The Compassion/TARDIS arc
The Shadows of Avalon
|ISBN||0 563 55588 2|
|Synopsis: A gateway opens between Earth and Avalon, the Land of Dreams. The Brigadier finds himself faced with decisions about war, the future and his best friend.|
A Review by Finn Clark 8/2/00
I've never been much of a Paul Cornell fan. Admittedly I was still at school when I read Timewyrm: Revelation and would get far more from it if I reread it now, but over the years I've generally failed to see what made his books so special. He can be very silly, and not in a good way. His storytelling is... okay. He's not immune to in-jokes and fanwank.
With The Shadows of Avalon, I think I've nailed it. Paul Cornell's gift, the thing he does better than anything else, is character.
I'm not talking about surface character, the ability to create Dickensian caricatures that leap off the page and keep the reader in stitches. The master of that is probably Gareth Roberts. Nor am I talking about the ability to create credible, rounded characters whose dilemmas and dangers keep the reader turning the pages ever faster. That's a prerequisite for a successful novel and we've seen plenty of authors who do it very well indeed. Any writer who can't achieve that basic hurdle shouldn't be writing.
No, what Paul Cornell did magnificently in Human Nature and now again is to use the novel to dig down deep into character. John Smith wasn't just a nice chap wandering through the plot of Human Nature. He was the plot. The rest of the book ranged from okay to vaguely annoying (the silly cartoon bad guys), but the testing to destruction of John Smith was f*cking magnificent and that's why Human Nature has rightly topped fan polls ever since its release.
In Shadows of Avalon, Paul Cornell turns that spotlight on two characters: the Brigadier and the eighth Doctor.
We'll talk about Alistair first. This is a post-Happy Endings Brigadier, rejuvenated by about fifty years but mysteriously still in love with his wrinkly old wife. You gotta admire his loyalty, but how long would the marriage have lasted? Doris dies in an accident and the Brigadier goes apeshit with grief, becoming borderline suicidal. Paul Cornell treats this in a very direct, respectful fashion, but I think a case could be made for something more complicated in the Brigadier's psyche. Maybe there's a touch of denial in Alistair's after-the-event memories of how he felt about his dead wife?
Oh, hell. I'm sure that's a very unworthy suggestion. The Brigadier is the real hero of much of this book, doing his best in impossible circumstances and being tested in the fire as John Smith was in Human Nature. It's impressive stuff. The Brig is given stature and nobility for perhaps the first time since his rather demeaning adventures after Mawdryn Undead. It's all very well to show him in placid retirement, but it's far more fitting to let him bow out as a warrior and that's what he does here. It also justifies what at the time was a rather irritating throwaway in Happy Endings. The Brigadier's journey is what makes this book special.
The Doctor also has a journey, but it seems rather contrived. I presume it ties in with the WTF Interference arc, but comes across as the Doc vanishing up his own arsehole. I couldn't get an emotional handle on his dilemmas beyond the obvious one (which I won't spoil here). For much of the book he's reminiscent of the ineffectual geek we've seen too often in the 8DAs, but once he exorcises his personal demons and springs into action he's cool. In the end, this is good stuff as well.
What about the rest of the book? Big things happen, as you expected from the back cover blurb. The villains are silly and uninteresting, as in Human Nature, though things improve in that direction towards the end. The story treads water for the first half of the book, but this can be said of too many 8DAs for me to feel comfortable about pinning all the blame on Paul Cornell. At least it takes off eventually.
And how! The last hundred pages are riveting, almost unputdownable. It's as if a switch gets thrown. Until then we'd been dealing largely with intrigue and political maneuverings (yawn), but suddenly the storytelling roars into top gear and doesn't let go until the very last page. There's some great ideas and groovy twists. More importantly, the developments of the last few chapters are probably required reading if you don't want to be bewildered by the upcoming 8DAs.
Overall, this is a very important book that fortunately happens to be damn good as well. It's not perfect. The first half's storytelling is a bit blah, as if even Cornell was more interested in what was coming up next. However it explodes into life eventually and the good stuff is genuinely special. Stick with it.
I'll talk about the broad-brush strokes of the plot, but avoid details. Thus no major spoilers, though everything on the back cover is fair game. If you're happy with that, read on.
I remembered this as being a combination of triumph and disappointment - some of the book was magnificent, while other bits were dire. Rereading it didn't change that opinion, but it did help me decide which bits were which. Broadly speaking, Act One is rubbish and Acts Two and Three are superb.
Before I continue, I'd better define my terms. By "Act" I don't mean the three "Parts" into which the book divides itself. I'm talking about story structure. It's possible that Paul Cornell would disagree with my analysis here, but I reckon these are the book's natural divisions. Each Act is a story in its own right, with its own situations and its own natural dramatic climax. Here's a breakdown, with page numbers:
Part One ("The Road to Avalon") 5-82
Part Two ("War in Avalon") 83-152
Part Three ("The Taking of Avalon") 153-274
Act One (setting up the war) 1-108
Act Two (dealing with the war) 109-230
Act Three (the *real* bad guys) 231-274
Act One is... well, it's running on the spot. The bad stuff hasn't happened yet, so we can only watch our heroes vanish up their arses, waste time and make the situation worse than it would have been without them. The Brigadier's psychological problems are interesting, but everything else about Act One sucks elephants' cocks. To be specific...
Okay, that's enough slagging off. We'll now proceed to Acts Two and Three, which I'm glad to say are much, much better. As if by magic, the story becomes immeasurably better once some trouble's under way and our heroes become part of the solution instead of the problem. The Doctor gets some good scenes and the Brigadier gets some great ones. Paul Cornell has given us some fabulous heroes' stories - the Doctor in Timewyrm: Revelation and Human Nature, Ace in Love and War - but I think this is probably his finest. If it wasn't for Act One, Shadows of Avalon would be close to being his best book. (It also justifies the existence of all that daft Brigadier stuff in Happy Endings.)
But don't mention that bollocks about Gandar in the epilogue. We're supposed to coo and go ahhhhhhhhhh about the annoying little fucker, are we? Get outta here.
But even with that, Acts Two and Three are still terrific. Act Two is exciting and moving, but then Act Three tops it with some astonishing plot twists. If you saw those coming, let me be the first to welcome you to planet Earth.
This book is both dreadful and amazing. Just remember where the changeover comes, grit your teeth up until then and hold on to your hat. Once Paul hits his stride, Shadows of Avalon becomes more than merely "good". The best bits of this are something special.
A Review by Mike Morris 14/3/00
Hmm... this is going to be a difficult one to review without spoilers, because there really are an awful lot of surprising twists and turns in the plot. I don't mean Justin Richards-style, hah you-never-saw-that-one-coming twists; it's not that type of book. It's more character based, and it's about (amongst other things) characters arriving at cathartic moments in their lives. To give any of this away would really ruin the book.
Romana's in it, a bit. She's not the Romana we remember.
The Brigadier's in it, a lot. He's not the Brigadier we remember.
A lot of it's based in a dream world. Literally. It's a dream world of magic, Celtic mythology, and liberal dosings of liberal science just to make it plausible. It's beautifully described, of course, and the community is perfectly evoked. We've got warriors (proper ones, with swords and stuff), mages, Fair Folk and faeries. We've got the Doctor and the Brigadier catapulted into a world of magic, swords and sorcery.
Does it work? Yes, yes, yes. In fact, it's such a damn good idea that I wonder why no-one ever thought of it before. Avalon is a beautiful, mythical backdrop to the unfolding events, perfectly drawn and evoked. Lots and lots of stuff happens, so it's difficult to generalise what this book's about. The plot, basically, is about two Gallifreyan agents wreaking havoc in the kingdom. There's some interesting SF ideas, and the whole thing hangs together pretty well. And then the rest is about characters.
Primarily, this is the Brigadier's book. He's a world-weary, bullying soldier, with more in common with the Brigadier from Blood Heat than the televised character. Having said that, he's still likeable, largely because he's a character that Doctor Who fans know so well, and we take a number of illuminating trips inside his head. Dream sequences, hallucinations, the works. It's all very tense; will he die? Will he die honourably? Will he kill himself? Will he find a new appetite for life? I won't give away the outcome but I will say that at times this is unbearably sad, at times happy, often poignant and always very moving. What's more, there's a modest little love story thrown in as well. This is the kernel of the book, and I loved it.
It's also the Doctor's book. I actually suspected before I'd read the story that the Eighth Doctor is made for Paul Cornell, and this book confirms it. He's beautifully written, full of the traits that we associate with him; his uncertainty, his exuberance, his occasional foolishness, his love for his friends. The Doctor-Brigadier relationship is wonderfully drawn; it's clear that the Brigadier is now the one friend the Doctor prizes above all. There are some lovely touches; the Doctor doesn't refer to the Brigadier as "Brigadier", but as "Alistair", which is perfectly in character.
On this point, something else became clear to me as I read the book. The Eighth Doctor is no longer McGann. When reading, say, a PDA, the ultimate test of whether the Doctor is well-written or not is whether you can visualise the actor saying the words. Not here, not any more. The Eighth Doctor has fully evolved into a print-Doctor, free from the tyranny of our TV-sodden minds. And the writers recently seem to be revelling in this.
The Shadows of Avalon also (more or less) completes the arc begun in Interference. In my review of Planet 5 I implied that this arc was a complete waste of time; I now see that I was wrong. It's a cunning little arc that's fully explained here, and lots of unnoticeable loose ends are tied up. It culminates in a massive, massive change in established Who continuity. How big? Well, let's just say that I actually guessed what was going to happen about seventy pages from the end, and then said "naaa. They're not mad enough to do that." But they did. I don't know if it will work or not, but for sheer bravery I hope it does.
I'm actually going to dwell on the arc for a moment longer. It's not really a continuity arc, more of a charcter arc. It's Compassion's arc, obviously, and that's brought to a nice conclusion here. It's also the Doctor's arc. For the last few books, the Doctor's been confronted with his own impotence in the face of a whole new monster; politics. The unending politics of Earth, the fantastic politics of the Obverse, the war-politics of future Gallifrey. Here, the same thing seems to be happening, and the Doctor's brought face-to-face with his own methods, forced to re-evaluate himself. This also works well, feeding nicely off the weight of the preceding books.
Aside from the Doctor and the Brigadier, and to a certain extent Compassion, other characters are lightly drawn without being sketchy. Fitz does his usual 'everyperson' job well enough. Queen Mab is an interesting little character. The two villains... at first I found them a little too comic-book, but as the book went on I changed my mind. They give the book a nice dollop of black humour, and their eventual fates are intriguing to say the least. Having said that, their whole plan is a little convoluted and their motive for wreaking havoc in Avalon isn't wildly convincing.
Umm... I think I should come up with another criticism, just to balance this review out. Ho, hum, let's see... oh yeah, on page 139 a line from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and a scene from The Fellowship of the Ring are blatantly ripped off in quick succession. But that's more or less all I can think of. Speaks volumes about the quality of the book, I think.
Oh, by the way, did I mention that The Shadows of Avalon is magnificent? Well, it is. It's also a hugely important book in the range. If you haven't bought it yet, shame on you.
A Review by Sean Gaffney 21/3/00
Well, the arc is over, and it's not what people expected, but that's OK, because lots of stuff is tied up, and lots of characters act different than we've come to expect, but that's cool too, cause they're all finding themselves, and you watch the plot carefully as it goes around and around and it comes out here.
I'm dizzy. O_o If you are someone who, like me, reads the book threads on r.a.dw, you pretty much knew a lot of things about this book before you read it. The spoilers were all there, being debated by everyone, and sometimes they were spoiled and sometimes not. So surprise turned out not to be much of an impact here. But does that make it a bad book?
Well, no, it's an excellent book. Follow my lead...
PLOT: Of necessity, there's a lot of tying up of loose ends here. Of the non-loose end stuff, it works pretty well. Avalon's a wonderful idea of bringing old myths into reality, complete with metaphors as kings and Silurians as villains. The war itself wasn't as successful for me, but I'm not really into big techie action sequences.
THE DOCTOR: Absolutely brilliant from beginning to end. Just as Interference had the 3rd Doctor in an 8th Doctor situation and lost as to what to do, this has the 8th Doctor in a 3rd Doctor war, and his inability to cope marks a good 3/4 of the novel. Once he DOES figure it out, he's a whirling dervish of McGann energy, saving the day and laughing while doing it. You leave the book grinning like an idiot.
FITZ: After being the focus of two books in a row, Fitz gets to be in the background for once. He does get some nice lines, though, and it's good to see that the Parallel 59 girl hasn't QUITE been forgotten yet - can I hold out hope he'll go back to Skale after Ancestor Cell?
COMPASSION: Oddly enough, also gets little to do for the first 2/3 of the book. However, at least we have the beginning of her evolution, and she seems to have picked up some cool emotions on the side. I feel a certain relief that the Doctor apologized for trying to make her more human... his treating Compassion like a sociology project bothered me, and it was refreshing when he redeemed her identity as a person near the end. Glad we get a few more books with her.
THE BRIGADIER: This was absolutely lovely. I know lots of people hate the portrayal, but I see it as Paul trying to wrap up his own previous plots. The Brig said it himself when he said that stories without endings aren't as satisfying. His rejuvenation in Happy Endings wasn't an ending, it had no closure. This does. And I feel reassured that he'll be OK.
ROMANA: Whoo boy. Romana's gone all 7th Doctor on us. Ruthless, determined, a tad callous... and yet that small smile when she sees the Doctor has escaped reassures me somewhat. I wonder what she'll do next?
VILLAINS: Suffering a bit perhaps from similarities to the Planet Five villains, these two manage to work mostly as they're totally gonzo insane throughout 90% of it. Gandar's redemption, oddly enough, felt a little rushed for me - which made it ring somewhat hollow.
OTHERS: Mab is a wonderful character, and I love her relationship with the Brigadier. Margwyn was good also, but could have used a little more screen time to help us get into his head more. And Cronin was great! I was quite surprised and pleased to see he stayed on in Avalon.
STYLE: Paul said this was a trad novel, and this is where you can see that. The style is very basic, descriptive, Dicksian prose - and works fine, IMO. There are enough metaphors dotting the landscape as it is without adding to them in the writing.
OVERALL: Not perfect, though it would be hard-pressed to be considering all of Lawrence's backstory roiling through it. But a commendable job, with a noble Brigadier and a wonderful Doctor who discovers what drives him once more. Woo hoo!
A Review by Dan Perry 29/4/00
What a wholly frustrating novel this turned out to be.
The beginning of this book actually made me cringe. Most of the scenes only appeared to be vaguely connected to each other, characters seemed to become founts of knowledge at random moments for no reason other than to advance the plot, the Doctor was a whiny prat... Really, really dire stuff. The best parts of the opening involve the Brigadier and his impending breakdown, and those are written with all of the subtlety of a rutting ox.
Then, all of a sudden, the book turns a corner and smacks you with the chapter where the Brigadier has his little turn. Agagah.
After I finished the book, I could only imagine it being produced by the following scenario:
Paul writes the greatest Doctor Who novel ever, chock full of radical ideas, great characterizations, familiar faces, exciting battles, wacky villians, and marvelous prose. He takes his masterpiece and hands it off to The Editor. The Editor looks at it and says, "This is far too good for media tie-in science fiction. Let me fix a few things." He sits down at his computer and, starting from the beginning of the book, begins to painstakingly butcher Paul's perfect novel, removing a key scene here, adding an unnecessary reference there, and cleverly deleting half of the characters' motivations. About halfway through the book, The Editor looks up and sees that the book is due at the printer's in about 10 minutes. Shouting "BUGGER!", he quickly dashes off a ridiculous epilogue that removes any shred of credibility the surviving villain might have had and chucks the manuscript into a FedEx envelope.
The Shadows Of Avalon is thus born.
This book succeeds over Parallel 59 and The Taking of Planet 5 in that its good qualities are excellent to the extreme. The Brigadier's wrestle with grief and the ultimate result are logically plotted and very fulfilling to read. Compassion's fate is done extremely well. Fitz gets to be Fitz. The Doctor, once he removes his head from his posterior, is excellent. Mab is a treat to read. There are many, many shining moments.
Which, of course, make excreable things like the Evil Duo even more unexcusable, when it comes down to it. Cavis and Gandar are the poor man's version of the baddies from Human Nature. They're stupid. They're laughable. I found them slightly less threatening than cabbage. Nasty as all get out, yes. Threatening, no. This, combined with several instances in the first half of the book where the Doctor appears to psychically beam information into the Brigadeer's head, really cheesed me off. The icing on the cake was the extremely implausible epilogue that tries to redeem the bad guys via revisionist history. I'm really sorry, but no amount of flower-smelling and tenderness makes up for eating babies. It's almost as if Paul forgot that this story was our first introduction to Cavis and Gandar and he's assuming we simply need reminders of all of the wonderful things they've done in the past. (The fact that they act like Riff-Raff and Magenta doesn't exactly make them credible, either.)
I recommend reading The Shadows of Avalon, but be prepared for practically everything except for the Brigadier's story and Compassion's story to be utter nonsense. It says a lot for how well those parts of the novel are written that I think the rest of it is worthless, yet I still recommend reading it.
Which really makes it quintessential Doctor Who, when I think about it.
A Review by Richard Salter 8/5/00
I for one was very pleased when I heard Paul Cornell was back in the Doctor Who writing fold, and I snapped up a copy of Shadows Of Avalon the moment I saw it.
The result is slightly disappointing; this is no Love And War or Human Nature. But Paul does a great job with the Brigadier and shows us how good the 8th Doctor can be when a little thought and care is applied. Fitz and Compassion don't have an awful lot to do but the book really comes alive right at the end when the story arc reaches its climax. Suddenly I felt like I was reading Timewyrm: Revelation again, and that was a good feeling.
This was actually my first exposure to the arc, but Paul did a good job of avoiding confusion. The changes that take place here make me want to read more of the upcoming 8DAs, and that's no small feat considering I'd all but given up on them (with the occassional return for authors I really like).
When did the EDAs become good? by Robert Smith? 15/5/00
There are problems in this book, to be sure. The first half is slow and even the Big Event doesn't liven it up too much. The exposition is laughable, with the Doctor delivering hurried speeches, explaining The Arc as though the author left a paragraph blank for the editor to fill in a hundred word summary of the previous six books.
The whole Avalon stuff is okay, but nothing more. I've never been a big fan of sword and sorcery stuff, unless done EXTREMELY well (hint: I've never seen that) and important points are glossed over. The two villains are awful, in a painful, oh-god-this-is-supposed-to-be-funny-isn't-it-kill-me-now way.
All this matters not a whit, in my opinion.
The Brigadier not only saves this book, the whole book exists because of him. Paul utterly shines at exactly this sort of thing and everything with the Brigadier is utterly fantastic. It's Human Nature, without needing a reset button. The tortured angst is great, finally done by someone who knows what they're doing. The pivotal scene where he rescues the soldier from the battlefield, arrows flying all around, brought tears to my eyes.
I'm not too sure about where the Brigadier ends up, although it's certainly valid. I wasn't too sure about it when almost exactly the same ending appeared in the Battlefield novelisation, but here it makes a lot more sense.
The other characters don't fare as well. Cavis and Gandar are appallingly awful, even after I ripped my own eyes out. Mab has potential, but she doesn't quite gel, although her interactions with the Brigadier are quite good. Cronin, however, is wonderful, especially in the epilogue. I'd have loved to have seen more of him and at least one other extract on the status of the Brigadier earlier in the novel. The use of Matthew Bedser is also very, very good and caught me quite unawares.
Fitz is okay, but he doesn't have a whole lot to do, which is understandable. Compassion, on the other hand, has almost nothing to do before the end, which is unforgivable. Yes, this is the last book in an arc and those of us following along probably have a pretty good idea of her character. But she doesn't get much of one here, no chance to see the contrast between her human and later selves, nothing to do at all.
The Doctor, however, is fabulous. He's exactly what every other author has been striving to achieve and here it looks so effortless that you wonder why it hasn't been done this well before. I've always maintained that the eighth Doctor is the antithesis of a writer-proof companion (like Bernice or Fitz). He can be done well, but only by the very best authors. The vast majority are left struggling with a character they don't have the skill to pull off.
Here the Doctor is amazing. He's sometimes a babbling fool, often makes mistakes, does silly things at the wrong time... but he also comes across as competent, clever and likable. Three qualities I really like to see in the Doctor, sadly missing in most EDAs to date. The scene where he offers himself up for death on the back of a dragon is touching and very evocative. For the first time ever, the EDA assumption that he's getting flashes of people's future works. The fact that it's incredibly flawed only makes it more interesting.
Stories are about endings, as the Brigadier observes and the last third of the book picks up suddenly and stays there. Even knowing Compassion's ultimate fate, the details are fascinating. The mixed causality doesn't quite work as well as it should, but at this point that's only a minor problem. Everything comes together in a very satisfying way.
It's a pity we don't get to see more of this new Romana. Her explanations are understandable enough, but it'd be nice to see some of the details in action. The ties to the Benny Books via mention of the conflict with the People and the NAs, with mention of Benny's wedding, are great. I love the sense that we're watching one continuous story unfold. I'd also like to think that some of the future we've glimpsed (especially in the awful Taking of Planet 5) may now not come to pass, but I think I'd better wait a few books before making that call.
Paul Cornell is a great choice to end the arc. It's a sneaky arc and I really like the way it wasn't at all clear how these books were linked until now. The explanation for The Blue Angel deserves particular mention. For the first time in a very long time, the EDAs are interesting. I'm left desperately wondering where things are going from here and that's a very nice feeling indeed. A feeling I haven't felt since the NAs. The Shadows of Avalon has problems, but ultimately those problems don't matter nearly as much as they could. The story of the Brigadier is fantastic, it has key events which make it required reading, but most importantly it gives an eighth Doctor story that feels right, in so many ways. Definitely recommended.
A Review by Graeme Burk 6/9/00
The Shadows of Avalon is in something of a difficult spot. Not only does it have to be reviewed based on its own merits, but it also needs to be reviewed in the context of the story arc it is a crucial part.
In terms of the ongoing story arc, The Shadows of Avalon resoundingly fails.
Paul Cornell has been lumbered with concluding an ongoing story arc before. He aquits himself here slightly better than he does in No Future, but this is a book that never should have been the key chapter in the ongoing Compassion arc. The Shadows of Avalon, with its fantasy novel trappings, character-angst honed from a half-dozen Virgin Who books and appeal to quieter, more traditional Who seems horribly out of place. It's as if a story arc begun by Christopher H. Bidmead was concluded by Bob Baker & Dave Martin. Paul Cornell is a capable author, but his strengths are not in Big Ideas and this was an arc typified by Big Ideas.
Try comparing Interference with Shadows of Avalon: One features an alien race who, I Ching like, use media signals to govern their existence. There's an ongoing deconstruction of Gallifreyan history and a plot to change the Doctor's history. There's a thematic attempt to explain what constitutes meaningful political action based on aesthetics. The other features an alternate realm in someone's dream where the celts were all magical and the faerie folk look remarkably like an alien race from the series' past. There are themes of loss and grief and how ultimately there are moral choices that need to be adhered to. It's horrifically reductionist to do this (and I think it brings up the similarities of the two stories as well), but I think it makes an interesting point: one is interested in big, sweeping, epic, ideas. The other is interested in being lyrical, small-scale and personal. But one must flow into the other, and they don't ultimately fit. The problem is worsened, as with No Future, by tons of shoehorned references designed to explain how this arc was an arc at all (the attempts to tie Parallel 59 into all this border on the ridiculous, really).
As for judging the story on its own merits, The Shadows of Avalon succeeds, somewhat.
Generally speaking, this is a return to storytelling for Paul Cornell after two novels which seemed more like manifesto writing than anything else. Perhaps unsurprisingly he doesn't really seem on his game as a result. But he gets it right at least in the important respects.
The important respects are the Doctor and the Brigadier. For someone who seemed so very lukewarm about the Paul McGann Doctor, Paul Cornell may be the best thing to happen to the Doctor in the past five or six books. For once the Doctor is at the forefront of the action, instead of impotently sidelined. He's heroic and brave. He makes tough decisions. He's a man of principles and action. And all these things are welcome. For the first time since this arc began, the Doctor has been at the centre of our attention and not Fitz and Compassion.
And then there's the Brigadier. Again, it seems like such a paradox since Cornell is so outspoken in his distaste for Pertwee, but Cornell knows the Brigadier better than any author. He makes the Brigadier's grief seem palpable and honest. The conflict that arises between the Doctor and the Brigadier as a result is downright shocking because you sympathise with both characters, and gives us the heart of this novel.
It is well that the Doctor and the Brigadier drive so much of this novel, because there is much that is not right with this book. The setting of a mythical version of England living in the dreams of King Constantine is much too twee to be believed. Cornell seems, like Jon Blum and Kate Orman before him, all too willing to follow the bandwagon of recent trends and have a novel with magic, which increasingly seems more and more out of place in the Doctor Who mythos the more it's used. At least Paul Magrs used it with some wit and poetry in The Scarlet Empress. Being able to write like a Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon-Master Guide does not a Doctor Who novel with magic make.
There's also the problem with the supporting cast. I'm shocked that Fitz, a character tailor-made seemingly for Paul's talents is so woefully under-used. Compassion is used well at first -- did anyone else notice that the Doctor's instructions for Compassion resemble his own activities as Dr Smith in Human Nature? -- and then becomes equally bland. Mab comes off well, except that she seems too much like Katryca from The Mysterious Planet. The rest of the characters, bar three, seem faceless.
It's ironic that the three most distinctive characters also constitute the novel's biggest flaw. The regenerated Romana acquits herself (I have to go on record that I think Daniela Nardini from This Life would make an ideal actress to play Romana III) at first but by the end of the novel, her motivations make little sense. But that pales in comparison to the abomination that are Cavis and Gandar. I can't figure out what Paul was attempting here. On one level I can't help but think that he's slyly commenting on the perceived 'Americanisation' of the series by giving us its logical conclusion -- shagging, murdering Time Lords who resemble the progeny of one Mr. Q. Tarantino. And on another level, I worry that he's actually based these people on actual Doctor Who fans. I don't really know what he was up to. Whatever it was, I have to say that I don't think in the eight years I've read Doctor Who fiction that I've read characters more annoying than these. Every time they showed up, I developed an uncomfortable feeling akin to watching two people engaged in tonsil hockey on a crowded bus -- it's good for them, but no one else wants to watch.
Nonetheless, I'm really pleased Paul Cornell came back to the fold of telling the ongoing story of Doctor Who. Now if he could just come back and not be encumbered by resolving the first half of a story arc and really give full reign to his obvious talents, I would be very pleased
Kiss my TARDIS! by Jason A. Miller 17/9/00
It's basically impossible to overstate the case that, for a particular generation Virgin book readers, Paul Cornell is Doctor Who. Each of his first four novels for the old Virgin series both redefined the way we'd read Doctor Who books for half a decade (an eternity, where fandom is concerned), and rocketed the serial storyline into challenging new directions. Even Happy Endings, the sort of book Terrance Dicks would have written had he been 30 years younger, was a marvel of small-scale characterization, a joy to read.
But the print 7th Doctor gave way to the 8th, and Paul Cornell was suddenly out of the picture. New writers took over Cornell's mantle as the "It" author -- Paul Magrs and Lawrence Miles were now writing the books that established the house prose style and changed the storylines. This isn't necessarily a good thing. The plots become harder, more esoteric, hinging on long passages of pseudoscience, and a cast of regulars with fewer human emotions than ever before.
But if a default-level BBC novel such as Taking of Planet 5 is a Lawrence Miles novel written by other authors, then Shadows of Avalon, far from being a Lawrence Miles written by Paul Cornell, is rather a Paul Cornell novel written by Lawrence Miles! The great little Cornell touches of old are all here, of course. Marvelously insightful lines of prose (not, unlike in more recent novels, involving bodily functions and decomposing corpses). Real angst, in the form of the Brigadier's grieving over his late wife Doris, dead perhaps due to the Brig's own misjudgment.
For a while I was afraid that Cornell would handle what is, for him, a "new" Doctor, by not writing for the Doctor at all. The Doctor may be highly regarded by the natives of Avalon, but he's still a nonentity for much of the book, as in previous Miles-style "arc" novels. Late in the book, the Doctor finally realizes that, hey!, he still has a part to play in the Universe. He even manages to outwit the book's mastermind by resorting to one of the oldest tricks in the playbook (feigned cooperation). But apart from this, Cornell's settled on the Brigadier as the novel's main character.
Here, the book suffers from a dual purpose. The current state of the Faction Paradox arc, dragging its heels for nearly a year now, required some sort of movement, some sort of shifting of the scales, some sense of momentum. That motion, an irrevocable change to the TARDIS, comes late in Shadows of Avalon, and it's evidently provided by Miles, who introduced the underlying concept way back in Alien Bodies (Miles gets a loud namecheck in Cornell's dedications, which are always a delight to read). The problem is, this big twist has little to do with the Brigadier. Little to do with the England/Avalon war being waged over the bulk of the novel. This event is more than an afterthought, but less than a full novel in its own right... at any rate, it certainly doesn't feel as if it were part of the original book outline.
The war itself also seems as if Paul didn't write it. Roughly every fourth sentence in the climactic war scenes reads, "And then something impossible happened.", "And then Paul wrote another sentence fragment.", "But the Doctor wasn't there.", "And then Jason wondered when the fundamental rules of grammar changed." And we don't know who edited this novel. And if we did, we'd know who to blame.
But we never found out.
And something terrible befell the books.
Most of Avalon is highly enjoyable. It's no secret that Paul's something of a new-age idealist, and we see that reflected in his Avalon world. Even the UNIT soldiers get in the act, enjoying their henna tattoos and joining the side of Avalon's local goddess. The UNIT psychologist is a terrific addition, in his four scenes (his early dialogue with Lethbridge-Stewart is more worthy of a dramatic novel than a sci-fi tie-in book). Even Colonel Munro, last given an important role in 1970, comes across as a competent, nimble soldier, and his final scene provides one of the book's more amusing moments.
As for the arc itself -- well, in my review of Parallel 59 I indicated that 2000 had the ability to
be a watershed year for the Eighth Doctor stories, a way to shake off the
doldrums of the Faction Paradox arc. Following two "straight" novels --
simple action stories without a lot of the Faction -- Paul Cornell
returned to the series with an old-fashioned (as in 1992) tale about grief
and loyalty. This gives the "EDA's" three readable books in a row.
Whether or not the concept was his, Paul also provides a new tool in the
Doctor's arsenal against the many forces lined up against him. Next
month, the Doctor may even engage the next stage of the fight himself,
rather than reading about it on the TARDIS equivalent of "Outpost
Gallifrey" in Chapter 13.
Awful. Smug and absolutely unbearable. This book does for the Celtics what the Left Behind series does for Jesus freaks. It was nice, though, to have some foreshadowing about Compassion's fate, because that was the one twist of the EDAs that I never had spoiled for me in advance. The book makes more sense once you know what's coming (there were about 1000 hints that I didn't pick up on five years ago). And the worst offender of all is Cornell's Eighth Doctor. I'd quite forgotten about that fey epilogue to Parallel 59. Eeeurgh. I had this at 7 or 8 out of 10 but now it's worth no more than a 4. Goodbye.
A Review by Dominick Cericola 6/12/00
The Shadows of Avalon is a special book in a number of ways.. First, and the most obvious, reason is it marks the return of Paul Cornell to the realm of Who Continuity -- a familiar face with ideas as fresh as during under Virgin's helm. This was his adventure to feature the Eighth Doctor, yet it shines all the same, as if the two were a natural "couple"! I have no idea what plans Paul has for the future, but I sincerely hope he plans to do more EDAs for the BBC's line, as he is the "missing ingredient" in their almost-perfect recipe..
Secondly, TSOA is special for Compassion.. Poor girl! Lawrence Miles writes out Sam Jones in Interference, offering Compassion the lead Female role, one without any of the hatred or disdain that surrounded Ms. Jones' time in the TARDIS. However, it would be far from an easy ride.. She, too, would be subjected to horrible mistreatment at various writers' hands, causing the Reader to feel resentment and confusion at a character who held quite a lot of potential, if given half a chance... Fortunately, Paul Cornell was allowed to write the cornerstone of the whole Compassion Arc. She really shines by the story's end, proving that yes, the road to here was bumpy as all hell, but it was certainly worth it..
And, thirdly, it is special for the The Doctor... Through out his Incarnations, his TARDIS has always held a special spot in his hearts, the two sharing a unique Bond, something even traditional Gallifreyans were unable to achieve. So, when his TARDIS is destroyed in the beginning of the book, he is crushed, for not only has he lost his "home" of sorts, but he lost a very close Friend, almost the level of Family Member of Lover.. And, it is at the end, when Compassion accepts her Role, answering the call, as she becomes the next stage in TARDISes, we see the Doors opened for a new direction for Doctor Who, one which, with the proper guidance and care, can be far superior to anything written thus far.
Now, then, was there anything I didn't like about this book? Well, let's see.. I thought the two Interventionists -- Gondar and Cavis -- were a bit much. On the one hand, they're supposed to be these totally dark mysteriously, manipulative Time Lords, yet we are often subjected to humor more becoming Team Rocket on Pokemon! And, what's up with the whole "..eating babies.." bit? Was that for real, or was it just adding to the myth, ala Faction Paradox? I am hoping it was all part of an act -- I mean, that's just wrong, and it really has no grounding in Who mythos..
My second gripe is with the appearance of the Earth Reptiles, or Silurians.. Okay, this could have been an interesting aspect, but it was really downplayed, and oddly enough, it is never really mentioned much. Why? Was that something on the part of the Beeb, Paul Cornell, who, then??
Two more Points I really enjoyed about the book.. One, the return of Romana! WOW! Paul's really added a unique twist to her character, giving us someone who reminds me of a stronger Mary Tamm! Grand stuff.. It will be interesting to see if the other writers will write for her in the same way. And, it will be MOST interesting to see what part she will play in Gallifrey's Future!!
And, finally, the last Point that really worked for me was the Brigadier's role in this tale. Man, can we say more Angst than a whole Jim Mortimore novel! UGH! But, it did level off at the end, when ol' Alistair realises that Life isn't just about holding on the Past, it's about embracing the Future. This was a bold move on Cornell's part, and it succeeds, giving us a Brigadier who has learned that War isn't always the right answer, and out of Death can come great Beauty, if you know where to look..
Okay, kids, I am out of time. I decided to take a different approach to my Review this time around. Hopefully, someone liked it (anyone ever think about dropping me a line?), and if so, write me (*HINT*) -- and maybe I'll do it again next time. Alright, I'm gone. Cheers..!
A Review by Steve Traylen 19/3/01
What can I say about this book that hasn't been said already. Basically it's fabulous, simple is that. There have been some pretty good books leading up through this arc but this is the one that has made me excited about the direction the books are taking (of course I'm writing this knowing now exactly what direction that will be).
This book belongs to two people The Brigadier and Compassion. The Brigadier is wholly believable as a depressive who can't adjust to his new body and the loss of his wife. I do wonder though if his story would have worked better if his wife had died of natural causes to counterpoint the rejuvenated Brigadier. However as the story is very much about redemption Paul's course makes sense.
It also belongs to Compassion. Sneakily she isn't in much of the book, but when you finally realise that the arc of books up to here is not about the Doctor but about her then it suddenly all becomes clear. This arc is cleverer than people give it credit for.
The plot itself is fairly strightforward, however this much like many of Paul's books is not about plot. This book is about closure of the arc, of the Brigadier's problems, and of some of the problems in Avalon itself. It is also the beginning of a new arc quite clearly.
Avalon itself is well done as a mythic land, but when we first went there I was expecting a little more. The queen's court is quite clearly set up to be a parallel of Gallifrey, a strong woman in charge, a castellan, a keeper substitute and a sleeping founder. However I didn't think this was explored. Maybe I read too much into this.
This book also is the first one that made me homesick. The first 30 pages just really made me miss England and the southern downlands. I found it quite a shift when the book left there, and I hoped more would happen in that area.
Downsides? Well I really hated the agents as characters I just didn't think they worked. However as I say the book isn't really about villains. It is about heroes though and it sets everything up nicely for the books to come.
A Review by Terrence Keenan 11/12/01
I really wanted to hate this book. I don't like Sword and Sorcery tales, especially in Sci-Fi crossovers. Battlefield made me harken back to the stupid glory of The A-Team. Paul Cornell is great in the nonfiction end of things, but I have found his novels to glittery train wrecks.
But, in the end, this book is recommended, for one reason: characterization, specifically the Doctor and The Brig. Once the Doc stops acting like a complete ninny -- the first half -- and gets involved, we get a brilliant portrayal of the character. A Person who is all too human and very alien at the same time.
The characterization of the Brig is astounding, a full arc where you don't know where Alistair is going to end up by the end, but when he shows up on the page, he does command your attention. Note: I'll be honest in saying I actually think the portrayal of the older Brig in The Shadow in the Glass is truer to what the character really is, but Cornell has big plans for the Brig, and the payoff is perfect.
The other characters range from okay one notes to noble efforts in tweaking to absolutely wretched (we'll get to that in a moment). The prose is solid, and the pages do fly by. The plot itself -- something about King Constantine trying to breach the gap between Avalon and Earth, or something -- ends up being rasped by the machinations and lines of the story arc that began with Interference. The dialogue runs from great to wretched, with the worst of all being the "You can kiss my TARDIS" offender that had me waxing nostalgic for "No, not the mind probe!"
The worst aspect of the novel are the Interventionalists, Cavis and Gandar. A true show stopping pair, in the worst aspect of the phrase, every time, these obnoxious, boring and hammy creations strolled across the pages, I felt myself feeling sorry that Paul Cornell couldnšt have come up with someone -- anyone -- that would have filled the role much better (and quieter) than these two. I would have gladly sacrificed some of the Brigšs characterization if it meant having better villains. It dragged what could have been a near-classic into the realm of good, but could have been more.
Overall, if you can ignore some of the larger issues and focus on the Doc and the Brig, you'll enjoy Shadows. There are far worse ways to spend your time.
5 out of 10
I reread this on a rainy Saturday afternoon, listening to Led Zeppelin and sipping hot chocolate. The reason for the hot chocolate and Zep was to help set a mood that wouldn't allow perceived biases about Paul Cornell's writing seep in. (All right, I'm tryng to cut down on my television viewing. I confess!)
It reminded me of someone trying too hard to recapture the past. Paul Cornell was in a new Whoniverse, one filled with giant continuity-busting ideas. Not to say that Cornell didnšt subvert continuity in his efforts for the Virgin Line, but Cornell was more interested in character continuity, than story continuity. So, he reinvents old characters and current ones.
What surprised me this time around was how good the eighth Doctor was all the way through. General consensus of TSOA is that Cornell's take on the Doc doesn't hit stride until about halfway through the book. Although not as good as Justin Richards's version, or Lawrence Miles's, Cornell's eighth reminded me a bit of the one Jim Mortimore used in Beltempest, although more subdued. There are some good angry moments when the Doc argues with the Brig after being trapped in Avalon. Then there's that signature moment where the Dragon riding Doc offers himself up to the A-10. It's as if a character on a very high gear just went up several notches. The Doctor steals the show in the last third. It's so old school, the Doctor confronting the bad guys and with style to boot, it makes you want to cheer out loud.
Now, this time around, Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart's character seemed grossly out of whack. This is the regenerated version from Happy Endings, mentally disturbed with grief and lashing out against the world over Doris's death, which he blames on himself. It's brilliantly constructed, but after the third time he tries to kill himself (through suicide and in battle) I really wanted to give him a foot up the ass and tell him "Get over it. Mab's begging for your Big Missile." I thought Alistair's shining moment happened when he got his act together and decided to live once more, fighting to save Mab from the Fair Folk and happy to see the Doctor alive once more.
Oh yeah: The Doc calling the Brig by his first name rocks. Should have been done a long time ago.
The Third incarnation of Romana is, well... Arc of Infinity-ish. She didn't pose much of a threat and could have been any old Time Lord President. The use of Romana seemed to be a sop to the fans, and should have been changed.
You figured Cornell would have leapt at the chance to write for Fitz and Compassion. He sidelines them, instead. (Wha?) Fitz only shines during the scene where he meets Rex and in the King Office Tower. Compassion, in his hands, was not the awesome version of Interference, Banquo Legacy, or Planet Five. Cornell seemed not to have any grip on what made this character click. Compassion was a disappointment.
Most of the Avalon residents were functions, although Mab reminded me of a toned down version of Erskine Morris (Xmas on a Rational Planet). I dug her, except for that crying scene, where she all but tries to shag Alistair and prevent him from killing himself. That scene felt wrong for the character.
Which leaves me Cavis and Gandar. First thought: Bad Fan Fiction villains. Second thought: What the hell was Cornell thinking? Shagging, baby eating Time Lords. Um, right. Sure. I think the appropriate comment is to say that they drag the novel down several notches every time they appear. Išd like to believe that Cornell wrote such bad characters on a dare. I just have this vision of him being in a Pub, half in the bag, and someone (either a fan or a fellow writer) ragging on the Aubertides from Human Nature and daring him to top them. It's either that, or Steven Cole (according to rumor and innuendo), the editor of the time, rewrote them himself. (I'll stop here before the F-bombs fly.)
The story... hmm... similar to Unnatural History, I had the sense of an author trying to play with concepts not entirely his. Avalon comes from Ben Aaronovitch via a mediocre TV serial. Compassion is from the Larryverse. For no reason, there are a whole bunch of Virgin Line ideas namechecked -- The Brigšs regeneration, Bernice Summerfield, The People, Romana's Presidency, etc. Also, like Seeing I, there's this whole build-up in TSOA to make it a character piece, that decides in the last third to become an all-out action story. At one point, there are two nuclear missiles about to be launched, King Constantine wakens, the Interventionists are trying to kill Compassion, the Brigadier rediscovers his zeal for life and Romana shows up. It was too much of "Then Suddenly..." happening for my linking. In a 280 page book, you have the ability to spread things out to avoid a car crash of plot resolutions.
Final Verdict? Well despite deep flaws, The Shadows of Avalon does have a lot to offer, including a top notch Eighth Doctor characterization, and a well thought out (if annoying) character arc for the Brig. Being a page-turner is always a plus. However, car crash plot resolutions and (insert epithets here) villains that make you want to rip out your eyes with a pair of pliers drag TSOA down to disappointing. Such a shame.
A Book-A-Minute review by Eric Briggs 9/3/02
Compassion: "Oh dear. I have been hung over continuously for the last six months. Maybe I need help."
Flight Lieutenant Matthew Bedser: "Oh dear. I've just lost a nuclear missile."
General Lethbridge-Stewart: "Oh dear. My wife just died."
Doctor Who: "Oh dear. The TARDIS has just been destroyed, only for real this time."
Lady President Romana: "I've just realised life's a bitch. And this is what I'm going to do about it."
Cavis and Gandar: "Oh boy, the President wants us to commit mayhem. Disco!"
Doctor Who: "Hey, look. It's a paradise alternate England."
General Lethbridge-Stewart: "Hmmm, it looks like it needs to be defended against that missing nuclear missile."
(some soldiers die, and the Doctor disappears)
Cavis and Gandar: "Our plan is working. Disco!"
Doctor Who: "Hey, I'm not dead!"
Compassion: "Hey, I'm turning into a TARDIS!"
Cavis and Gandar: "Oh well, one out of two ain't bad."
Cavis: "Whoops. I'm dead."
Gandar: "Whoops. I'm not dead. This is wrong."
Queen Mab: "Oh well, one out of two ain't bad."
Lady President Romana: "My plans are complete. Compassion has become a weird new TARDIS. Gimme."
Doctor Who and his friends: "Nope."
Lady President Romana: "Damn, life's a bitch after all."
General Lethbridge-Stewart: "Hmm, I've just found a new life. Life must be pretty cool after all."
An underrated era by Joe Ford 18/8/02
Oh what a stupid fool I am.
I first picked up The Shadows of Avalon four months ago. Given the considerably favourable reviews I was quite eager to be absorbed by the latest Paul Cornell novel. And to my utter horror I found the first few chapters apalling. Compassion, who I had already read about in The Fall of Yquatine, coming across as weak and human, losing so much of her interest. The Brigadier shunted into the role of a grieving husband leaving a bitter aftertaste similar to how I felt when I first watched Mawdryn Undead. And the blink and you'll miss it leap into Avalon with The Doctor and The Brigadier quickly accepting their new surroundings. It felt sloppy. And it felt uncomfortable. I put the book down and started The Infinity Doctors instead vowing to not pick it up again until I had run out of decent things to read.
What an idiot I am.
I have just finished The Shadows of Avalon and I have no qualms about stating despite Seeing I and The Banquo Legacy it is one of the strongest books in Stephen Cole's entire editorship.
The strongest section of the book to my surprise and enjoyment turned out to be The Brigadier mourning Doris. What a revelation. The Brigadier is suicidal, unlikable and vicious... and yet still commendably British and wonderful. We get to see this somewhat generic character so intimately and are privy to his dangerous thoughts and reactions during very dangerous times. There are so many moments when I teared up, his restraint in telling the Doctor of Doris' death, his dramatic confrontation with Mab on the subject and most memorably of all when he saves the young Private's life. It was his hanging onto life by the barest thread that carried me through this book with such interest. His coda, a sweet, touching moment between him and Mab was the perfect ending for this long standing character. I hope they leave him alone now, this is about as wonderful as a leaving story could be.
The conflict between the Fair Folk and The Celts was interesting too. I loved the great imagination that the world of Avalon was painted with. The very idea of a world being dreamed up is an appealing one but with the inclusion of friendly dragons, disapearing babies and unfaithful mages Mr Cornell won me over with the sheer realism he constructs his worlds with. He makes no excuses for it's implausibilities, he simply accepts what he has created and expects us to too (and sets about creating as rivetting a story as possible in it!).
But what of The Doctor? Surely the best use of the eigth Doctor in print to this point. His scenes on the back of the Dragon were sublime once again re-instating my undying love for this character. Paul uses the TV Movie as a guide and includes two 'moments' where he realises the characters fates upon meeting them. That one of these is subverted brilliantly is a testiment to his skill as a writer. The moment where he appears from the portal and punches out Constantine I was cheering aloud (to the amusement of my boyfriend and his mother!). Whether he was dashing into danger or contemplating disaster or simply lost without his TARDIS I was with The Doctor throughout the book all the way to the optimistic but danger fueled finale.
I thought the introduction of the English military into the world of imagination was superbly done, making a very strong point about how we bring our weapons and terror with us. A very worthy point.
What impressed me most about this book was the simple yet elegant prose. Paul Cornell is a prolific author and no doubt. There were section where I admired his restraint (especially involving The Brigadier) and moments where a line or paragraph was so well written it connected with on that emotional level that it is harder to reach than you would think with novels and left me reeling. There was one such moment especially... "Alistair was only human. That was the joy and the horror of him." Beautiful, and so true.
And dear Compassion. After my intial despair at her 'humanising' I realised what I was being set up for. It's a such a shame I wasn't a regular reader when these books came becuase I could imagine her development in the last third was just stunning to those reading at the time. For the first time in ages something truly exciting was happening with the EDA's (probably since Seeing I) and people wanted to know what was going to happen. This is the sort of bold innovation that has kept the show alive for so long.
A captivating ride of excitement and emotion, that would be how I would write this up as.
During the end of his reign Stephan Cole had started to deliver on his
promise of exciting, well written books. Althought nobody could touch upon
the brilliance of Justin Richards current range I would just like it on
record saying his last twelve books or so (say from Interference to The Banquo Legacy
with only The Space Age falling below expectations)
was a hell of a ride... finally there was some form of structure to the
range, interesting things were happening and the writing was just superb.
Lets all remember that the next time we bitch off his editoring (including
myself!). He delivered, eventually.
This must rank as one of the most important chapters in the Eighth Doctor's troubled life and come to think of it the most important in his best friends, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, too. Bridging the gap until the latest Benny book, The Big Hunt came out I plucked this from the shelf, not expecting much, the latest developments in the eighth Doctor's lives seemingly much more important than these naive early days. Oh what a stupid bloody fool I am. I found myself as much caught up in the developments of the range and the maturity of the story as if it were the first time I had ever read it. On this second reading it easily deserves a place in the top ten EDAs.
Paul Cornell and I have never had a very good relationship because there are several of his opinions, which are as justified and acceptable as my own, that I think reek of horse dung. His utter dismissal of the sixth Doctor in DWM turned my stomach and poisoned my opinion of his early NAs that seemed to be under the disgusting impression that the sixth incarnation was a faulty, defective incarnation that set up all sorts of internal emotional problems for the Doctor. Not only that but he penned Timewyrm: Revelation which in my opinion is one of the worst books I have ever read, not because it twists Doctor Who into a psychotic emotional drama (which it does) but because it is undisciplined, gratuitously adult and written with the words I WILL SHOCK YOU on every page in blood. I had finally found a place that Doctor Who shouldn't venture into, something I thought an impossibility.
Fortunately his remaining NAs have much more to merit about them but still don't venture into the top ranks of great fiction (TM Rob Matthews). Love and War is a powerful drama but it pushed the series into a horrid direction forcing oncoming writers to deal with the despicable New Ace character. He later redeemed himself in No Future by softening her up again but in doing so neglects his story, which is basically forgettable filler. Human Nature is much praised but overrated, a Doctor Who story that tries too hard to be experimental and Happy Endings is a joyous celebration for the NA characters but totally incomprehensible to anyone new to the range.
I was salivating to see how Paul would tackle the eighth Doctor and hoped he would have a better go than the majority of the EDA writers to this point. Fortunately he comes up trumps by taking the lust for life persona from the TV Movie but expresses his inadequacies by putting him through the trademark Cornell wringer. It only occurred to me during my second read that this is one of the first EDAs that sees this gentler incarnation pull his socks up and decide to do SOMETHING! With his companions missing, his TARDIS destroyed and toxic human warfare leaking into the world of dreams he is forced to make tough decisions to bring the situation under control.
It was his relationship with the Brigadier that brought all this all home. The Doctor has condemned the Brigadier before, usually for the uncompromising limitations of his military mind but rarely have they been at such odds as they are here. After their initial joy at seeing each other they take opposite roles in the political situation brewing in Avalon, the Brig ready to negotiate a peace with the Celts and take out their enemies the Fair Folk and the Doctor fighting a contract that can only lead to war. In one uncomfortable scene the Doctor turns on his old friend and demands to know what right he has to pervert the land of dreams. You realise how bad things have become when the Doctor turns his back on his friend and seeks a solution without him.
The Doctor as a dashing lone hero, riding dragons to take down fighter planes, befriending the villagers who are caught up in the conflict and looking into the face of chaos that only the human race could create, is one of the best interpretations of the character in his eight long lives. Surviving on wits, manipulating the military, desperate to find his friends, this is the Doctor that everyone talks about. And he's quite a guy. The Doctor without the TARDIS scarcely bares thinking about but when it provokes this sort of development you have to wonder if it isn't a good thing.
On the flip side of the coin you have the tortured Brigadier and it is here where Cornell truly excels, his characterisation of one of the most important characters in Doctor Who history is nothing short of breathtaking. The very reason I refused to read this book originally, plunging the reader into the depths of personal tragedy, turned out to be the best thing about this second read. Just goes to show how much you change in a few years.
The Brig is such a stalwart chap, black is black and white is white and there is no space for grey areas but when something so life changing as losing his wife transpires it unleashes a volley of emotions and the poor git doesn't know how to deal with any of them. The book brilliantly exposes his uselessness and his desperation to control the tears inside him. He throws himself into the politics on Avalon thinking it will take his mind off things but Doris always returns in his dreams. He tries to tell the Doctor but finds the words frozen in his throat, unable to reveal his weakness even to his dear friend. He fights his attraction to Mab, the Celt leader who attempts to help him heal his soul. At his lowest ebb he puts a gun to his head but soon realises it is a coward's way out so decides to die fighting, to rest with his dead wife after a hero's death. All of which leads to one of the most gut twisting scenes in the book range, so powerful it left me in tears... the Brigadier marching through the battlefield, unafraid of death, saying goodbye to Doris and rescuing the injured soldier who has been screaming for help. "If I got killed, I couldn't get you home."
I adored the mix of fantasy and reality in the book, gorgeously depicted on the glorious cover. What an interesting idea to explore, the very idea of a dream is to take you a million miles from our frightening Earthly reality so the thought of introducing war into a world of dreams is devastating. What is made explicitly clear is that we need dreams to survive and the state of our reality when evil escapes into Avalon is not pretty, people wandering around aimlessly with no point to their lives.
Avalon was imaginatively thought out and proved a thoughtful battlefield for the story to play out on. The explanations come very early, revealing the Time Lord presence in the book from the outset, once they have created the land of dreams they have no qualms about tearing it apart for their bounty in this pathetic war with the Enemy. You have to love how the story fools you into thinking it is a rather good standalone tale before transforming into a superb accumulation of arc plots out of no-where! Encompassing every book since Interference and highlighting Compassion better than any other book she featured in, you start to realise that editor Steve Cole is much more of a clever dick than you thought!
Compassion is a TARDIS! A fricking TARDIS man! Depending on your sensibilities it is either the most audacious twist in some time or the ultimate betrayal of the series ethos. Me and Matt will forever argue over this point, he actually gave up hope on the EDAs not long after this book thinking they had spiralled out of control and lost the plot. I thought it was bloody amazing, brilliantly set up since Interference with lots of clues since them and with teeth chattering build up in this book. Seriously, who saw that coming? Oh fuck off... put your hand down! It twists the EDAs in a exciting new direction with the Doctor and Fitz forced to rely on the unpredictable Compassion to get them about and once again on the run from the Time Lords (more specifically the super-bitch Romana has regenerated into). It's a satisfying climax for the book and the range.
But let's not forget the minor characters whilst Paul is dealing with these huge developments because he certainly doesn't. His gift for characterisation is second to none and he populates the book with many memorable creations, all caught up in the impossibly dramatic situation on Avalon. I fell in love Mab instantly, the burly buxom babe who is ready to draw her sword and fight and scream out "Bloody hell!" at the drop of a hat! Her quiet scene with Cronin, the Brigadier's psychologist, during the conflict, lying back in the grass and just talking is one of those mature moments Cornell is so good at. Margwyn the Queen's Mage was rather interesting too, his conflicting loyalties as he tries to resolve his worlds terrible troubles were sympathetically written to engage.
The prose is near perfect, essentially readable but rather more complex than that. Individual character moments were given incredible depth whilst the broader action scenes were captured with a genuine sense of awe. It's a crying shame Paul Cornell hasn't written for the range again.
I cannot think of much to dislike about The Shadows of Avalon, it's an elegant page-turner that treats its characters with a rare beautiful touch and pushes the EDAs into a gripping territory that hadn't really seen yet. It's great to see such a revered Doctor Who writer go out in such style.
A Review by Brett Walther 19/3/04
Part of me was expecting Battlefield, Part Two. Expecting, but desperately hoping for anything but.
Thankfully, apart from the Brigadier inquiring as to the whereabouts of Morgaine after being transported to a parallel Earth where magic reigns, The Shadows of Avalon bears no resemblance to that odious McCoy outing.
But there's a hell of a lot going on in The Shadows of Avalon, and although I could be mistaken, I think a lot of it might be there to conceal the fact that some of it just doesn't make sense.
Although it's by no means a bad novel, it's a struggle to keep up with the big concepts that Cornell introduces: a world maintained by the dreams of a sleeping king, the overlapping of said world and our world when said king is woken up, the quest to find the sleeping king's corporeal manifestation in our world, etc... And in the end, motivations and logic seem to get blurry.
At the core of Shadows is President Romana's attempt to capture and trigger the transformation of Compassion -- the first in what she sees as a new line of TARDISes that will ensure Gallifrey's victory in the upcoming war. However, Romana's master plan is seriously convoluted. Apparently, the sleeping king in this parallel England (which, by the way, came into being through the Time Lords' earlier interference... gah!) is the only being in the universe that can set into motion Compassion's transformation and allow her to fall under Time Lord control. Furthermore, the conclusion has her Time Lord agents often threatening to kill Compassion outright rather than capture her alive, which is particularly confusing.
I'm certainly no fan of these ultra-humanized Gallifreyans, either. Gone are the days when the Time Lords were cold and detached superior beings. Here they are presented as melodramatic caricatures -- a depiction that was unfortunately amplified a hundredfold in The Ancestor Cell. As virtually all of the other reviewers on this site have noted, the Gallifreyan agents provocateurs Cavis and Gandar are the worst offenders in this regard. Their "Stayin' Alive" routine is positively vomit-inducing, and Cornell's attempt to make these camp creations more menacing by noting that they enjoy feasting on the babies of Avalon is just lame.
There's another distraction in the form of a weird protoplasmic snotball that menaces Londoners as things in Avalon begin to go awry.
Nevertheless, Cornell succeeds in making the Doctor a real hero again -- an achievement that cannot be underestimated. He starts off bemoaning his impotence and inability to change things for the better, but halfway through he re-affirms his role as a champion of everything that is just and good, and I was positively cheering. It's easy to forget that in the early days of the BBC Books, the Eight Doctor was rather lightweight, sometimes even saving the day through serendipity (or in the case of Demontage, chucking paint thinner at the bad guys). Following the Virgin treatment of the Seventh Doctor, what we really needed was a hero. We finally get what we've been craving in this novel. Likewise, the Brigadier's redemption is extremely touching, coming to grips with the death of his wife and finding something to live for in another world.
Whereas all too often, a Doctor Who novel sets up a brilliant premise but fails to resolve things convincingly, the conclusion of Shadows is perhaps its most stunning aspect. The Doctor and Fitz find themselves inside the TARDIS that was/is Compassion, on the run from Romana and the Chancellery Guards. There's a lovely evocation of the closing moments of The Five Doctors, with the Doctor remarking on how things have basically come full circle. Yet again, he's on the run from the Time Lords -- a fugitive in a time machine that he barely comprehends.
A great way to set the EDA's back on track. Our renegade hero has returned.
A Review by Rob Matthews 3/5/04
I stuck this book on my top forty stinkers list a little while back, and re-reading previous reviews of it on this site recently, I noticed how it's actually a relatively well-liked Who book. So I thought I'd stick my oar in and more fully outline my problems with it. Put my money where my mouth is, basically. And I should point out it's not a book I despise as such, just one I find unsatisfactory because it's, for want of a better phrase, rather settled in its attitudes, and slightly smug.
Part of the inbuilt disappointment factor, it should be acknowledged, is that it comes from Paul Cornell, who earlier in his career had produced some outstanding and groundbreaking Who stories. Back in the Virgin days, in fact, the fella was a bit of a luminary, carving out new and exciting territory for Doctor Who and the way it could tell stories. Personally it made me angry that he extended his personal 'offstage' snipings about Colin Baker into his work itself, but - as is the case for me with Paul Magrs -I figured that his being a total bitch was made more excusable by the fact he too had something valuable to contribute to the mythos.
With this in mind it's a bit of shame that this his swansong Who book - until Shalka came along - should feel so duff and redundant. But the fact is it's hard to find anything in Shadows of Avalon that reminds you of the exciting writer who virtually created the Doctor Who novel with Timeyrm: Revelation, set the tone for the New Adventures with Love and War, showed us the Doctor's aching hearts in Human Nature, and invented Doctor Who's first successful spin-off character in Bernice Summerfield. It appears that by this point in the BBC run, Cornell had ran out of things to add to the mythos and so in writing Avalon got bogged down in a tried-and-tested 'Paul Cornell novel' formula - and unfortunately that formula is almost obtusely a compendium of all the flaws that had plagued his previous work.
I blame Human Nature. Which may seem odd since I was lauding it just a paragraph back, but let me explain; it was a good book, and a superior - albeit overrated - Doctor Who story, but we were so quick to applaud its basic ideas and the generally sweet tone that we pretended not to notice the clumsily veering narrative voice and the lame duck villains. So, it seems, Cornell decided to stick with that distinctive brand of slightly-cloying romantic-humanism. I've been pondering since I read Avalon exactly why it is that particular Paul Cornell 'brand' has come to bug me so much. Really, it would be more in my nature to like that sort of thing, because it's commendably optimistic and because it puts its faith in people rather than abstractions. I liked Shadow of the Scourge, for example, despite the naysayers who thought its philosophy too glib and Hallmarky.
Then suddenly it hit me - it's that Cornell never, not even momentarily, doubts his own beliefs. That may well be a good thing for him personally, out here in the real world - so when I say 'Paul Cornell' here it should be borne in mind that I'm referring to the writer and not the bloke -, but in terms of his work it does mean that his writing no longer really sparks into life. All fictional narratives are in some way propelled by conflict - taking a couple of my own favourites as examples, Gatsby is a living, vital thing because in spite of everything it can never quite tear itself away from the irresistible lure of the gorgeous; the centrepiece of Satanic Verses is a scene split evenly between a voice charged with Faith, and one another without.
Obviously I'm not demanding that a Doctor Who novel about dragons and fairies be a literary masterpiece that's gonna stand up with Fitzgerald or Rushdie - though apparently jolly hockeysticks shit about wizardy schoolboys can now be held up there with the greats -, I'm just trying to make the point that if a conflict isn't really there a narrative just becomes either a tract or a lifeless by-numbers thing. Hence the first few pages of Shadows of Avalon lead you to expect a bittersweet tale about the Brigadier getting over the death of his wife. And that's what you get. A bittersweet tale about the Brigadier getting over the death of his wife. Which kind of leaves you wondering what the point of reading it was, since you knew from the first page that that was what was going to happen, just like you knew the overly twee little red ballon would at some point wing it's way back into little Alastair's arms.
Cornell's other big weakness - rubbish villains - is amplified here too. I'm hardly the first to say this, but Cavis and Gandar do indeed call attention to themselves as silly pantomime baddies. Talk about the banality of evil... Now to be fair, Paul should probably get some credit for not going down a predictable route with his Gallifreyan Interventionists. I'd have expected a few patrician old duffers portrayed as snootily indifferent to any suffering or death they leave in their wake. Instead we get a randy pair of childish sadists. Which is different, anyway.
Different, but not necessarily better. I like my meddlers more hands off, hidden in the background rather than standing at the front gloating - the way the Seventh Doctor was portrayed in Andrew Cartmel's Cat's Cradle: Warhead, say. Perhaps if we as readers had uncovered Cavis and Gandar's machinations with the Doctor, rather than being aware of their presence right from the off the book would have been improved - better to have a Doctor who uses his wits to find out what's going on than one who falls arse backwards into a blackboard covered in evil plans... if nothing else, I certainly think Romana's presence could have been left as a surprise for the end rather than having her flopping in at the beginning in her slippers.
President Romana, however, is also one of the very few continuity points that aren't intrusive. For much of this book Cornell is up to his eyeballs in NA lore, and obviously very keen not to let all his (and others') work on the NAs be consigned to apocrypha by the beeb. The inclusion of the rejuvenated Brigadier - rejuvenated by Cornell himself in the NAs - is the most obvious example, though perhaps in a way the most forgiveable given that the Brig is the central character here and, hey, I'm not keen to see everything that happened in the NAs consigned to the dustbin either.
However, it's the inclusion of this very element that really takes the edge off the Brig's tragedy in Avalon - as a man who's been rejuvenated, given a second chance at a good slab of his life, we're less likely to be well disposed towards his wallowing in grief. He's not a man in his twilight years left alone in a world he'd always built for two; rather he's a man who's in one way immensely, miraculously fortunate. IMO Cornell struggles anyway to make Alastair's grief seem like anything other than a bit of character drama to be resolved before the end of the book, so it doesn't help to have an element which further detracts from it's success.
Other 'kisses to the past' occasionally become more like full-blown incest - in particular, Cavis and Gandar's continuous references to the Other, which bring what was once a mysterious, esoteric figure from Ancient Gallifrey down to the same over-referenced level as Rassilon himself. The Other was after all introduced to the novels to help restore some mystery to the past of both Gallifrey and the Doctor himself. In Avalon, he's just become a historical figure Gallifreyans use in every other sentence, absolutely no different now from Rassilon or Omega.
The Faction Paradox story arc is similarly intrusive, though - in the hands of any other writer than Larry Miles it just seems to get annoying, and detracts from the author's own interests.
The plot itself is particularly unwieldy - the notion of a paganistic dreamworld underlying the England we know is actually a good one, and in keeping with Cornell's usual concerns; his obvious love of this country of ours (think 'long ago in an English summmer') shines through all his work but enjoys probably its firmest expression here. However, once the idea emerges of this all taking place in the dreams of the sleeping king... well, it starts to feel rather too twee. Especially since, as I've mentioned, it rubs up very badly against the ongoing Faction Paradox thread. Thus feels more than most like a book greatly compromised by having to be part of an 'arc', and it never really gels.
The Brigadier's rejuvenation, the head of the sleeping king... it seems to be the little things about this book that damaged it for me, doesn't it? Well, here's one more: the opening chapters rubbed me up the wrong way and got the book off on the wrong foot, involving as they did a spot of rather smug self-referencing - Compassion getting dropped off on Earth by the Doctor and forced to do the Human Nature routine; given a shopping list by him of things to do that'll make her human and nice. This bit particularly irked me because it somehow felt like the Doctor (or rather Cornell) was demanding a kind of conformism, rather like a meddling neighbour type who'll ask a twenty year-old why she's not married yet or something. Fair enough, his demands aren't exactly stringent ('Eat chips, Kiss someone, Get a job' etc), but surely the point is that if you write poetry, it should be because you want to write poetry; if you fall in love, it's because you fall in love, and so on. If I were in Compassion's place here I'd be telling the Doctor to piss off and mind his own business. Enjoying yourself shouldn't be a checklisted project. This is a very minor thing in the book, but it's a pertinent example of how Cornell's narrative style can IMO become ingratiating - he's telling us how to be happy and healthy and decent human beings with all the subtlety of Helen A. He's trying to set in stone the humanist values of Doctor Who, but by doing so makes those values rigid and oppressive and the sort of thing the Doctor - as I see him - kicks against. I notice this has been a common criticism of Cornell's recent Scream of the Shalka, it's 'manifesto' quality. And it's quite right we should resist that kind of thing: after all, if there's one thing Doctor Who can show you it's that lazily settling into your well-meaning beliefs and charging around telling people how to live their lives is what bad guys do.
And you know, in a way, John Nathan Turner's horrible sartorial decisions for the Doc were right on the money - the Doctor is a walking question mark. Whereas Cornell tries too hard to turn him, and the stories about him, into a full stop. I've talked a lot about the morality of Doctor Who before, because it's one of the things I most genuinely love about it. I've talked about politicisation too, and rather cack-handedly I might add, when I reviewed Human Nature and was getting into a bit of a thing with Mike Morris and Terrence Keenan. But perhaps I was wrong to dub the Doctor definitively left of centre. I think now that the impulse behind both Doctor Who and the Doctor himself must in a sense be morally protean - in the sense of being about ideals rather than the implementation of systems, about question beliefs rather than reinforcing them; basically never to be settled and dogmatic.
And that's where this book comes unstuck for me - Cornell tries, but he can't make the Brigadier's grief believable. It just feels like something getting in the way of How Things Should Be. And what his writing really believes is that the Brigadier should:
It's not the impetus I dislike, it's the fact that I never once felt events could go any other way.