The Time Monster
Tomb of Valdemar
The Scarlet Empress
|ISBN||0 563 40595 3|
|Synopsis: The Doctor and Sam are caught up in a bizarre struggle involving magic, danger and an old flame. Their journey covers deserts, mountains, forests and oceans and a plethora of unlikely encounters.|
A Review by Finn Clark 6/3/99
This is an astonishing book. Until now, the 8DAs had largely played safe and given us the same old stuff. With a few honourable exceptions, nothing really felt new. Until now.
The Scarlet Empress is not just "another radical book". This is the most important Doctor Who novel since Timewyrm: Revelation. It's hard to describe just how revolutionary this book is without seeming to descend into hyperbole. Some of it may only be noticed by writers, I don't know. It's not a continuity-busting book. We've had those. It's not written in an opaque style, it doesn't have gratuitous sex and it doesn't involve radical SF concepts that blow your mind. We've had those too. This is genuinely mould-breaking. Let me explain...
Doctor Who has always been plot-driven and Virgin carried on that tradition. The aliens, the conflicts, the wars, the plot twists... it was all there. Writers like Justin Richards depend upon plot almost to the exclusion of all else. Some authors experimented a little, but they all acknowledged the demands of, first and foremost, telling a story.
As he explains in his afterword (which should really be read first) Paul Magrs is doing something different. This isn't science fiction at all. You don't read this for the breakneck chases or the big ideas. This is magical realism, where the normal and the incredible collide. This is the Arabian Nights, where djinns haunt graveyards and the sea holds monsters. There are men made of glass and talking birds; creatures from folk tale and legend and song. It's what the Doctor sometimes spoke of but never showed us...
"There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke and cities made of song."A TARDIS journey for the first time is truly magical. This book is wonderful, in the strictest sense of the word. It's full of wonders. Paul Magrs wants to make the Who mythology into folklore. We know it too well; we've made the incredible commonplace. We're like AD&D gamers who know all the stats. This book is a roller-coaster ride of wild imagery (which is why Gary Gillatt likened it to a comic book). You don't read The Scarlet Empress for the storytelling, but for different qualities entirely. This book doesn't feel like any Doctor Who novel I've read, but perhaps the wild invention of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. This book is a magical experience.
Paul Magrs even goes so far as to make his philosophy of Doctor Who explicit in the text. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a theme, but it's certainly a motif. One question crops up again and again: how should we tell the tale of Doctor Who? We see a diary and something I won't mention because it's a spoiler. There's even an explicit discussion of this very subject towards the end. Paul Magrs is laying down his theory for all to see, telling us where in his opinion we've been going wrong.
I believe that The Scarlet Empress will trigger a change in Doctor Who fiction. It will come slowly and the old school will not stop writing, but a new wave has been started. Perhaps only the odd book, here and there... but Doctor Who will be a lot richer for it. Stranger, too.
Descending to earth for a moment, how well does it all work? It's all very well having lofty aims, but that's no guarantee that the execution is sound. I think it's a wonderful book, but many disagree. Its plotting is spasmodic, without even a token attempt at the traditional virtues of tightly woven plot lines. There's a bloody great coincidence. Like Mission Impractical, all the best character interaction is in the book's second half (so if you're finding it heavy going, stick with it).
Its details are wonderful. There's a symbolic dream which for once is genuinely atmospheric and I defy anyone to read pages 193-194 without laughing aloud. There are references to all kinds of media in which Doctor Who has appeared -- comics, television and even computer games -- which is usually clever but occasionally distracting. Using "animatronic" or "wobbly TV picture" as descriptions can jar one from the sense of Arabian Nights. Similarly it shatters the spell when Paul Magyrs throws in a hard SF idea. Suddenly you're intrigued and thinking, which isn't what you're meant to do. This is fantasy, a largely emotional genre. Lie back and let it wash over you.
What about the regulars? The eighth Doctor is... new, but that wasn't a problem for me. Many writers' idea of characterisation is to write a pastiche of McGann's mannerisms. This is a definite character, emotional and spiky but definitely cool. I liked it.
On the other hand, Sam is wrong. You can tell it's not Sam because she's not irritating. Yes folks, it's the first novel rendition of DWM's Izzy (the more interesting version we saw before Fey turned up to hog the limelight). This Sam makes pop culture references and knows all about storytelling cliches. She swears at exactly the moments that Izzy would if DWM could ever let her swear. She's bright and resourceful. She doesn't make annoying speeches. No, it's definitely not Sam... :)
This book screams to be read aloud, although you'd be there a while. You get plenty of words for your money from Paul Magrs. Just one last comment. The eighth Doctor as Percy Bysshe Shelley? Bloody scary analogy...
Almost within the grasp of greatness by Robert Smith? 1/3/99
I must confess that I wasn't looking forward to this book at all. Paul Magrs story in Short Trips was less than inspiring and Iris Wildthyme did absolutely nothing for me. Fortunately, The Scarlet Empress is a lot better than "Old Flames" was and what's even better is that Iris works wonderfully here.
In fact, that might be part of the book's problem. Iris works really well -- so much so, that she's the only real character in the book. She reminds me of the Doctor (for obvious reasons) or Benny, in the sense of being a long-running and well rounded character who benefits from appearing in multiple books, thus spreading her story out over a much bigger canvas. We're only getting a bit of that here, of course, but it's something I really like. Much of this book seems to exist merely as a character study of Iris, so it's probably just as well that she actually works.
As far as the other characters go, they're workmanlike enough, but I think they've been a bit sidelined in favour of our second-favourite travelling Time Lord. The Doctor isn't bad, but nothing really stands out. Sadly, that seems to apply to all characters in the book whose name doesn't rhyme with "mild wine".
Sam in particular benefits from this, although it seems like it's about a year too late. Despite some valiant efforts, Sam has always struggled to work, so I think Magrs has hit upon the answer. She's generic enough to qualify as the No-Frills-Companion that Sam needs to be, but for the first time she seems like someone who'd actually be pleasant to have around. (No, really, I'll stop bitching about her the instant she stops being annoying. Honest!)
The minor characters work well enough, but aren't that memorable aside from their one-joke descriptions. Gila's descent into alligatorishness works fairly well... except that I must have missed something, because I have no idea why this was happening. The Bearded Lady is okay and her blindness is well done, but once again she doesn't seem to do very much. I thought the Mock Turtle had promise, but he seemed to appear a bit late in the day for my liking. I also enjoyed the Spider Duchess, but most of this was dealt with rather quickly and then apparently forgotten about. I know they said they were going back for her, but I don't think we had any follow-up to this.
I've concentrated on the characters, mainly because the plot isn't worth talking about. That is, this book really isn't about plot, as such, so the simple quest works well enough to concentrate on the characters. I have no real complaints in this department, except that I wish those characters had actually had a bit more work. I think my only real worry is that once again I must have missed the explanation of why things were the way they were on Hyspero (with magic etc operating). Having the Whoniverse so firmly established as anti-magic means that some explanation is really required here and I'm not sure we got it. I'm not really complaining, because it doesn't ruin the story itself, but I'd have been interested in seeing Magrs take on the science-magic dichotomy that the Whoniverse has saddled itself with.
Two things raise this book above being merely good. Firstly there's Iris's account of her adventures, which is absolutely marvellous. The Doctor's indignation about her appropriation of his memories is wonderful. I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea that each incarnation only barely remembers the exploits of previous incarnations, but it does seem to fit very well with established history. I particularly love the way Iris seems to meet up with the "lesser" monsters of the Whoniverse with the same regularity that the Doctor meets up with the Daleks or Cybermen. The debate over the truth or otherwise of "The Seven Irises" is really entertaining and thought-provoking.
Secondly, there's the Aja'ib. This is a creation of sheer brilliance and the Doctor's reading of it, complete with dismissive comments, is simply fabulous. The retelling of the Doctor's life this way is just sublime. It almost makes The Time Monster worthy of existence. Combining this with Iris's accounts of her travels makes the first part of the book just great.
In fact, my major complaint with The Scarlet Empress is that both of these things all but disappeared from the second half of the book. Magrs' style is quite dense, making the going slow, so I think any elements of light relief or distraction from the action at hand that we can get are a good thing. He's obviously realised this himself, with the differing viewpoints and the video camera effect, but I think he really should have kept using the two really great ideas he's brought to this tale.
The ending really disappointed me, perhaps because the earlier sections were so good. I guess it's the nature of quest stories that the quest simply stops at some point, but it really didn't seem that interesting. The confrontation with the Empress seemed to lack punch, as thought the characters (or the author) were just going through the motions to end the tale.
I'm also not quite sure what the point of having Iris regenerate at the end is. We get hints of this in advance and also a clue to her future personality... but it sounds far less interesting than her current one. I have no doubt that Iris will be back next time Magrs publishes something under the Who banner, so I'm wondering what the point of ruining the only decent character he has is. Perhaps all will be explained then.
On the other hand, perhaps all this is deliberate. The text does seem to systematically tear itself apart towards the end of the novel. When this is done well, it can be a really useful device (I'm thinking of Book VI of The Faerie Queene deconstructing the other five books), but there's usually something in it for the reader as well. I didn't get that here, but that doesn't automatically invalidate what's happened. In fact, at the end of it all, I just don't know what the point was, but I'd much rather be left with this sort of thought-provoking analysis after the fact than no memory of the book at all. This is what I want from Doctor Who and it's a shame that it so rarely delivers on it that something like this really stands out.
My only other complaint is with the sheer number of snide anti-seventh Doctor comments that Magrs feels necessary to give the eighth Doctor. There's been a fairly subtle seventh-eighth Doctor comparison set up in the EDAs and the eighth Doctor is very different to the seventh. That doesn't make either necessarily superior, however. Magrs seems to want to drive home his dislike of the seventh Doctor, but in doing so he ends up damaging the eighth instead. It's rather like the negative attitude to the fifth Doctor that the sixth displayed in The Twin Dilemma, which is hardly a direction I think anyone wants to go. This is doubly unfortunate, as in most other areas the Doctor works well enough and the carefree eighth Doctor really seems to suit this story.
Overall The Scarlet Empress is a very worthwhile book, despite a number of complaints. In fact, I can't help but feel that no two people are going to agree on this book. I wish it were just a bit better, but only because it's quite good as it is and greatness appears to be only just beyond its reach. And I'd rather have a book try and fail for greatness than to nestle comfortably in a forgettable runaround adventure. Give me more like this, please.
A Review by Dr. Terry Evil 14/4/99
It is interesting that The Scarlet Empress should come out aligned with Chris Boucher's return to the Doctor Who fold with Last Man Running, as Paul Magrs' debut BBC novel contains a lovely little passage at the end describing how he used to worship the Target novelisations when he was kid. It's a great description of, I'm sure, a lot of people's reaction to Doctor Who in its 'classic' form, with Magrs waxing nostalgic about simple, direct writing and 'The X of Y' story titles. It is easily the best thing in the book.
Because everything that Magrs likes about those simple and direct stories is blithely ignored as he presents to us a complex and somewhat unbelievable story that breaks every rule in the 'good writing' book. Yep, he's certainly grown up. The character POV of scenes changes from character to character with a gay abandon almost shocking in its disregard for coherence; it leaps from first person to third person narrative and back again to little effect; and the most hilariously inept deux et machinas are thrown about like so much desperate confetti ("Oh look, the bus has followed us"). It's almost insulting to pay good money for something that feels like a rushed first draft that the author has shamelessly tossed off and thrown at an editor to make sense of.
What we get is a hopelessly convoluted quest-type novel, in which the Doctor meets up with fellow Time Lord Iris Wildthyme, who has a mission to re-unite four persons of such special abilities that Magrs feels unable to describe them much. From this stale beginning somewhat akin to the Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Magrs chucks in a whole ancient bread bin of stuff, all seemingly off the top of his head. It would all fit in nicely with some generic Fantasy book but goes against just about every tenet of what is DW; i.e. magic is something that can be rationally explained away, preferably with lots of intricate technobabble and use of the sonic screwdriver. The Wizard of Oz without the curtain.
It seems that Magrs doesn't go a bundle on explanations. There are more "magically"s and "incredibly"s than dots above the is. Magrs gives the impression that he thinks his ideas are so good that they don't need reasoning in any way. They're plonked on the page and it's up to you, the reader, to do all the hard work In fact, he seems to be taking the piss somewhat, what with the Doctor breaking the fourth wall in addressing the reader ("I'm not all that used to first-person narrative mode"), and then there's the suggestion that all of the Doctor's exploits may be just stories... Oh right. How clever. So all Doctor Who fans are just deluded idiots who may actually believe that he's real or something? That this story, and this story alone, is the only 'real' one? You have to pay money for all this, folks.
Okay, there are good things lurking in here, like cute puppies in dog's home's death row; waiting to be gassed with Magrs' patented couldn't-give-a-toss writing. The characterisation of Sam is alright, although she overdoes the 'Earth comparisons' shtick; the Doctor is resolutely McGann, although he is somewhat overshadowed by a plot that really doesn't need him. The town that refuses to believe that anything exists beyond its boundaries is also a bit of a hoot, although Douglas Adams does that sort of thing so much better.
I had a problem in reading The Scarlet Empress. The urge to finish the bloody thing just wasn't there, probably because I suspected that the author wouldn't be bothered to write a proper resolution to everything (I was right). You leave the world of The Scarlet Empress feeling cheated by its amateurish approach to storytelling. What happened to the the spider? If the Empress wants to be immortal, what's the problem? Isn't she immortal anyway? All the rest are, surely? Whatever, it doesn't matter. Just toss it away and forget about it. That's how the author viewed it, after all.
A Review by Graeme Burk 22/8/99
Paul Magrs is the best new-to-the-line author since Russell T Davies. His prose is wonderful. Iris is a wonderful character-- miles ahead of the supporting characters Virgin provided us with. So why did this book fail to grab me? I think perhaps Magrs over-egged the pudding, as it were. The book is essentially a 90's remake of The Keys of Marinus, with stylistic elements of Salman Rushdie and Priscilla Queen of the Desert for good measure. But Magrs makes the same mistake Terry Nation made in 1964-- he keeps trying to top what he did the previous episode. And while Nation had the reality of Lime Grove studio B to ground him, Magrs has no such restrictions and so he simply piles on cleverness on top of cleverness. After a while this becomes annoying and/or boring. Worse, so intent is he on quadrupling the rate of incident in the novel, all that nifty prose becomes super-dense--- I credit myself on being a cautious reader, but this is the first book in a very very long time where I actually lost track of the characters. Using an anything-can-happen setting is asking for trouble--Ben Aaronovitch accomplished it in Also People by essentially jetissoning any semblance of a plot and have the world (or Dysan Sphere) unfold around the characters. Magrs tries to superimpose a quest story and several major character arcs and it all becomes a giant mess.
Also, the clever post-modern bits, like the book the Doctor is reading, and Iris claiming similar adventures to him, are too f*cking clever for their own good. And I'm sorry, while this didn't effect my opinion on the book, I'm a raving Clarke's Law Fundamentalist when it comes to the magic in Doctor Who debate, and this book didn't get me to change my mind. 7/10
A Review by Sean Gaffney 24/2/00
I'm really tearing through these puppies, aren't I? Guess I better ride the high while it lasts... anyway, I had to order Planet Five and Frontier Worlds from Amazon.uk, and so while they arrived I went back and read Paul Magrs' initial novel effort, The Scarlet Empress. Perhaps this would explain some of the weirder things in The Blue Angel...
Actually, it did. There were several confusing Iris dribs and drabs that plagued me through TBA that make sense after reading this. Which isn't too surprising, as much to my surprise, TBA is much more linear, traditional, and Who oriented than Scarlet Empress. Sit down while I tell you a tale...
PLOT: Is there one? Well, there is, but the STORY plot isn't the important one. Far more thrilling is the whole idea of Iris rewriting the Doctor's past, the Aja'ib, and the concept of continuity. Forget what I've said before about other books being metatextual, THIS one tops them all. As for that other plot, it's a quest. Period. Nice excuse for the writing.
THE DOCTOR: You know, there was a point in this book, when the Doctor released the demon from the Aja'ib in Fortalice, that I thought, "Good Lord, this Doctor is insane." The Doctor spends this book teetering on the brinks of moods, without ever quite falling into them. This makes his reactions to people and events the most emotional since Tom Baker. Nice, nice job.
SAM: Well, she's written well, and seems to be the more mature Sam. However, this is a drawback at times, because we're so used to the 'other' Sam - the one most people don't care for - that this version seems almost out of character. Her angst/attraction for the Doctor is still spot on, though.
IRIS: Suddenly I realise what people who read TSE before TBA must have known right off the bat. Think on this. The 5th incarnation of Iris. Loud, obnoxious, but with a heart inside. Tends to like to be the center of attention, gets very emotional, argues with her companions. Appalling dress sense. The 6th incarnation of Iris. More secretive, more in control of her emotions. Plans things in advance and moves people around to where she needs them to be like a chess player. Has a tendency to manipulate people for the greater good. Appalling dress sense. And, God help me, I actually like the earlier Iris too, now. I might even go reread Old Flames.
VILLAIN: The Scarlet Empress, a villain who is far more effective as a mysterious presence of evil than as a tub of Jell-O. Rather disappointing as a climactic character, to tell the truth.
THE FOUR: I must confess, I've never read X-Men. So a lot of the humor of these four was probably lost on me. The Mock Turtle was a wonderful character, in my opinion. Gila and the Bearded Lady, less so. And the biggest problem with the book - did the Spider Duchess survive? We want answers!
OTHERS: They arrive, they play their part, they go away.
STYLE: My God! Multiple narratives, multiple viewpoints, a discussion of realities, the Doctor's life laid bare as a work of fiction wwith great powers... talk about a metaphor for the BBC Books. O_o Anyway, this book is packed with metaphors (and indeed packed with text - the font is much, MUCH smaller than The Taking of Planet Five). Really tasty stuff for those who like this sort of thing - such as me.
OVERALL: A few too many holes to be a truly great work, IMO. But The Scarlet Empress needs to be read anyway. It's clear throughout what a great love of the programme Paul Magrs has - and that he's not afraid to analyse and deconstruct that love either.
The Empress's Old Clothes by Rob Matthews 14/3/01
A few months ago I read one of Paul Magrs' other Doctor Who novels, Verdigris, and rather enjoyed it. I must admit to zipping over it quite quickly, but it seemed to me nothing more than a lightweight and enjoyable romp.
Not long later, Mike Morris posted a review of it which shocked me with its venom. he seemed to violently despise the book, every nook and cranny of it, every character, every plot point, in ways I hadn't thought possible for such an apparently unassuming read.
It seemed a large part of what annoyed him was the author's subtly snide, contemptuous attitude throughout - something I hadn't really noticed, although looking back on it later I saw what he was getting at. I wouldn't go so far as to agree with him about kicking people with degrees in the bollocks and life being better in the seventies (Vietnam? Nixon? Polyester? Are You Being Served? Racist light entertainment? Seven thousand years of Thatcher to follow? No thanks), but I saw some of what he meant. Anyway, he told me that the review had been written hastily in rage. And he said that Magrs' The Scarlet Empress was, by contrast, a great read.
Since I started reading the BBC Doctor Who novels I've sort of been avoiding the Eight Doctor ones - reason being that he's never felt like a real Doctor to me, more a sort of Peter Cushing-type offshoot. He was only in one failed TV movie after all, and I already have a context for the other seven Doctors and their companions. Frankly, I'd have preferred the novels to feature an original eight Doctor created from scratch.
But because of all the praise, I did want to read The Scarlet Empress, and was therefore forced to pick up a copy of The Eight Doctors to get an introduction to the line and find out a bit about the character of Sam. Rendered as she was in that vividly two-dimensional Terance Dicks prose (bless him), I didn't find out much. A kind of improbable Grange Hill character, perhaps. Nevertheless, I had a very basic, flat idea of who she was and how she got aboard the TARDIS, and so was equipped to move on to other Eighth Doctor escapades.
And so on to The Scarlet Empress.
As with Verdigris, I liked it at first. Again I enjoyed Iris Wildthyme and her slightly-smaller on the inside TARDIS, her references to 'foiling the Cybermen with the help of my glamorous assistant Jeremy' and so on. The story was enjoyable but not exceptional, full of incidental wonders but certainly not as good as all the effusions led me to expect. Unlike some reviewers I didn't mind that the narrative occasionally switched from the third to the first person or that the Doctor at one point addressed us knowingly as a character in a story. On the other hand, none of it added much to the book. I'd have preferred it to be more confusing, in fact, perhaps modulating in and out of first, second and third person in a more organic way throughout (by which I mean not walling off the different voices into separate chapters). And I was disappointed that there wasn't much climax to speak of.
And then came the afterword. It was really this that turned the whole thing sour for me. Not in and of itself, but because it had the effect of drawing to the surface of the text everything I hadn't liked about the text. That is, every little foible I'd tried to ignore and shrug off turned out, in the end, to be the point of the book.
Magrs - as a Doctor Who author - is a rather slimy voice. Mike pointed this out in regard to his treatment of Iris in Verdigris, where he appeared to turn against her in agreement with a certain section of the readership. But I think there's a central hypocrisy, a contradiction, running more abjectly throughout The Scarlet Empress. And it is this:
My first prickles of discomfort came when Iris/Magrs started making snidey comments about the Seventh Doctor - "Time's Champion, my arse" as she put it, and, okay, I thought it was a funny line at first. There was also a remark about the Doctor going through a mid-life crisis and being careless about which bodies he wore - almost certainly a dismissal of the run of Doctors from Davison to McCoy. So for Magrs, the Doctor's adventures have limitless potential so long as they're not done Davison's way, or Baker's or McCoy's. Or Saward's or Cartmel's. So long as they're not too science fictiony. So long as the Doctor remains sort of naive.
Frankly, it's a stupid, hectoring and nasty attitude. Surely the 'reborn' Eight Doctor is perfectly complemented by the melancholic, ancient Seventh Doctor. Just as the diminutive, manipulative dark-hued Seventh Doctor worked so well because of the large, boisterous clashing-colour incarnation that came before him. Just, indeed, as Cartmel's approach was complemented by Saward's equally valid and equally intelligent (but too long) tenure before him. Doctor Who is successful because it changes. Magrs recognises this and yet... doesn't. He makes himself look small by gratuitously picking on the things they did that he didn't like.
This is compounded by the second glaring contradiction in the book:
That's why he includes that apparently affectionate postscript in the first place. Not as a love note to the show, but as a rationalisation of why he stooped to writing a Doctor Who novel in the first place. He namechecks Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter and a plethora of others to dignify his whole endeavour, to appear swathed and swaddled in fantastical literature (which I have no doubt he is, but why shout it so loud?). In the same way, he relies on mythical beasts and familiar Arabian Nights-type settings throughout the story itself, so he can trace the whole concept of Doctor Who monsters back to our oldest stories and folklore (an easy and obvious thing to do anyway).
He claims he became ready to write a Doctor Who novel once the Virgin books stopped and the BBC's Eight Doctor series began, because the Doctor was now once again portrayed the way Magrs wanted him to be - "Restored to us", as he puts it, as someone who's "content to blunder into situations", "no more prophet-like Doctor". Now, how can a creation whose most appealing quality is its infinite potential be 'restored' to anything? Magrs can and should portray the Doctor any way he likes, but why hammer his agenda home like this? Why give us a big song and dance about his reasons for lowering himself to our level? We like proper books too, Paul.
He also suggests that Doctor Who was a precursor of magical realism. True enough - afer all, it did begin with an interface to eternity lurking in a London junkyard. But it's very telling that he feels obliged to make a big deal out of it, so that we'll be in no doubt that he hasn't completely lost his literary sensibilites just because he's written a grown-up Target novel.
Finally he claims that The Scarlet Empress was his 'foray into someone else's fictional world, one he was 'at home in before I found one for myself'. We may well ask exactly who's fictional world he thinks Doctor Who is - Verity Lambert's? Douglas Adams'? Robert Holmes'? Terrance Dicks'? Cartmel's? Bidmead's? -, but instead I'll point out that his comment comes across as embarrassed and defensive. And, given that he felt compelled to return to someone else's fictional world at least twice more, he appears to be protesting too much.
Still, I thought Verdigris was more relaxed, so perhaps I'll check out The Blue Angel yet.
A Review by Andrew McCaffrey 25/6/01
It's Doctor Who because it's completely unlike anything that Doctor Who has ever done before. Better than that, it'sgood Doctor Who because it doesn't just stop at pushing the multi-faceted envelope; it's entertaining and interesting at the same time. It even stops at a few points for some interesting self-aware passages that offer some thoughts on the nature of story-telling that were well-written enough to stop just before they became too pretentious.
It's a very complicated book, with many jumps in the narrative from different viewpoints, sometimes several within the same page. This can be a little difficult at times, but it's very rewarding overall. The perspectives from different characters and cultures are very rich and detailed, and all of them are treated with a good degree of respect.
There are one or two weak points. At some places, the plot almost disappears and these sections tend to drag a bit. There are other spots where the suspension of disbelief that was required was just a more than what I was willing to give. I can forgive one or two little coincidences, but there are some in here that are just so great that I felt they hurt the overall quality of the book.
On the whole, this is one of the best EDAs that I have read and is well worth a second read.
A Review by Terrence Keenan 14/3/02
Um, I get it now.
I finally have an understanding on what makes Paul Magrs tick. He's a button pusher.
Magrs is out to mess with readers minds, fanboys minds and give everyone and everything a V-sign/middle finger and boot in the rear. He does all this to get reactions, which is what challenging writers do.... So, in The Scarlet Empress, Magrs is on a mission to play games with continuity, storytelling and anything else he can get away with. And this time, he succeeds.
Reason #1 -- He doesn't call attention to it, like in Blue Angel or Verdigris
Reason #2 -- He shows empathy to his characters, unlike Veridgris and Blue Angel
TSE also has a plot of sorts -- a quest type story. He's helping Iris "put the band back together." Set on Hyspero, The Doc and Sam team up with Iris Wildthyme on a quest to join four warriors back together to take on the Evil Scarlet Empress who rule of Hyspero is ruinous.
Characters: Magrs does the 8th Doc much better here, giving him a thorny personality along with the usual goofiness. Sam is great, not an annoying prat that she's been in other 8DAs. Iris is pretty good in this, and for the gang of 4 my fave was the Mock Turtle, a gentle, loyal soul.
As mentioned before, Magrs is playing the usual games, this time wrapped around the concept of how does one tell a story, which was done better in Valdemar, but isn't annoying or showy. The concept that Iris is claiming the Doctor's adventures as her own is fun, as is her mocking of the whole Time's Champion bit for the 7th Doc ("Time's Champion, my arse!" had me ROTFLMAO). The book the Doc steals and reads (and comments on) is a hoot as well.
The prose, like his other two books is beautiful. No matter what my issues were with Verdigris and The Blue Angel were, Paul Magrs can write like a dream. And like the other two the pages fly by. Always a plus.
Okay, I'm ready to have my serving of Crow. Paul Magrs can write a book that doesn't have me wanting to dance on it. And I knew if I gave his work enough chances, I might figure out what his master plan is. Recommended -- now bring on the pink poodles.
8 out of 10
To the picaresque life by Peter Anghelides 28/5/02
(I wrote this review in September 1998. It first appeared on the rec.arts.drwho newsgroup.)
After about twenty lines of this post, spoilers start to appear. Quite big ones, actually. Caveat lector.
There's much to enjoy about The Scarlet Empress, and as others have suggested here, its discursive and picaresque nature mean that it ends up as more than the sum of its parts. Much of the discussion has been about its difference to the rest of the BBC Books - indeed, its difference to much of the rest of published Doctor Who fiction. And while you can argue that it isn't a particularly radical piece of new fiction qua fiction, it is still the most stylistically innovative DW book since Sky Pirates!.
(At the time, of course, I seem to recall I said that I didn't on the whole enjoy Sky Pirates!. I've revised my view since then, because (a) I recognise it tried to make a difference, (b) Dave Stone reads the newsgroup, (c) Dave Stone is bigger than I am, and (d) there is no (d).)
The Scarlet Empress is a melange of styles, much more so than a book like The Left-Handed Hummingbird with that book's occasional experimental sections in different tones or voices. This narrative variance encompasses video diary (p22), non-sequential narrative (p 129 and following), first person narration (p275), third person omnipotent narration (p45), third person internal monologue (p 31), reported diary (p32), third person within one POV (for example, Sam's on p97 and p257), folk tale (p 98), and mock heroic verse p242). At one point (p241), there's a juxtaposition of the same story told by two narrators (Bearded Lady Angela and the Mock Turtle) as they recall how they explored the Scarlet Empress's rooms, with a jarring novelistic intrusion ("Back to the narrative at hand") joining the two. There's even that familiar element (well, familiar from some of the more studiously avant garde Virgin novels), the one-page chapter.
I'm not sure what the motivation is for many of these changes of tone, but they are diverting and amusing. I suppose they reflect the way in which much of the story is composed of discursive set pieces, ad hoc narratives, or narrative exemplars. So if you're looking for a densely-plotted, character-driven book you'll be disappointed. Settle down instead for a pot pourri of events which blow kisses to various DW pasts (or, if you're more pedantic about your canon, blow big raspberries at the accepted wisdom of the BBC range to date).
Now that's not to say that there is no plot or characterisation in the book. The quest to find the Beaded Lady, the Cyborg Duchess, the Alligator Man, and the Mock Turtle is the thin line throughout, while a secondary thought about Iris's desire to be healed from her disease by the Scarlet Empress is another thread. And while it's characteristic of the book's cheerfully casual adoption of DW history and continuity that the Mock Turtle turns out to be part-Chelonian (reference to Virgin continuity), we never feel the need to question why Iris would undergo such a complex and arduous quest. Plausibility in the book is (acceptably) secondary to the meandering nature of the narrative.
So we don't ask ourselves why Iris, whose life matches the Doctor's in so many ways, wouldn't go to Karn to use the Elixir (she has, after all, met Morbius, and knows the Doctor's life better than he does). Nor do we feel it necessary to ponder, for example, why Iris drives her TARDIS bus around Hyspero instead of vworp-vworping her vehicle in a wheezing-and-groaning fashion directly to the venues.
Both descriptions of the TARDIS noise appear, of course -- the book is an eclectic mix. You can find the televised series (myriad punning references and paraphrased summaries), the TVM (Puccini), Virgin (Chelonians), comics (Kroton the Cyberman), Target (several people have capacious pockets) and the metalanguage of the programme's production history itself (JN-T's "Memory always cheats").
So internal continuity is less important than the references to DW. On a couple of occasions, Iris's TARDIS is used to speed the story along, and it makes a helpful reappearance after being conveniently absent for a period of time -- but it's a narrative device, not a piece of plausible technology. Otherwise, we'd worry about why it appears to allow the wind and cold in (and has a broken window) at one point, but then turns out to be completely watertight later in the book.
Internal logic is secondary to the set pieces, too. (This isn't a criticism, merely an observation about the book's style.) In fact, where there are a couple of continuity items (the bee djinn reappearing to helping the Doctor with the fresh honey, and the Kestheven birds' attack on the Kristeva), it's unexpected and actually rather odd.
On the other hand, the motivations of the characters is interesting and consistent, particularly the Doctor and Iris. (However, Sam is largely unrecognisable from any other novel, and we have little insight into her until the end - but see later on.) We trust Iris's insights when she's talking to us directly, rather than to other characters, but I do wonder why she tells the Doctor that the Aia'ib is very important to the Scarlet Empress, but then find this is never mentioned again. Like much of radw, perhaps, this is a thread which is not adequately explored later (indeed, it's ignored in the finale).
On the other hand, Iris is finally motivated to release her current incarnation and regenerate because of her interaction with the eighth Doctor -- she argues with him, she tricks him, she blames him, she still loves him. He is younger, more carefree, less organised and intense than she remembers him (and she has met all of his previous incarnations). And since she knows what her own next incarnation will be (because of a Five Doctors style adventure of her own), she knows she too will become a younger model. (And in what I suppose could be a nod to The Power of the Daleks, Castrovalva, and Destiny of the Daleks, her clothes appear to regenerate at the same time!)
A propos of this jokey allusion to continuity, Iris observes (p234): "If you don't mess up your own continuity, there's always some other bugger who'll do it for you... I don't even pretend to be consistent." This seems to me to be a declaration of intent for much of the book.
Things I enjoyed a lot: the Doctor listening politely when the Mock Turtles says things like "If you stay inside here long enough, you could even meet yourself. Imagine that!" I enjoyed the Steigertrude creature (but wish that several pages later there hadn't then been a recollected story about Gertrude Stein). I love the idiosyncratic descriptive flourishes (in the Fortalician section, you can even hear the authentic voice of Tom Baker, from his autobiography, narrating the story of Our Lady the gardener who has "a particular talent for pomegranates". And I enjoy the fact that the chapter titles are almost invariably lifted from characters' dialogue, but that's a personal thing I suppose. Back to the review in hand.
Sometimes the metatextuality of the narration becomes awkward and overt. After the deaths of the Fortalician Executioner and Librarian, for example, they "would have to find their own way out of this particular ontological and epistemological rubble." (Many of the casual readers of the EDAs will have to find their own way through that sentence's etymological and circumlocutory rubble, I think.) There's another mouthful on p233: "It forces you to keep yourself in line. In an epistemological sense, at least." Well, up to a point, Mock Turtle.
There a lovely description of Our Lady's "scandalously ripe" fruit (p99), so the repetition of this striking word on p233 ("scandalously long neck") makes you wonder: am I supposed to imagine the Mock Turtle (speaking on p233) was narrating the section on p99? You may guess this, since he's supposed to be observing everything using his low-level telepathy while trapped in the ice for most of the book. Or is it just a coincidence of wording? (In any other book, mind you, one would not be attempting to deconstruct the text on such flimsy evidence -- so make of that what you will.)
There is a short section which amused me, and which sounds like snippets from a conversation in a DW convention bar at a table where Martin Wiggins, Thomas Noonan, Alec Charles and Tat Wood are all talking. The Doctor and Iris are arguing about the Seventh Doctor's compulsion for setting universal wrongs to right, policing the timelines in a plot-driven male way. "Time's Champion my arse," she sneers. The Doctor retorts that Iris wants to be "the great feminist reinterpreter of patriarchal Gallifrey" who pleads "the endless polymorphous perversity of time and possibility". Early twentieth century psychological allusions to infantile sexual tendencies aside, we do get a great insult in response from Iris as she characterises the Master as the embodiment of the male ago: "that pitiful, deluded, phallocentric dope." Makes you look at the Tissue Compression Eliminator in a whole new light, doesn't it?
Now, much as I enjoyed The Scarlet Empress, I did have quite a struggle at times with the way that point of view (POV) seemed to meander. Maybe it's for a reason, but I can't discern why it happens. For example, a section which is explicitly (and characteristically) narrated by Iris on p200, and which discusses her Gallifreyan nature after about a page, by p202 contains a line "Iris looked thoughtful" and then " 'So Do I,' put in Iris." (In other words, we've left her first-person narration and entered third person.) Later in the same section, we discover we're now in Sam's POV: "She saw that Iris..." Or is it Iris, because after a line of her dialogue we start a paragraph "She was staring at the alligator man..." Then the same paragraph ends with omniscient third person narration "all of them had their private suspicions".
This rollercoaster through different POVs could partly be rescued if we assume a typo on p202, and that Sam's POV is assumed to start after Iris's line "A terrible sailor, me." But it isn't the only place in the novel where this odd change between POVs seems to occur. Maybe I'm just an old fuddy- duddy to expect consistency. Check out the section starting on p207 in the Bearded Lady's POV. It becomes a sort of omniscient (or at least distanced) POV with "It had been Angela the Bearded Lady who...", which is quite a nice stylistic device. But then by p209, "suddenly she looked very small (someone else's POV of her), and then on p210 we learn "The ten eyes of the Duchess surmounted the original faceted eyes of the spider like a cluster of bright jewels" which must be someone else's POV because Angela is blind -- which the next paragraph reminds us of: "Even without being able to see this new being, the Bearded Lady knew exactly what had happened." This whole section ends with the internal thoughts (POV) of the new creature hearing the Scarlet Empress's instructions.
Well, maybe this is all the free-indirect narrative that the Doctor tells us (personally) in the following chapter -- albeit by using the first-person narrative mode. I suppose I have to accept that Paul Magrs will reply, like Iris (on p131): "I can write exactly what I want." And I will have to accept, like the Doctor immediately after this: "He could see that he wouldn't get any further with this one."
Ah, the Doctor. What fun the novel has with him. I think my conception of the eighth Doctor is very much like Paul Magrs', which is "engaging simplicity... no more all-knowing prophet- like... content to blunder into things, and let himself meet fabulous characters in that sweetly picaresque, eighteenth- century way of his" (p282).
The "Afterword" aside, however, there's a smashing pen portrait of the McGann Doctor on p123 -- which you may think sounds closer to the kind of wording you'd expect from a set of BBC guidelines, but which in the specific context on the narration is entirely appropriate here: it's an analysis by Iris, confiding in us, and after all she knows all the Doctors and, in the novel, therefore has a uniquely informed POV. Indeed, as it's established that the Doctor can't remember his previous lives with any great precision, she has the unfair advantage of knowing him better than himself. Just like a fangirl asking awkward questions of her favourite actor at an interview panel -- no wonder Paul McGann's afraid to go to conventions, eh?
Elsewhere in the book, I'm delighted to hear the Eighth Doctor confirm my belief about his character's view on life: "Ordinary life is where everything is a struggle and muddle and you can only do your best." We're still offered a bit of mystery (he doesn't reply to the statement about him and Iris that they are "both Gallifreyans". And there's a nice nod to the Sam/Doctor backstory when new Empress Cassandra says to the Doctor "No wonder she loves you" and the Doctor explains to Sam that Cassandra is referring to Iris loving him (implication: not Sam loving him). And in his first-person conclusion to the book, the Doctor confides in us that he loves... the sight of the vortex.
A central metaphor in the book appears on p236, where the Doctor gives an account of himself. It does start with an observation which is dangerously close to Pseud's Corner (or Novelist Luvvies): "My job is rather like a doctor in a hospital, or a novelist's... in that I try to keep people alive." But it develops a little more plausibly: Life is not like a plotted book, not tidy, not genre. The Doctor's job is to avoid "the trap of genre-death". To him, the interesting parts are "the parts where life just goes on. It's just to the sides of the big adventure. The bits that overstep the boundaries of convention." A bit like this book, you're saying, no doubt fumbling with phrases like "objective correlative". When the Doctor says this, Paul Magrs observes: "He seemed pleased with that." Well, I suppose Paul Magrs was, too.
The Doctor describes his adventures as a "bricolage. A large and teeming compendium with all sorts of alternatives." And that seems to be a sound aspiration for the BBC Books series, particularly when there has been so much discussion on the newsgroup about whether the books should be all like this or all like that, rather than a splendid variety of styles. On page 236: " 'If we had a bottle of something,' said the Doctor, 'we might have a toast. To the picaresque life.' "
I'll drink to that.
Subjective opinions by Joe Ford 20/8/03
Wow, I have rarely encountered a book that has met with such variable opinions. From Finn Clark's enjoyment that it will "trigger a change in Doctor Who" so that "Doctor Who will be much richer" to Andrew McCaffrey's declaration that it is "one of the best EDA's". Then we have Robert Smith's opinion of "near greatness", Mike Morris' dissatisfaction with most Paul Margs works and Rob Matthews anger at Margs' enforced opinions on what he think the series should be. It is quite fascinating to read all the above reviews, all revolved around this one book.
I would never call this book bad, in fact it is one of the first ever really good EDA's. It has some problems, ones that I refused to address with my first reading because it was so damn readable compared to much of the rest of the excrement appearing on bookshelves at the time.
My friend Matt (I believe I have mentioned him before) HATES Paul Margs' writing. He won't go anywhere near Mad Dogs and Englishmen after reading this and The Blue Angel. He believes Doctor Who has a certain rigid formula and should not push its boundaries in such embarrassing directions as having a female Time Lord who is in love with the Doctor, a story full of magic and (heaven forbid...) pink poodles. We rarely agree on anything and Paul Margs' work usually provokes our greatest arguments. You see I think Doctor Who has the ultimate formula, it can survive in any genre which is why it has managed to continue long after its televisual demise. It has no rules to adhere to so can be pretty much moulded into anything. And Paul Margs excels in morphing the books he writes into any damn thing he likes.
Doctor Who on telly denied the existence of magic, Paul disagrees so he wraps his story in fantasy. Virgin believes that the seventh Doctor was the ultimate incarnation, Paul disagrees and makes several hysterical digs to the contrary. Paul doesn't like Docs 5-7, fair enough so Iris spends ages bitching about them. He wants his Doctor naive and innocent. He wants to whisk magical creatures out of thin air. He wants to believe in a time travelling London bus. Personally I love an author who knows what he likes and Paul makes no excuses, no apologies, he writes the book that he wants and doesn't care who he upsets.
This all sounds like a book that is set out to upset people and yet as a tale it is utterly harmless. The almost non-plot of the motley crew of heroes setting of on a Lord of the Rings style quest to reunite four criminals for an Evil Empress is such a simple, compelling idea. There are no real surprises, no complex plot to unravel... just a glorious piece of writing by a man who knows how to make you smile.
Refusing to hold our attention with the flimsy plot the author instead fills the book with lots of good characterisation. For a start it is absolutely obsessed with the Doctor. And why not? It's his series after all! The book refuses to sink under the sort of angst that polluted the Virgin line and instead uses the characters of Sam and Iris (and even some masterful first person commentaries from the top man himself) to carefully reconstruct the character. The BBC line to this point had left the character pretty vague but this book confirms him as a born adventurer, a naive wanderer who improvises, charms and delights in the wonders of the universe. Maybe Paul is trying to enforce his take on the character a little too much but at least this version is damn likeable, he's funny and charismatic and a lot of fun to read about.
Second in line for attention is Margs' greatest invention, Iris Wildthyme, a woman who provokes feelings of joy and hatred in equal doses. This is a real matter of taste, Iris verges on the melodramatic, she can be selfish, annoying and overbearing. She's opinionated AND self centred. But she's also a whole lot of fun. The most openly flawed character in the book line, I find her quirky and eccentric personality a laugh riot and enjoyable in a completely different way to the Doctor. With her boozing and swearing, her low budget TARDIS and complete inability to escape from any perilous situation I have no doubt she could hold up a series all on her own. Her introduction story offers a lot, leaving her motives a mystery but with her hearts on her sleeve, she proves very rewarding to read about.
So with the two protagonists on top form, what of the universally hated Sam Jones (that is the worst companion name EVER!)? I am starting to wonder what all the fuss is about with Sam, okay she is a bit of freak and can lay on the anti-everything morals but dipping into her era there is very little that is as offensive as her reputation suggests. Here she is confident, hip and pretty damn sassy. Her relationship with Gila is nicely done and her thoughts on the Doctor extremely revealing (one of the very few times an author acknowledges the excellent work done to her character in Seeing I). Thumbs up.
The prose is gorgeous, this is clearly a writer who knows how to express himself. The Scarlet Empress reminds me of The Also People in that it is one of those exquisitely described planets that leaves you desperate for a visit. Margs never stops trying to remind you that you are actually there, filling the book with wondrous sights and smells. We experience what is like to face perils and adventure, to find companionship and betrayal. It is an extremely vivid novel that remains fresh in your mind once it is over.
Unfortunately I have one serious problem that mars (forgive the pun) the story for me. I'm just not a big fantasy fan, I avoid Lord of the Rings, Grimm fairytales and Terry Pratchet like the plague. Odd really, I love lots of imagination in a book but these things do tip over into the ludicrous at times. Aside from an excellent drug parody in Buffy magic doesn't do much for me. Harry Potter = yawnathon. So whilst the mysterious wonders of Hyspero were enjoyably realistic I found myself shrugging quite bit wondering what all the fuss was about. Beautiful storytelling without a doubt but Margs later efforts (time travel) appeals much more. However as a fairy tale (of sorts) this is told with the perfect degree of childlike wonder (mostly seen through the boyish eyes of the Doctor) unlike dull later attempts (Grimm Reality).
But I shan't complain, the book remains a strong read despite my qualms about the fantastical, it is held up some snappy interplay between the heroes and the constant movement of the character from one place to another. Margs clearly thought his planet out well and you never once doubt its integrity. He pitches the story as though he believes it as much as the characters do.
And what a delicious phallic cover.
A book with a sense of humour, that refuses to surrender to dull Doctor Who trademarks. As a debut novel for the BBC range Margs has proven without a doubt that the new voices were giving the old hacks a serious run for their money. It's a joyful ride, emotional and uplifting and I wouldn't mind taking it again someday.
The perfect holiday novel.
A Review by Brian May 12/8/06
The Scarlet Empress is a pleasure to read; Paul Magrs makes an indelible mark, using his literary background to produce a delightful - and delightfully different - novel.
It's been touted as a benchmark book in a series that, Alien Bodies aside, has been loose and unfocused - as opposed to the New Adventures, which had defined its philosophy and direction by the fourth book. However The Scarlet Empress is hardly what you would call "rad". There are a few moments, but they actually comprise the story's weakest elements, but I'll return to this. On the whole, it's nothing more than a simple quest adventure. There's a mission, a crew, a series of obstacles on the way and an adversary to confront - an adversary with a convenient weakness which is suitably exploited in the final showdown. It's typically derivative, with a wide range of inspirations: Arabian Nights, Lord of the Rings, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthurian legends, the book of Jonah, Babes in the Wood, X-Men/Fantastic Four, the Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and many I've probably overlooked. It's traditional to the core.
It is the way it's written that's radical - for a Doctor Who book especially. Experimentalism was not original to Who fiction in 1998; since the beginning certain authors have tweaked and toyed with the Doctor Who adventure. The first person narrative, which stands out so obviously in this book, was also present in the New Adventures, on large and small scales (Iceberg, All-Consuming Fire), but no book has had so many characters adopting the narrator's position - and certainly not the Doctor himself! All these perspectives, with their opinions and biases, are wonderful to read, with the added bonus of info-dumps, plot shifts and "live" events to ensure the story is progressing at the same time.
This abundance of differing first person accounts is the standout feature, but it shouldn't upstage another great aspect: the simultaneous celebration and undermining of the storytelling of Doctor Who. There's a mass of continuity references: the televised series, the NAs and especially the Marvel comics, but they're twisted by Magrs (and Iris!) in such an ingenious way. The use of the Aja'ib is a masterstroke; the highly amusing recollections of untelevised encounters with the likes of Oscar Wilde, Greta Garbo, Jean Cocteau and Gertrude Stein, and the examination and subversion of genre (p.236 especially) all help to make this book so satisfyingly different. I hate to use the word postmodern, because it sounds so Unfolding Text/media studies pretentious, but it's the only suitable description I can think of at the moment - but given that everything is either wryly self-deprecating, cleverly tongue-in-cheek or just all-out hilarious, there's no po-faced academic portentousness to ruin things.
Magrs's background becomes obvious as you're reading, but nevertheless there are some fascinating tidbits to be garnered from his afterword. He's in love with literature and with Doctor Who, and has produced a lovely fusion of the two. If you forget all the technicalities you can just focus on the writing itself. It's gorgeous. It's one of the most beautifully written books I've read. When there's an excessive use of words, it's because there's meant to be an excessive use of words! The descriptions of the various parts of Hyspero are intricately detailed, making it a truly fascinating planet. The characters are all well realised - I especially adored the Mock Turtle; Cassandra's "Mae West" sauciness is incredibly funny, and the Doctor is great. But it's Iris Wildthyme who's the star of this book; Magrs has unleashed her onto the Doctor Who universe with glee, and she's more then welcome. It's notable that Sam is the only main character who doesn't get any first person space. Is the author uncomfortable with her? Apparently not, given the passable rendition we've read in this story; but perhaps it's still not interesting enough venturing inside her head? Did Magrs start off writing a first person Sam account and give up because of this? Or am I just wandering off on another tangent again?
Turning negative, I didn't really think all those filmic moments were really necessary, when characters and events are captured from the still, closed-off perspective of the camera. It's just trying a bit too hard and perhaps the word pretentious can finally be used. And anyway, hasn't Magrs proved, by example of this very book - and to use his own words - that Doctor Who can be "better than the telly"? And to elaborate on the "rad" moments I hinted at in paragraph two, there are a couple of times when this tries to be too much like Alien Bodies. Lawrence Miles's book is a stupendously radical work, both in the use of narrative, which Magrs adopts in chapter 29 (although The Scarlet Empress is far more impressive in this department overall) and as a benchmark for future continuity. But the attempts at the latter - Sam's "conversation" with the underwater creatures and her dream about the Doctor - are nowhere near half as good at the surreal, unsettling portents Miles gave us.
But these aren't massive complaints, especially when the rest of The Scarlet Empress is so magnificent. It can be summed up by the wonderful paradox on p.8: the Doctor says he "dislike[s] analysis and deconstruction and psychology and psychoanalysis". And so he does: he's a "trad" Doctor again; by his own admission Magrs has done away with Time's Champion, which follows the pattern of the character since the EDAs began. Accordingly this is perhaps the ultimate traditional Doctor Who tale, but given all the analysis, deconstruction, psychology and psychoanalysis that makes its presentation such a radically different one. Top stuff. 9/10