Theatre of War
The Also People
Oh No It Isn't!
The Medusa Effect
The Gods Storyline
Tears of the Oracle
A Benny Adventure
|ISBN||0 426 20533 2|
|Synopsis: The Oracle of the Lost can answer any question. Jason Kane has discovered an obscure planetoid. Irving Braxiatel is looking for a new place to house his collection. The Advanced Research Department on Dellah is under seige. Benny is connected to all these events, but in ways she can't possibly forsee.|
Looking forward, looking back by Robert Smith? 27/7/99
I really, really liked this book. It surprised me, because I had no real thoughts on it at all going in, yet once I started I could barely put it down. In some ways, Justin Richards in the most consistent of all authors, reliably churning out clever plotted, decently characterised novels that always engage the reader on at least some levels. On the other hand, within the boundaries he's set himself, he's also remarkably variable, ranging from the stellar (Dreams of Empire), to the low key runaround (Demontage), to the unfinished (both The Medusa Effect and Option Lock feel like they're only about a third complete). Fortunately, Tears of the Oracle is up there with the best.
It's written very well, with events just rocketing along. The extracts and slow discovery pieces work better here then I've ever seen them do and they allow a wide ranging collection of events to be brought across reasonably straightforwardly. The diverse series of events becomes more fascinating by the ways they're presented here than if other devices were used.
On the downside, it's all too clear that the rescue of the, ahem, neo-Aretians (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more) serves very little overall point as all three are dead by the book's conclusion anyway. I'd much prefer Skutloid to have survived and I honestly don't see what would have been lost with this outcome. Perhaps that's just a measure of the interest in the character this book brings across, though. It's a little obvious that the neo-Aretians are a bit of a red-herring for the real point of returning to Dellah; I think this is a bit of a shame. It doesn't damage the book too much, but it could have made things just a touch less obvious with a little more care.
However, the finale with J-Kibb is enough for me to forgive any slight clumsiness, so I'm not too upset. In some ways, it feels like the events of Where Angels Fear have come to a premature conclusion, but in other ways I'm very pleased to see that they aren't being dragged out forever. It's also been six months in real time since those climactic events, although far fewer for this reader due to the sheer level of interest the NAs have been maintaining.
The fact that most of the cast here have been seen before in the Benny NAs doesn't hurt one bit, in my view (and even Denson gets introduced via Demontage's location). The deaths of minor characters rings far more painfully when we've seen them before - this is even more true when the killer is someone we can't possibly suspect.
It might be a measure of the current irritation factor from a once-decent companion, but I was really, deperately hoping that Benny had actually killed Jason. Only the blurb for Justin's next book gave awyay the answer here, but for a while I could dream. I can't imagine how irritating the audios must be, what with their apparent penchant for writing Jason into every story, no matter what.
The events on the Worldsphere are the most interesting since Walking to Babylon. With Clarence out in the field, B-Aaron gets the chance to become a much more interesting character. God's agenda is also an extremely satisfying one and it's good to see Him making up for the mistakes of the past. I'm also mightily impressed with the revelation of Clarence's true identity. I certainly didn't see it coming, but it's one of those things that makes so much sense in retrospect that you wonder why you didn't think of it yourself.
I do have a slight gripe with Braxiatel's story about his "brother", though (page 167). It makes sense, yes, and it's something we all knew, but I'd have preferred to maintain at least an appearance of ambiguity, ala The Empire of Glass. I think I'm just uncomfortable with the explicit use of the word "brother" in this sequence - a little rewriting and everything would have been perfect.
It really is great to see Benny again, though and the focus she gets is great, even with so many other interesting characters about. The use of the Oracle is great, especially the way she refuses to answer a question she's already answered - and the fact that this isn't pointed out explicitly. Bravo. Actually, there's a surprising level of subtlety and neat little touches in this book. My favourite is probably the way Benny's headaches only start the moment she opens the deus est machina.
I'm a little uncomfortable with Cwej's presence, but a) there's an acceptable followup to Dead Romance, b) he gets at least some payback, and c) since just about everyone else from the BenNA universe is here, it makes some sense to have him as well. Even though he's now turned into George Kostanza.
In short, Tears of the Oracle is a great book, well placed in the excellent series that the NAs have become. It's got oodles of links to the past, both recent and distant, it wraps up some threads quite satisfactorily and leads into the next book perfectly - by that I mean I can't wait to get reading the next one, so it's an unqualified success. It might be a tough act to follow the high run of quality that recent books have been exhibiting, but Tears of the Oracle rises to the challenge. Highly recommended.
A Review by Dr Terry Evil 22/7/99
By now, what with his superhuman output, we know what to expect from Justin Richards. He goes for characters who aren't what they seem and more twisty revelations than St. John the Divine's corkscrew. Expectations for his new book were at rock bottom when I started it; Richards' last meisterwerk Demontage being one of the worst books I've ever read. It is therefore a surprising pleasure to say that, while not being perfect or entirely original, it is a splendidly entertaining slab of fiction whose only fault is its position having to follow books in a line that is surfing the crest of a wave, dude.
Before Tears of the Oracle, Richards had a habit of coming across as an unlikeable author. He gives the impression that he couldn't give a monkeys about pleasuring his readers, seemingly after self-gratification and constantly trying to prove how clever he is. In Demontage, this was all too apparent as his ideas weren't the equal of his ambition and his authorial voice came across as smug and self-satisfied. In Tears of the Oracle Richards successfully rectifies this, because he manages to concentrate on what he does well. He's gone back to the style of his first book, Theatre of War, and presented a murder mystery whose ramifications are tied up in academic dissertations. This suits Richards' style perfectly, as he is able to create whole dry and dusty libraries of backstory seemingly at will. This can be enjoyable to read in a nicely forensic way.
The story centres on one of those archaeological McGuffins familiar to regular readers of Benny's universe; in this case a legendary statue blessed with foresight. Readers who saw that recent episode of Red Dwarf will be familiar with this concept, but fortunately Richards handles it a lot better. For various reasons, Benny assembles a team to seek it out, but has somebody been there before and what happened to them? The answers lie in the past, and this is where Richards is at his best.
For the present, Richards has a habit of exhibiting a distinct lack of warmth in his characters, the sort of thing Kate Orman or Paul Cornell can do in their sleep. Richards' characters are usually ciphers leading to some big revelation around the two-thirds mark. In Tears of the Oracle, he successfully avoids this by assembling a cast that features just about every popular character of the Benny universe, including Richards' own creation Braxiatel, who has fortunately acquired a bit more sympathy since his first appearance; something Richards wisely retains. There is a slight sense of anti-climax present, mostly because Richards was unlucky enough to have to follow up the gob-smacking Dead Romance, and the appearance of Cwej here, virtually no different to his pre-Dead Romance persona, is a disappointing let-down.
But that's a minor niggle compared to the rest of the book. Richards somehow rarely disappoints in the surprise twist department, something you'd think would be hard to do when your reader would be aware of what to expect. In Tears of the Oracle, Richards once again builds up to what you would you expect to be an inevitable twist, only to sneak off in a direction you weren’t expecting. As long as he continues to do this, he can write as many books in a year as he wants, though I don't want to be around when his powers start to fail him.
A Review by Finn Clark 18/8/99
I have a problem with the Benny books, which is also the reason why I prefer Deep Space Nine to The Next Generation. ST:TNG is just so bloody civilised. Its crew swan about the galaxy in their lovely spaceship, getting on beautifully with each other and sorting out any little local problems in a humane, patronising and politically correct manner. It's portrayed as a utopia, or something pretty close.
At least Deep Space Nine has a bit of edge. And until the Gods storyline started, that was pretty well how I regarded the Benny books.
Many things have been said about the BBC's output, but at least it was rarely cosy. The 8DA companions to date have been Sam "die bitch die" Jones, followed up by Fitz "shiftless loser and a bit of a bastard" Kreiner. They've visited plenty of hellholes, but precious few utopias. Only Placebo Effect has even come close to having that Star Trek niceness in the 8DAs, while plentiful have been the prisons, warzones, radioactive deathtraps and other such reassuring features of good children's entertainment.
The Benny books, however, were rooted firmly in the ever-so-pleasant 26th century. Benny was a permanent undergraduate, in every sense but the strictly technical. Her day job involved nothing more strenuous than a budget allocation meeting. The galaxy was a charming place of tourism, civilisation and terribly nice inhabitants.
Worst of all were the bloody People, with more technology than God but a considerably more benevolent outlook. Having those goody-goodies waiting in the wings was rather like being watched over by Mummy. All very reassuring, but not interesting reading.
Someone, please, nuke the Worldsphere. You know it's a good idea.
But of course all that is now past tense. Dellah has become a place of insane religious animosity and a potential flashpoint for all kinds of awful trouble. At last the Benny universe is interesting... or at least it was until this book. The Gods story arc was getting juicy, but now here comes Benny and her former academic colleagues. You know. Awfully genial chaps, wouldn't hurt a fly. Another cucumber sandwich, vicar?
I suspect I'm not the ideal reader of the Benny books. For much of this book, I was wondering when the good stuff would start. The narrative ticked along at a sensible pace, but none of the action seemed particularly immediate to the central plot. Time, space, academia and < SPOILER SNIPPED > all conspired to lull me into a sense of security.
I should have known better. Tears of the Oracle may start pleasantly, but before the end things have got really quite nasty...
It has twists, as you all expected from Justin Richards. One idea occurred to me about sixty pages before the characters thought of it (with gasps of surprise) but for the most part I hadn't the faintest clue what was going on. I'm still a little confused even now, in fact. Richards plays horrible games with his readers. Some of it's really quite emotional. There are headfucks and ambiguities, not to mention a healthy dose of paranoia.
It might have been a better, nastier book had fifty pages been deleted, but at the end of the day I'm glad I bought and read it. It's good. It's smoothly written and the latest instalment of the Gods storyline (though less crucial to developments than some of its predecessors). If you're a stranger to the Benny books then I'd still recommend starting with Dead Romance or perhaps The Mary-Sue Extrustion, but this is a very respectable continuation of the story those books began.
A Review by Henry Potts 10/11/99
Much of Justin Richards' output in 1999 was written at short notice. As a competent author able to write quickly, he's often been called upon to plug gaps in the schedules at both BBC Books and Virgin. That some of his recent books haven't been particularly memorable is not surprising in the circumstances. That Tears of the Oracle should work so well perhaps is.
Tears... is yet another success in the Benny range. Ture, it is a book that could have benefited from another revision or two that the schedule didn't allow and the beginning is somewhat haphazard, but don't be lulled by this. Tears... is a very subtle book and may be Richards' most imaginative work since his debut. Tying together Dead Romance, Where Angels Fear and Walking to Babylon, with references back to Happy Endings and even, yes, Theatre of War, this is an important 'arc' book, yet it also stands alone as a strong personal story.
Tears... not only brings together many of the characters in the Benny universe, but it brings together many of the recurring themes in the series. What is real and how do our perceptions of reality differ? What is the nature of belief? What can the past tell us about the present and, as befits a series with time travel, what can the future tell us about the present?
Moreover, Richards avoids the dramatic time paradoxes and huge space battles that Lawrence Miles uses to explore similar ideas in books like Dead Romance and Interference. Tears... is very much a story about people, and people we have come to care about over the course of 19 books. The past is explored as archaeology and as diaries, the future as prophecy and prediction. The affairs of various Gods are seen through their effects on people (gods and People to be capitalised as required).
With the author and the reader knowing that the series could be ending soon and after the trauma of Where Angels Fear and Dead Romance, you really don't know what's going to happen in this book -- even though much of the book is specifically telling you what will happen, if only one could understand the context. It's odd, but the blurb on Interference -- "Soon, one of them will be dead; one of them will belong to the enemy; and one of them will be something less than human." -- almost applies to Tears... as well.
If the future of the Benny New Adventures is unclear, Tears... gives one great faith that the future of the BBC Books in Justin's hands seems assured.
A Review by Sean Gaffney 24/12/99
Yeah, I know. Sorry. But Dead Romance made me REALLY want to see what could follow it, and Justin is my favorite Who author, and so I kinda read the book in 2 days. Um.
SUMMARY: Obviously, not another Dead Romance. But not the 'return to normal' runaround I was suspecting. In fact, it's what Justin does best: a well-plotted mystery-thriller where the plot reigns supreme and twists like a twisty thing.
I've mentioned before that my favorite author is Justin. Kate's books grip me more, Dave's books are funnier and/or creepier, Paul's books are more romantic, and Lawrence's books mess with your head more, but Justin just writes damn good plot. Over and over again. My mouth drops open more times reading Justin's books than any other author. This book is no exception. I expected it to be the 'back to normal' book. I should have known better, even with Dave's book coming in August.
Specifics, as per usual:
PLOT: As always, the best part of the book. It's a murder mystery, like many traditional Benny books, with a dash of thriller, like many traditional Benny books, with loads of recurring characters... and yet it manages to have some gob-smacking twists that make it pretty damn revolutionary. This book has a lot of ground to cover.
BENNY: Certainly not quite back to normal. The first 60 pages or so have Benny acting almost TOO Benny-like, turned up a tad too manic. She's clearly not recovered from the whole Dellah/Mary-Sue incident. We also get a side of Bernice we rarely see, when she finds out what's happened to her. It's a very touching breakdown, tying in as it does with her growing paranoia later on. And yet, in the end she finds the courage to go on, with the help of her friends.
BRAXIATEL: It looks like we're going to be seeing even more of Irving now that the Benny Books are off Dellah. He works very well in this venue, not as a Doctor-substitute, but more of a mentor figure. He too gets to have his emotional moments, and this book and Where Angels Fear have served to humanize him. Oh, and then there's his brother. I love the way that these books don't connect to the Who universe anymore. < snort >
JASON: I was very upset when they broke up the marriage in Eternity Weeps, but it's clear the long-range plans of the Benny Book authors are more complex and romantic. ^_^
OTHERS: Lots. We lose two more recurring characters to the huge retcon of 1999, and their deaths are both quite tragic. Cwej is back, and I admit I was a little disappointed to see him so... Cwej-like. Hopefully we'll see him again, and see how well he's REALLY handling things. We get Clarence's old identity revealed to us (though I kinda guessed this), a couple possible new recurring characters, and B-Aaron playing Columbo again. In fact, B-Aaron as detective might carry a book all by itself.
VILLAIN: Um...the creature? Well, it kills a few people, but it's kinda hard to hate it, as it's so insubstantial. Kebara? More pitying him. The Oracle? Definitely pitying her. Speaking of which, her fate was very much left open. Will Benny & co. reveal where she is?
STYLE: The book starts with a snippet of a very late chapter, making us read it very much out of context. This sets a tone of paranoia that's very appropriate to the book itself, as we try to see what Justin's implying and then break our neck as he goes in another direction. Certainly I was as untrusting of the cast as Benny towards the end.
PROBLEMS: Well, one. There's a lot of Scooby-Doo-ing at the end where Braxiatel, God, and B-Aaron take time out to explain the plot twists to us. It felt much like one of Watkinson's lectures.
OVERALL: This can't really get a 10, not after Dead Romance. But it's an interesting page-turner that introduces new avenues, closes off old ones, gets Benny back into the spotlight for the first time really since Beige Planet Mars, and manages to make the People look much less utopian and more...human (pardon the ref).
I guess it is a typical Benny book after all, then.
Twist overload! by Joe Ford 2/12/04
I cannot decide what this book is, the ultimate Benny experience or the nadir of continuity overload that plagued the NAs in their dying days. Considering the overall feeling of enjoyment the book gave me, I'll pump mostly for the former but with some reservations. The twists here are certainly good, brilliant in some cases but it did feel like less of a novel in places and more a series of explanations, the plot is only there to support the sugar rush of continuity. In other words Tears of the Oracle is the Sometime Never... of the Benny line. It shares a similar structure, a slow; steady first half that fires up into a barrage of surprises in the second. The only trouble is I am only casual reader of the Benny books so certain gosh wow moments slipped in one half of my brain and out the other with little effect.
Tears actually brings up the interesting issue of arcs in Doctor Who (and all its related spin offs) and just how effective they can be. Personally I'm not so fond of them, they alienate readers, long term ones or not, because they leave little room for diversity and if there is one book whose developments fail to make the grade the reader is tempted to leave the arc behind and wait for standalone tales later. Virgin and the BBC are both fond of arcs in their parent series and I can honestly say there is only one that I have followed with diligence; the Caught on Earth one and even that dropped a bomb in its final instalment, the underwhelming Escape Velocity. That was one of the loosest arcs going, spanning one hundred years with lots of space for a mixture of genres but the real trouble with arcs like the Dellah God one and the recent alternative universe one is the lack of space for the telling of unique, individual stories. In the end of the day so many unanswered questions build up that books like Tears of the Oracle and Sometime Never... are absolutely vital just to straighten out the range and leave them free to start telling fresh, original stories again. Fortunately, however, we have Justin Richards at hand to make the transition as smooth and as entertaining as possible...
Tears of the Oracle is a typical Justin Richards plot, one that seems complicated and twist-fuelled whilst you are reading but once you are privy to the right information is in fact an effortlessly simple story, albeit told in an expert way to shock and impress the reader. The central plot of Watkinson, Mikelz and the Oracle is pretty easy to guess to a point, all the stuff about Mikelz killing his wife and friend and Watkinson attempting to avenge his friend's death was obvious as soon as you knew the characters. I thought I pretty much had this whole plot sussed. Outsmarting Justin Richards is a long-held ambition of mine and I thought I had achieved this long-held goal here but the cheeky bastard unloaded one final twist in the Watkinson plot, that of his trip to Paracletes and the creature he had brought with him to KS-159 and how it was embedded so deeply in the Benny plot already. Damn! Damn! Damn! One day I'll get you Richards! As usual though it is always nice to be outwitted by such a master plotter especially when you realise he has been setting up this twist since page one!!!!
Although when you have a long think about it what Justin has done here is (basically) re-hashed his plot for The Medusa Effect! A book set in two time zones, with the later plot slowly starting to mirror the earlier one. Just as Benny's space cruise in Medusa began to copy an earlier cruise that lead to similar deaths and twists, here the expedition to discover the Oracle plays along similar lines. And just as Justin hopped between each plot with diary extracts and logs, he does the same thing here much to similar effect, adding much depth to the situation and pushing the plot on forcefully. Cheeky beggar!
What boosts this (apparently) simple plot for much of its duration is the sterling character work. This is the area that Tears of the Oracle races ahead of Sometime Never..., with how the story deals with its central characters, each of them getting a moment in the spotlight and a chance to surprise once or twice. Let's take a look at some of the choicest twists to see our regulars characters at their all time barest...
Benny has a brain tumor which she belies is a direct result of her Mary Sue in the previous book (grr... I haven't read that one... how am I supposed to understand this!!!) but is in fact caused by God from the Worldsphere to distract Braxiatel from matters concerning the War by concentrating on her health. Benny only has a month to live. As if the idea of giving your main character such a short lifespan wasn't shocking enough Benny's hurt reaction to this news is dealt with extremely sensitively with enough force to bring tears to the eyes. Her disbelieving, stuttering reaction is perfectly natural, as is her violent treatment of everyone around her. What really strikes a blow is when she turns on Brax, her best friend and viciously tells him to piss off and leave her alone. Ouch. Then Richards proceeds to take a few pages out from the main plot to focus intensely on Benny, locked in her room, trying to come to terms with the news. She cannot comprehend how this is happening to her when it is the sort of shit that usually happens to everyone around her. She cries, she tries to ignore it but in the end she has to pull her socks up and get on with her life. It was a remarkably honest piece of writing and shows Benny at her most humane.
Braxiatel talks quietly to the Oracle of his past, his family and his friendship with Benny. My mouth hung open agog when Brax started talking all about his brother, the eccentric wanderer who wanted so hard to follow in his brother's footsteps and in the end went his own way, purposely failing academically and leaving their people by stealing a TARDIS. Yes, it's the Doctor. Who the hell saw that coming? By writing this astonishing fact down Richards suddenly makes a lot about the Doctor and Brax very clear. Their distinguished but vastly different lifestyles, ones choice to settle, the other to roam and why they both life off world but are so mysterious about their origins. I would love to hear this story from the Doctor's point of view. What's more by connecting him to the Doctor, Richards suddenly makes Brax even more interesting than he already was and easily as compelling as the Doctor at his best. Quite a feat. This should have been a disastrous piece of retroactive continuity but by slipping the fact into the book so quietly, just an intimate chat between Brax and the Oracle, makes it stand out all the more proudly. I love it.
Clarence is in fact the intelligence remains of !C-Mel, the homicidal ship from The Also People. A special treat for fans of the New Adventures, this very tidy link to the past explains the mysterious past of this unique member of the People. I'm not sure why this tickled me so much, maybe because The Also People is such a fantastic book and this improves its reputation (in my eyes) even more or maybe because suddenly Clarence becomes a character who I can believe in and appreciate. Suddenly this guy is important, he has a corrupt past that makes him very interesting and cracks open some superb potential that is realised in Twilight of the Gods. It makes all those references back to a previous adventure with Benny make sense at last!
Jason Kane is a shape-shifting creature called Kebara. This twist was very well integrated into the plot although I have to say I had my doubts about Jason when everybody kept suggesting he was acting out of character. That git Richards dispels any suspicions by having scenes set from Jason's POV, thus proving it is him! And then he goes ahead an reveals it was a shape-shifter anyway who merely thought he WAS Jason, the plot backing up this apparently ludicrous idea because of the Paracletes creature nestling inside him. What worked well here was how awkward everybody was around Jason anyway, even before they knew he wasn't Jason, proving he really is the eternal outsider, a drifter, who is only accepted in these circles because his ties to Benny. It says a lot about her trust in the man that she would assemble the Oracle mission on his word of mouth evidence despite her continual protestations to the contrary. There was a link to Happy Endings here but that was apparently a throwaway reference made in that book and who remembers those? This book is an NA fan's wet dream!
You also have to admire a book that promises an almighty WAR between the Time Lords and the People and goes as far as to include both races in the text without ever approaching any conflict. Cheeky Richards, when Brax does the cube-contact thing with the Time Lords I was convinced this was leading somewhere intergalactic but the book is determined to play it small scale, averting a deux ex machina by offering the People a weapon that could temper the religious madness on Dellah and thus controlling the awakening Gods before they get out of hand and the Time Lords have to deal with them. When it comes to this, developing a twist so ingenious that the lack of a WAR that promises to be real juicy doesn't bother me one jot, you have to marvel at the skill of the man.
Tears of the Oracle is a treat, it certainly follows up Dead Romance with a book that practically rivals its audacity, something that would seem an impossibility considering Miles' breathtaking text. Where it falls down is in its over reliance on the past, if you had never read a single NA before 90% of the text would be a blur (whereas The Medusa Effect and The Sword of Forever would be a breeze) but given the book's willingness to tie up so much NA continuity so courageously you have to applaud the breadth of vision here.
As a New Adventure it could be the best yet, as a novel it could be the worst. Personally I found it electrifying.