and "Verdict"). Maybe it's a touch mechanistic, but at least it's better than yet more Joseph bloody Campbell.

Reviewing The Medusa Effect is like criticising a movie. Its virtues and flaws are those of a screenplay. Much of it would be wonderful on the big screen, where the neo-steampunk setting and SF claustrophobia would probably work better than they do on the page. Justin's prose is efficient, but he's not primarily a stylist. You could make a rather good movie out of this, perhaps reminiscent of futuristic nail-biters like Alien or Event Horizon.

IMO its main problem is a mishandling of the three-act structure, with the last act being the most uninvolving and the inter-act changes of direction being rather too great. Act One is a ghost story. Act Two is a detective story. Act Three is straightforward action-adventure, heavy on the exposition. These might all have come from different books; what really holds the story together is a theatrical sense of grand guignol that steeps it in bloody murder and turns it into a tragedy. Even as the novel lurches from genre to genre, at least it mostly stays on the same intimate level. This may be an SF book with spaceships and scientists, but it doesn't have SF's usual sterility. Ghost stories are at root horror stories, which is certainly an element in The Medusa Effect.

What about Act One? I'm a horror fan, so unsurprisingly this was my favourite bit of the book. This is a classical ghost story, as yet unencumbered by the need for explanations. The (forgettable) cast may be a little too large for comfort, but the disturbing horror of the situation rings through loud and clear. I'd have been happy to see the entire book carry on like this, though I don't know how it would have gone down with fandom at large. The pure, classical ghost story is a subtle, delicate taste that simply might not register on the palates of readers accustomed to looking for rayguns and robots. But trust me; this bit's done well.

It also proceeds at a good pace, so brisk that I eventually started wondering where the story would go next. Surely it had shot all its bolts? My question was soon answered. The problem with Doctor Who (and by association Benny) is that its stories are set in an SF universe. The supernatural must be explained. With all its mysteries eventually knocked on the head, horror would be struggling even without an indestructible heroine who can't die 'cos it would screw up next month's book.

That's what happens with Act Two. The first explanations arrive and slowly the reader's involvement becomes more intellectual. What's going on? Who's behind it all? The incidental cast proceed to their inevitable tragedy, but we expected that. Benny's fine. That's all we need to know. Again Act Two goes startlingly fast. Wow, we're learning about that already? And then in Act Three...

It's the kind of Act Three you'd get in a Hollywood action movie and as nigglingly unsatisfying. The horror of Act One and the detective work of Act Two have been wrapped up, leaving us only a straightforward clash of heroes and villains. It's action-packed and full of revelations, but no more.

Overall I thought The Medusa Effect was a good book, albeit one that was in many ways upside-down. The atmosphere builds backwards, with the scariest and most sinister stuff taking place in the first act. Justin Richards writes solid rather than dazzling books, but I was pleasantly surprised by this one.

My virgin book (oh geez!)... by Joe Ford 28/11/03

When I first heard that Bernice Summerfield was going to be the lead character in a series of books I almost quit being a fan of the novels. A companion as the protagonist? Even a companion as glorious as Benny, it did not seem like a good idea. Since then I have grown older and wiser (as far as Doctor Who is concerned) and realised that there is an abundance of life outside of 'canon' Doctor Who, the Benny and Unbound audios, the PROBE videos, there is much ground to cover away from the Doctor.

I almost tried to get hold of the Benny books on Robert Smith?'s recommendations alone, you only have to look at his reviews of these books to realise how much he thought of them. His reviews of the series positively glow, they read like my reviews of the EDA's. Dead Romance and Tears of the Oracle seemed to have the best reviews but since they are nigh impossible to find (except at an astronomical price on e-bay) I thought I would give the series a miss.

But then I found Tears of the Oracle in a cheapy second hand bookshop for a quid. I snapped it up, just for a taster and because it had Justin Richards name blazed on the cover and I have made no secret in the past that he is my favourite Doctor Who author. Justin has had an amazing track record when it comes to his books, Dreams of the Empire, The Banquo Legacy, Option Lock, The Burning, Shadow in the Glass, Time Zero, The Sands of Time, Grave Matter... all brilliant reads packed to the gills with memorable characters, exciting action, genuine scares and twisty turny plots that really do surprise.

So it pleases me to announce that this is another superb book to add to his CV. And it also works terrifically as an introduction to the Benny range, being by and large a continuity free stand-alone book with little information needed to follow the story. The fact that its one hell of a good murder mystery with some fabulously gory moments is just a bonus.

Justin Richards is a master storyteller, when I read his books it is like watching a technician assemble something particularly complex in an extremely entertaining way. His books flower most unexpectedly, twisting in new directions with surprise revelations. It is his sort of storytelling, surprising, exciting, and satisfying that I read books for. He was the ideal choice to edit the BBC books.

The Medusa Effect is split into three parts, exposition, revelation and action. The first part sets up the mystery, the Medusa, a luxury cruiser sent off into space to test the possibility of cruise holidays (rather than holidaying on planets that could be blown up on a whim during the war). It returns twenty years later with no news of the crew. The first chapter goes some way to point out this is a Richards novel, the death of the woman who should have originally gone on the salvage investigation (rather than Bernice) opening up all sorts of possibilities for twists later. The main objective of this opening section is to get the principal characters to the Medusa and for them to discover the corpses of the original crew.

There is some great writing here as Benny and her crew investigate the decaying, decreped ship. Lots of spooky exposition as the bodies are found in horrifying positions, suggesting the horror that overcome them forcing them to turn on each other. Finn Clark believes this is the most effective part of the story, it is effective but I have to disagree, the best is yet to come.

Both of the reviewers above have commented on how shallow the characterisation of the secondary cast are and while I agree they aren't the most rounded of characters I can see why Justin wrote the book this way. Especially when the REAL reason the ship is sent out is revealed, the singular characteristics of each character proving vital to the plot, in fact, their very abrupt, obvious characterisation could almost be seen as a huge clue to that later twist. Quite clever really.

The middle section is where all the best stuff takes place; it could contain some of Justin's best ever writing as I was flicking through the book with real relish. Bad things are happening on the Medusa; it has become apparent that the salvage crew are taking on the exact characteristics of the original and (thanks to the journal of the original Captain and crew member) the exact consequences. Hart (the original Captain) was the first to die and Chromsky (the latest Captain) is the first to die this time around. It soon becomes apparent that each of the crew will meet the same untimely end which is doubly unfortunate for Bernice because her character, Anni Goranson, was found in a medical casket, having tried to smash her way out and failed...

This is where the true horror seeps in and Justin takes you to some very dark places. With the diary extracts reminding us exactly how things are being duplicated (with many entries cropping up earlier on... fantastic plotting in evidence!) it is only a matter of time for Benny. As she struggles to remain herself, the scenes of her piecing together the murders are gripping. When the inevitable Benny trapped inside the casket scene comes, she is gripped with panic, breaking her nails as she tries to claw her way out and head butting it viscously... it was all the more disturbing for knowing it was coming. Suddenly they are all at each others throats in one of the most disgusting horror sequences I have read in some time they ALL kill each other. This is not a book for the faint hearted, there are some horribly detailed stabbings and shootings that go a step further than any Doctor Who book would dare. It is an example of just how much further these Benny books can go and I'm very pleased about that.

Are the eventual answers a disappointment? Yes and no, yes as in I was expecting more than a controlled experiment and no in that it all makes perfect sense and is quite plausible. Annoyingly once all the crew are dead answers are demanded and that spell of sick horror is broken, Graize sort of pops up out of no-where and explains away what's going on. Again plausible but a little easy.

But delightfully Justin twists the tale again, turning it from a puzzle to a race against time chase through the ship. The self-destruct has been initiated, the mutant creatures infected with the memories of the dead crew are prowling the shadowy decks and Benny and Stuart have to get to the docking bay if they are to survive.

I have to disagree with the above reviews again; they suggest this last section is a prolonged action sequence to pad out the book. I felt the fast paced explosion of action was a very exciting way to end the book, in itself totally unexpected after the mysteries of the first two thirds. I loved the sequence with Benny smashing the gift shop display to get to a gun and realising it is a lighter! They way she uses that lighter is ingenious. There is a real sense of danger that leads to a last minute twist with the Medusa going up in flames, all the action with the mutants brilliantly making me forget about the self destruct sequence and the fate of Kirk making me punch the air with delight!

For a book that sees her losing her grip on her personality this sees Bernice at her all time best. Justin has an excellent grasp on her character and it enhances an already strong novel. I love it when she pieces together the mystery of the dead crew, using her intelligence to the full. I love it when she turns on Stuart, I was suspicious of him from the start and this was a particularly satisfying moment. I loved her reaction to the mass homicide (sheer revulsion) and her sweet and funny relationship with Stuart (especially in the last third as they bounce of each other hysterically, the lighter sequence a particular delight). She holds up the book well, much better than I could have anticipated given my initial misgivings.

The cover is perfect since the book is packed full of similar nightmarish images that linger in the brain long after you've put the novel down. Chromsky discovering the delicious banquet, biting into an apple, which promptly decays, and moulds, dripping with viscous liquid. The pillar exploding over the ballroom as Benny takes a waltz with a corpse. Rawling Hoyt shot, blood erupting from his mouth, his leg twitching. And of course the mutations emerging from the blood red shadows cornering Benny and Stuart. It is book haunted with visceral horror.

I'll tell you how much I enjoyed The Medusa Effect, halfway through I received a package from a guy who was selling NAs on e-bay... it contained such acclaimed gems as So Vile a Sin, Timewyrm: Exodus, Just War, The Room with No Doors and I had no inclination to start any of them such was my interest in this book. Another indication of how good it was could be in the fact that I have now ordered another ten Benny books.

Funny, scary and exciting. A great book.