The Man in the Velvet Mask
|ISBN#||0 426 20461 1|
|Continuity||Between The Savages
The War Machines
|Synopsis: The TARDIS takes the Doctor and Dodo to what appears to be nineteenth century France. However, the Doctor soon discovers that aliens that exist outside of time and space are conducting an experiment that's gone horribly wrong.|
A Review by Sean Gaffney 19/8/99
OK, it's time to review The Man in the Velvet Mask, which should have the subtitle "The Decline and Fall of Dorothea Chaplet". Hmmm. Remember Peter Darvill-Evans' speech that the MA's would be able to slot seamlessly into their respective eras? Well, if that weren't already shot to hell, it's gone now. There is no way that this would EVER have been produced, and it's not simply a case of budget difficulties.
Dan O'Mahony wrote Falls the Shadow, which should have clued me in, but didn't. Suffice it to say, this has more horror than Managra, more violence than Time of Your Life, is more beautifully written than Venusian Lullaby, and sticks in your head more than any Kate Orman book. It is... a very good book. And yet I hesitate to recommend it to anyone.
Let's just get the reviewing out of the way.
Plot - Complex and obtuse, as you might have guessed. It kept me pleasantly surprised, though, especially the problem of the maggots. More aliens who view Earth as an experiment, but at least they're feeling guilty about it.
The Doctor - On his last legs. Dan paints an eerie portrait of a Doctor who cannot control his own body, whos legs and mouth rebel against him. As usual, we see him get better when he has more to do, but it's a constant struggle. He even has a heart attack, and is not concievably better at the end. This is a near-to-regeneration Doctor. Despite this, he solves the problems of this world admirably, and has the usual Hartnell irascibility and bluster.
Dodo - Hoo boy. Now, I knew virtually nothing about Dodo going into this book except she was perky, innocent, and a Susan-clone. All three are wiped out in this book. Dodo spends most of the book in a thoughtful funk, we see that almost killing the whole human race with her cold actually affected her, she loses her virginity (more on that later), and we even get an explanation for her varying accents! Boy, I expected character development, but this was...whew.
Others - All of the other characters are drawn in sufficient shades of black. Minski, the books' big villain, is thouroughly reprehensible, and De Sade is no better. The only problem I had is that I figured out the mystery of who Prisoner No. 6 was almost immediately (a knowledge of The Prisoner helps). Dodo's lover is a convincing rogue, and his friend Bressac is brilliant. All 3-D people.
Humour - OK, I can see Dan poking fun at Paul with his "There are no happy endings, only satisfactory ones." And there is the Blackadder ref, and a couple of others. But that's about it. Very serious book.
Sex - Yes, that's right. Dodo has sex, several times, during the course of this book. And it ain't even a case of love. She just wants his sweaty body. Despite this, the scenes are handled tastefully, with no focusing on the act itself. It surprised me, I must admit, but hey, I'm a happy guy, I can live with it. And this is a guy whom Dodo likes so much she's willing to let's maggots chew on her nerves just to remember him.
Implications - I really enjoyed this book. There was no experimental writing, as in the New Adventures. This is a straightforward story. And yet, with the bloodshed, creepy horror, and sexual implications, this book just couldn't have happened during the Hartnell era. I suspect that this may prove to be a very unpopular book. So, if you disliked Transit, Falls the Shadow and Time of Your Life you might want to give this one a miss. But if you have a very open mind, then read it. It's an excellent book, and never fails to shock you.
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 22/7/00
There are good and bad things to say about the Hartnell era and its depiction throughout the MAs. The good is that it is largely enjoyable, the bad is the settings. Here we have another historical tale (with aliens thrown in for good measure); what would be interesting is to see The First Doctor coping with modern day technology (although this was covered in The War Machines). Anyway back to the novel, despite the setting The Man In The Velvet Mask is enjoyable because it portrays a very different Doctor.
PLOT: The TARDIS arrives in France shortly after the Revolution (does The First Doctor have a thing for historical France or something?), where The Doctor is arrested for breaking the curfew and Dodo wanders off with some travelling players. And all of this observed by aliens feeling guilty over an experiment that's gone wrong. Yes, that is simplifying things a bit, the plot is actually quite complex, being a tale about the masks that people wear in everyday life; about not facing reality.
THE DOCTOR: Out for the count. This is a Doctor who knows his first regeneration is near, but who doesn't want to give in. Bleak, yet compelling.
COMPANION: In this case the vastly underused Dodo Chaplet, here comes complete with explanations for her varying accent and she loses her virginity too. Like The Doctor she is put through the emotional wringer. But then, with a virtually blank page, Daniel O'Mahoney could easily have been creating a new companion.
OTHERS: The identity of Prisoner no.6 is easy too guess, and Minski makes for a good villain. The others are pretty faceless, but perhaps this is because Daniel O'Mahoney has them wearing masks or the majority of the book is simply spent on The Doctor and Dodo.
OVERALL: This is Doctor Who at its most challenging, particularly for a MA. Tough going in places but ultimately rewarding. It certainly isn't reminiscent of the Hartnell era, but this is refreshing. My only gripe is that that it comes too soon after Stephen Marley's Managra, which also used the theme of masks in a similair way. Recommended. 8/10.
A Review by Matt Quarterstein 8/9/02
The Man in the Velvet Mask, by Daniel O'Mahony, is a book where the writer of the morbid Falls the Shadow decides to have a go at the usually innocent Hartnell years. So how did it go? Just like the Doctor's supply of jelly babies, this book can only be described as a mixed bag, though tasty nonetheless.
With O'Mahony's reputation for dark and bizarre stories, it's surprising that this novel stays fairly true to the Hartnell era. The Doctor, possibly weakened from the drain in life force he experienced in The Savages, lands the TARDIS in what seems to be post-Revolutionary France, (such a typical Hartnell-era place to land). The Doctor even gets to meet a key historical figure, the Marquis De Sade. But this story is not quite a historical, time has been interfered with by a race of masked beings known as the Pageant. There are anachronisms galore, a French leader who shouldn't exist and a mysterious man in a velvet mask. This intrigue puts the Doctor "in his element", as O'Mahony puts it, firing up his curiosity and desire to put things right, despite his illness. This desire to investigate, too, is put in such a Hartnell-esque way, as shown through the Doctor's thoughts, which reads so much like something he would say to his companions (he does not talk terribly much in this novel). Also, just like so many a First Doctor story, the Doctor is separated from his companion (in this case, Dodo), and does not see her until the end.
Still, it is Daniel O'Mahony we are talking about, so this book is no "typical Hartnell" adventure. He has included plenty of grit and gore, which can be seen from the very moment you read the prologue (It begins with the words "I am dead"). Indeed, there is much death to be found in this book. Killer deathmasks, death machines, a disembodied sentient head (whose owner is dead), the list goes on. It is not as gory as some Doctor Who novels I have read, but still not for the faint hearted.
The themes that this book deals with are fascinating, you can see that O'Mahony has worked really hard in developing these. The weakened Doctor's struggle to survive is one of the major aspects explored, which parallels William Hartnell's own struggle to keep on going with the series at the time, despite his rapidly declining health. For example, the Doctor mentions that he has been feel death coming since "that Toymaker fellow". The TV story this refers to, The Celestial Toymaker, happens to be a story where Hartnell was ill for the most part, and was made invisible and mute for most of it to compensate this illness. Within The Man in the Velvet Mask, the Doctor is so close to death he almost starts to regenerate on a couple of occasions, but manages to hold it back. This story is not only about the Doctor putting Earth's history back on course, but also, more importantly about the Doctor struggling to survive. Another key aspect explored is the loss of innocence, possibly referring to the change toward horror that the series would take in the Troughton era of Who, through the use of Dodo. Her experiences with the Fantomas players, a group of actors who she gets stuck with, change her from the guileless cockney schoolgirl to someone a little more wise to the world and it's ways, someone a little more independent. (That sort of change reminds me of another "Dorothy" that the Doctor traveled with later on).
Usually, playing with a character like this in a Missing Adventure is sure to irritate fans, as it would not fit in with their character development onscreen. This development in character, however, has added depth to the previously shallow character of Dodo. In addition, the result of this novel leaves Dodo weakened mentally. This explains a lot of Dodo's behavior in the subsequent TV story The War Machines, such as her enslavement by WOTAN and her subsequent departure, in which she couldn't even face the Doctor. It doesn't make that poor departure in that story a great one, but at least has made it reasonable. It is interesting to note that the themes of The Man in the Velvet Mask (death, loss of innocence, etc) parallel those of the Marquis De Sade's own work, while Sade himself is caught up in the events. A nice touch.
There is one problem I find with this story though, the plot. There doesn't seem to be enough of it to sustain a novel, more like the plot of a Decalog or Short Trips short story. This is not to say that the plot in this book is thin, rather it is too vague. Whilst reading, a lot of questions popped into my mind. Where exactly did the Pageant come from? How can they travel through time, let alone put the Earth into a parallel universe? Since they know time travel, do they know about the Time Lords, and do the Time Lords know about them? In the highly unlikely event that this was ever a Hartnell-era TV story, I'm sure these unanswered questions would have fired the imaginations of the New Adventures writers to expand on the concept of the Pageant (as they have expanded on the Monk, the Land of Fiction, the Valeyard, etc). In the years since its release, Daniel O'Mahony (or any other writer) has not attempted a sequel. As it is, with all these questions unanswered anywhere else, I felt that the story was a little incomplete.
Despite this, The Man in the Velvet Mask is a reasonable read. For some, it may be a little too demanding for a Missing Adventure, as you not only have to be fond of the darkness of O'Mahony and the New Adventures, but you also have to be a fan of the innocent Hartnell, which is sort of a contradiction...
Ill-Conceived, Unpleasant, and Shallow by Isaac Wilcott 2/6/03
I thoroughly enjoyed O'Mahony's New Adventure Falls the Shadow -- it's still one of my favorite New Adventures -- and was expecting (and hoping for) more of the same with this First Doctor adventure. However, after getting a third of the way through I was greatly disappointed.
This is a pretty awful book. Stylish, well-written, poetic, but awful. Where to start?
Firstly, this is not at all like a Hartnell episode. I can accept a book straying far from its era's atmosphere and type of content, but only if the content itself is at all worthwhile. Unfortunately, the story is unpleasant, incomprehensible, and shallow -- stretched far beyond its means to be carried, the plot is filled with scenes that have nothing to do with anything else, characters whose sole function is to be depraved and horrid, thereby padding out the book to the standard 230-280 pages. Violence and suffering are great filler -- both Virgin's and the BBC's policy of a 80,000 word-minimum damages these novels immensely in many ways, unnecessary violence perhaps being the worst result.
Just about the only redeeming feature of this book is O'Mahony's characterization of the First Doctor. It's brilliant, insightful, and helps show what made this rather erratic incarnation tick. He's also portrayed as nearing his first regeneration, and O'Mahony makes excellent use of the setting (just a few episodes prior to The Tenth Planet) by emphasizing throughout the book just how frail the Doctor is becoming.
The characterization of Dodo, on the other hand, suffers terribly. She gets expanded on and given more of a personality than she had on screen, but that in itself is not necessarily a good thing if the "newly revealed" person is stupid, unlikeable, and does incredibly foolish things for no apparent reason. She also doesn't act at all like a young girl from the sixties, accepting and believing things such a person wouldn't. Also, wedges are driven between Doctor and companion in a way that didn't become fashionable until the Davison era, then taken to extremes in the NAs. This sort of thing, I feel, shouldn't feature so heavily or so deeply in these earlier-era Missing/Past Doctor Adventures.
What little there is of a plot is mildly interesting, but the basic premise is all too familiar: aliens create a "duplicate" of Earth resulting in a divergent history, and the Doctor has to fix it. This set-up was used to great effect in Christopher Bulis' State of Change, but here feels limp and contrived, as if O'Mahony read Bulis' book and said to himself "Gee, that's pretty neat! I think I'll do one with the Marquis de Sade instead of Cleopatra!"
Another complaint I have is that the characters do crazy, stupid things on a regular basis for the least convincing of reasons, and even in retrospect the characters believe it was a reasonable thing to do. For instance: Dodo, separated from the Doctor, learns that he's in all likelihood to be executed by dawn; so what does she do? Something sensible, like trying to save him? No! She instead befriends a group of actors, agrees to take up the lead role in their upcoming play, and spends the rest of the book learning her lines, developing strange and inexplicably-motived relationships with these people, and arguing with her lover who has stated to her that his goal is to corrupt her utterly -- all the while completely failing to even think about the Doctor, even in passing, for well over a hundred pages. At the end she is accidentally reunited with him and her reaction is basically "Oh yeah, glad you're still alive, you unfun decrepit old man. I've been busy getting myself willingly infected with maggots that'll eat my nervous system from the inside out so I can have a firm memory of some Frenchie scumbag actor who'll have his last ten years of life erased after we leave." What? Huh? I mean, What?!?
While the Doctor's plot strand was what made this book bearable, it unfortunately took up very little room -- Dodo's story predominated, interspersed with pointless scenes involving devil-worshipping English spies who run around killing people with mask-like integrated bioweaponry, whose origins the author never even bothers to explain. Oh, and then there are those biodirigibles which come to destroy Paris, whose origins the author again refuses to adequately explain.
There was much that was unexplained in Falls the Shadow, but it was done so skillfully and the concepts were so terrific and original that he created a rich tapestry of dark, alluring mystery. But the mystery in this book is so shallow, so ill-conceived, so thin, so unconvincing, so uninvolving, so repetitive, and so uninteresting, that here it comes across as just plain sloppy. I was considering getting O'Mahony's upcoming novella Cabinet of Light -- the first such Telos book I've even considered taking a serious interest in -- but after reading The Man in the Velvet Mask, I think I'll forget about it.
Avoid this book -- you'll miss very little. A real shame, since O'Mahony has shown himself to be a very talented writer. Falls the Shadow and his contributions to Faction Paradox: The Book of the War prove that. But this novel is just a waste.
A Review by Finn Clark 4/2/05
Better than I expected! This book may be deliberately loathsome and depraved, but somehow it never feels like a parody of itself. There's a twisted integrity in its pages, a sense that the author is trying to explore themes rather than just presiding over a Matrix-like mess. The plot is better than Falls the Shadow, though the characters are inferior, and overall I got the sense of a book that at least manages to be interesting.
I liked its altered version of 1804, for a start. I've always regarded the French Revolutionaries as a bit like atheistic puritans or bolsheviks before Marx and Lenin, and it's brain-bending to see their world twisted into one of Marquis de Sade-inspired decadence. Of course the Marquis himself really lived in this era; I enjoyed the fact that the book was drawing historical comparisons instead of just making stuff up. Of course this is still basically a parallel universe story (ack, gurgle, retch), but only after a fashion. The true explanation is more complicated and more interesting. There's also enough historical verisimilitude in here to lend flavour and bring the world alive.
It reminded me of other Who books. The most obvious comparison is with Perry-Tucker's Matrix, also set in a doom-and-gloom 19th-century alternate reality, but in tone it feels more like Falls the Shadow or Managra. The former shouldn't surprise anyone, but the latter is because both books are set in a richly evoked world of baroque grotesquerie, strolling players, fictional characters and real details from continental Europe's history. I noticed playful references to The Prisoner (though I'm aware of the real historical coincidence behind Monsieur le Six), DC Comics, Frankenstein and (most curiously) the Wandering Jew.
Time for a digression... The Wandering Jew is a mythological character from the Middle Ages whose legend hasn't quite been forgotten in the modern age. Supposedly he offended Jesus en route to crucifixion and was cursed to wander the earth alone for eternity, like a medieval Flying Dutchman. He has lots of names, the most common being Malchus, Cartaphilus and Ahasuerus (or Ahasverus). For the latter, see pp99-102. He also appeared in Matrix, but it strikes me that his two appearances to date have been in books about nightmarish parallel versions of the 19th century.
The regulars are distinctive. This first Doctor is flat-out dying, on the point of regeneration with a collapsing body and failing memory. In a more restrained novel his characterisation would feel absurdly over-the-top, but The Man in the Velvet Mask is nothing if not a book of excess and this actually fits in. If nothing else, he's certainly memorable. Meanwhile Dodo is the token innocent in a decadent world, explicitly targeted for corruption by one of her new-found friends (though it doesn't quite work out as he planned). Again it's an extreme vision of the character, but it's praiseworthy for bringing alive one of the blandest TV companions.
I should discuss the myth that Dodo catches a fatal sexually transmitted disease. This is indeed a myth, but I can see where it came from. See p249: "Dodo thought of the virus eating through her nervous system and her brain. The image didn't stir her. It meant nothing, nothing at all." Readers who hadn't been paying full attention to an admittedly confusing book might take that passage literally and come away with the wrong impression.
This book certainly won't be for everyone. It's nothing at all like the Hartnell TV era, though in fairness Season Three was a time of strangeness and innovation. It's macabre, over-the-top and vaguely depressing, but as a stylistic experiment it's far from worthless. It tries to be the goodbye story that Dodo never got on TV and doesn't do too badly at that. It's hard to like and probably all too easy to hate, but in a twisted way I kinda admire it.
"One heart, soon to meet its twin" by Neil Clarke 23/1/09
Given its reputation, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is Doctor Who's equivalent of Salo. But no (no one eats poo here, for one thing) - although there is an appropriately depraved tone to this novel, given that it features the Marquis de Sade as this week's historical personage. (No-one seems to have really picked up on the fact that this book is Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Marquis de Sade! How fabulously horrifying is that? That le 6 is one of the most likeable characters in the book gives you some idea of what to expect.)
Yes, you wouldn't want every book to be like this, but, despite its depravity, it really is excellent. Here we have a murder machine, clockwork automata, rapists, killers, murderous rituals, and a hideous plan to weaken the population's self-control with the introduction of maggot carriers - not to mention the ever-present drizzle and mud. "It's just... pain and sex and death," Dodo says at one point, and that pretty much sums this book up.
O'Mahony is one of Doctor Who's best writers - to the extent of almost being too good for the series (like maybe Cartmel or Aaronovitch's NAs). This is a literary and darkly poetic work; while it may smack slightly of student angst at times, this doesn't seem inappropriate for its twisted French Revolution setting (the recurrence of which is intriguing and seems appropriate to the First Doctor's era). Besides, he went on to write the staggering Cabinet of Light and the Faction Paradox novel Newton's Sleep (which in some ways reads like a more detailed and complete version of this novel) - both of which I couldn't recommend more. (Falls the Shadow was shit though; too confused to be effective.)
What I like best here is that this is in no way just a rehash of its given era. (Who wants to be bound by that sort of reductive attitude anyway? That's what videos are for.) I love seeing familiar elements pushed beyond their screen confines - though equally I can see why this novel didn't go down well with those expecting something "traditional". Personally, I feel that while past Doctor stories should fit into a given slot, continuity-wise, what's really important is that the characters remain true to their characteristics, no matter how unprecedented a situation the author might place them in. As for authors deliberately replicating capture-escape shenanigans, or mimicking Hartnell's TV absences... what the hell is that!? Written Doctor Who shouldn't replicate the exact approach of the series; it's a different medium, for god's sake!
One of the joys of Doctor Who's "expanded universe" is authors making the effort to rehabilitate ineffective elements from the series, rather than rehashing the popular parts. No one needs more of the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane, or the Second and Jamie, because their stories worked in the first place!
Dodo is almost the ultimate example of this approach. Amazingly, given her nondescript on-screen appearances, her voice feels strikingly accurate. Her thoughts are convincingly insecure too: she is variously described - often by herself - as having bad teeth, and being spotty, pudgy and dull. Strangely, this insecurity makes her likeable, and she actually seems like a real person (fortunately without idealising her, or giving her an "edgy" history of child abuse or mental illness). It is great to see that she is actually affected by the events of The Ark, Steven's departure, and that she is aware she'll soon be leaving the Doctor. It's also quite appallingly twisted (but almost perversely sweet) for Dodo to willingly accept Minski's infection, so as to remember her lover in this world.
I like Dodo here (almost to the extent of feeling bad that she's shot in Who Killed Kennedy!), and rereading this novel makes me wish "Viet Cong!", O'Mahony's planned follow-up, a "freewheeling black comedy new wave historical set in 1916" (!) had seen the light of day!
The Doctor's characterisation is sparer, but equally authentic, while his progressive frailty is a fascinating take on a usually infallible hero. He is particularly effective in opposition to the grotesque Minski, Sade's dwarfish adoptive son - a callous, cherubic child with the voice of an adult (a memorably hideous image!). The Doctor's disgust at, and refusal to rest on, the female guards Minski uses as human furniture at one point, is rather wonderful.
It's such a shame this novel was popularly dismissed (despite the largely positive reviews here). A mark of its quality is that even when the relatively minor character Bressac dies, you are, unusually, made to feel the magnitude of his death, in a way most authors wouldn't devote any time to. Things feel oxymoronically real in his novel (considering this is not only Doctor Who we're talking about, but an anathema Alternate World!), thanks to O'Mahony's depth and perception as an author.
Heinously, didn't this come last in DWM's MA novel poll? (While the equally gorgeous Transit was last in the NA list.) Tsk. It's depressing when fandom shuns things because they aren't accessible enough - although I suppose it's unsurprising: here we have an (unjustifiably!) unpopular Doctor, a flat-out hated companion, not to mention the novel's generally dark tone.
I've never had a problem with a darker tone in Doctor Who; in fact, I love it; the depravity here highlights all the things the Doctor stands against. Despite the way the 60s are often looked down upon as being quaint, it doesn't seem at all odd to see the First Doctor exposed to these things; after all, I would argue he is one of the most adult and convincing of all the Doctors. Seeing him struggling by himself in this horrific world, you rally for him all the more.
The Man in the Velvet Mask is bleak, unpleasant - and beautiful. I'd recommend it to anyone who isn't so po-faced as to think Doctor Who shouldn't be allowed to stretch its boundaries.
"Now we all have roles..." by Craig Land 16/4/11
I am a huge fan of the Hartnell years. Those first 3 and a bit years of Doctor Who saw an imaginative outpouring which I don't think has ever been bettered at any subsequent point in the show's history, played out by genuinely real and believable characters, such as Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright, Vicki and Steven Taylor. And, to top all of it off, Hartnell on his worst days makes for a charismatic and fascinating lead. However, there is one element of the Hartnell years which does not work for me on any level. And her name is Dodo Chaplet, AKA, Ms. Personality-Free. Stupid, annoying, and with about as much character as a wet towel, Dodo is my most despised Doctor Who regular across all 47 years of the show. Under any other circumstances, I would've avoided this book like the plague, purely because of her presence (there's no Steven to keep her in check, either).
However, and I don't know how he did it, Daniel O'Mahony here turns this travesty of a character in someone extremely *gasp* interesting. I was determined to read this book because I'd heard Dodo got some reasonable development in it; however, I was never expecting this. O'Mahony takes every annoying fact we know about Dodo, and pulls it together to turn her into a fascinating, real person. Ever thought that Dodo was a bit plain in appearance? So does Dodo, it turns out. Her varying accents? There's an explanation for them too. However, this isn't a top-to-toe rewrite of the character. It fits with everything we already knew about the character, slotting seamlessly into the Hartnell stories it's set between, in terms of character. This novel is the leaving story that Dodo never got on TV, and as that it succeeds admirably, with Dodo quite conceivably dying of an alien disease at the end of the book. It turns the end of The War Machines from a crap bookend ('Oh, Doctor, Dodo's not coming with you') to a poignant departure, in which Dodo can't even face the Doctor. It still doesn't really forgive that terrible leaving scene completely, but it's a noticeable improvement.
And let us not forget the most controversial fact regarding Dodo in this novel. She loses her virginity here, and then has sex multiple times throughout the novel. However, this never feels contrived and gratuitous. On the contrary, O'Mahony has crafted her so skilfully here that you feel that the same character who was being stupid all the way through The Celestial Toymaker is having a bit of fun in bed with a French actor.
However, the author doesn't stop at painting a fascinating portrait of Dodo. The First Doctor is portrayed uniquely here. He's dying slowly of old age, and he knows it. For most of this novel, the Doctor says very little, and his body slowly becomes less able. At one point, he even begins to regenerate, and only just manages to hold the tide back. Placing this novel after The Savages, in which the Doctor is considerably weakened, was a masterstroke, as well. Because of this novel, I can see the flow of development in the Doctor from Toymaker onwards, as he gradually dies away.
I haven't really mentioned the plot, but that's mainly because this is a book in which the characters are at the forefront. However, the story which is wound around the characters is a beautifully depraved one, with villains such as Minski and the Marquis de Sade coming across as utterly evil in a way most don't. Certain passages involving the Doctor's confrontations with them are so beautifully written that I was left reeling. O'Mahony has a fantastic, no-holds-barred style of writing, draping the whole book in a decadant, depressing atmosphere. I didn't completely understand the plot, but that didn't really matter to me, as I was so caught up in the Doctor and Dodo's interactions with the characters.
Many fans have really criticised this book for its cloying, depressing style. I find this very sad, that fans seemingly can't take in anything new, that fits beyond what they think the Doctor Who universe should be like. I think the greatest compliment I can pay this novel is that when Dodo cries over a character who's dead, I cried as well. That's incredible writing, when a character you've always hated gets a genuine emotional response out of you other than frustration.
In a word: breathtaking.