Beyond the Sun
Walking to Babylon
The Infinity Doctors
The Gods Storyline
Where Angels Fear
A Benny Adventure
|Authors|| Rebecca Levene &
|ISBN||0426 20530 8|
|Synopsis: A long-ignored religion is rapidly gaining recruits and arcane arts find dangerous new applications. The most powerful races in the universe are withdrawing to leave the lesser peoples to their fates.|
A Review by Finn Clark 30/1/99
It took me a while to work out why I didn't really like this book. It's got some lovely characters, clever ideas and a laudable willingness to think big. If only more authors would follow its example. For once here's a book that can't be accused of underambition.
Unfortunately it's too short.
The back cover is wonderful. Reading the blurb, one really starts to get excited about the tale that's about to be told. One envisions a story of world-shaking conflict, of gods and men colliding in epic battles. "The most powerful races of the universe are running scared, withdrawing to their own strongholds, and leaving the lesser peoples to their fate." Perhaps one might even have heard rumours about this book from elsewhere -- the internet, maybe, or other fans. Benny's universe will never be the same again.
And then you read the book's 240 pages and wonder why it wasn't more satisfying. A story like this needed more -- five or six hundred pages, at least. The BBC Books have pegged themselves to 280 pages, but at least the variable font size lets them stretch out for an Alien Bodies or a Scarlet Empress. In addition we've got Lawrence Miles's two-part Interference to look forward to, later in the year. The Benny books seem to be aiming even lower than the BBC. 240 pages? Is that all? One starts to wonder if Virgin lost a little courage along with the Doctor Who licence.
Thinking about this book afterwards, I couldn't help getting the feeling that all the best scenes must have happened offstage. There are so many interlinked plotlines that the overall narrative starts to feel fragmented. When Benny experiences a change of heart, we don't see it as a single movement but instead as a series of snapshots. This doesn't help us understand where she's coming from.
Neat ideas are glimpsed, but then not developed. I'd have liked to have seen more of the notion of atheism as religion, exploring the worldview of those people who cling to godlessness with the fanaticism of an inverted Jehovah's Witness. At one point the narrative seemed about to go there... but then it swung away to something else again. There's a lot of interesting stuff in there, but the sheer breadth of the authors' vision means that no single idea gets a long, hard look. There's just too much going on.
It's not just the ideas that get short shrift, either. The individual scenes get the butterfly treatment, which often doesn't do them any good. Even the ending is a slight anticlimax. Still worse, not everything in the plot is eventually explained.
But perhaps most annoyingly, the authors rely heavily on their readers' familiarity with the other Benny books. There's one particular place oft- mentioned in the text that meant nothing whatsoever to me. An explanation would have been nice, especially bearing in mind the number of different ways it ties in with this book's events. Also there's a mysterious visitor - is he meant to be deliberately ambiguous or did I miss something? (Interestingly, the book comes close to contradicting itself regarding his identity). Even when something is given plenty of screen time, as with the People and the Worldsphere, it's still the events of the previous Benny books that really tie them into the plot. You don't have to have read them to understand this one, but without that initial grounding I found the People's scenes a trifle disconnected. For a long time they didn't really seem to belong with the rest of the book.
What does this book do well? I adored the Grel so much so that I'm tempted to go buy Oh No It Isn't. There's a fine collection of characters here, most of whom manage to avoid being submerged by the book's events. Right through to the inevitably apocalyptic end, I could sympathise with them and care about their fates.
However, if you're not a Benny fan then I'm not sure how much you're going to get out of this book. I personally preferred Steve Lyons's Salvation, which is a clearer, more focused treatment of similar themes. Hell, why not Mortimore's Beltempest? It may be a confused mess, but at least you're in the hands of the past master of apocalyptic grandeur.
The comparison with Salvation is in fact quite an enlightening one. Through carefully restricting the scope of his material, Steve Lyons succeeds in painting a deeper portrait of his gods and their worshippers. He doesn't try to cover as much ground as Winstone and Levene, but in my opinion he does what he does more effectively.
However, a warning. Some people love Where Angels Fear. As always, all this is only my opinion.
Oh, and one last question -- an ear ring made of dwarf star alloy? Is that for masochists or what?
Very good, but it could have been great by Robert Smith? 6/3/99
I wanted to like the book a lot more than I did. What happens here is incredible in its scope and vision and the consequences for the entire line are going to be far-reaching and irreversible. I have no problems with the story. I have no problems with the plot. This must have looked great in summary (and it still does, although to read a summary would rob you of the revelations the book itself brings, and I think we owe it that, at least). Unfortunately, the authors prove that they're far better suited to editing than writing. You can almost see the struggle with the prose.
In many ways, I think this is no bad thing. I for one don't expect brilliant editors to be brillaint writers and it'd be a little embarrassing for a line of books if the best one was by the editors. Nevertheless, there's a real feeling of frustration from this book. Not only could it have been so much better, it positively should have been. Had I seen a summary beforehand, I would have bet good money that any author would be hard pressed to write this book badly. I think I haven't quite lost my bet, but I don't think I've come out very far ahead.
There are so many good things about Where Angels Fear that it's difficult to pinpoint where the ball gets dropped. Bernice is quite good, her scepticism being used to great effect. She feels a lot like a bit player in this drama, but I don't think that's the source of my problems. The events here are so big that almost everyone is a bit player (okay, maybe not God) and a great deal of the book's focus is on her. In some ways this feels like a little too much, because it becomes pretty clear that far more important events are going on back at the university, but I think it works well enough to illustrate what's going on.
Emile is great here, playing detective with surprising aplomb. I'd never have pictured him for it, but the authors realise the inherent problems here and give us this section quite convincingly. Indeed, his sections were probably my favourite from the first two thirds.
Braxiatel is interesting, as always, and the contrast between the more earthy Renee and the mysterious John are well done. His efforts to evacuate the academics work quite well. On that note, Renee is a wonderful character, very human and very likable. Her efforts in the New Moral Army are fantastic and the way she ends up having far more control than Braxiatel when things start slipping is very telling, I think. I'm not at all sure I've figured John out, though, and I suspect I was meant to guess it. He's obviously not a Time Lord, since he's not of Braxiatel's race (and he's known to enjoy the more sensual things in life, so that rules him out), but I can't place him.
I also like the style used, of each scene being fairly short and snappy. It gives us snapshots of the action, which works much better in the second half of the book as the pace picks up and things start to spiral out of control. It also doesn't allow things to get boring in the first half when not a whole lot is actually going on.
In fact, I'm sounding really positive when I describe any of the
details, but as I said, this book really works in summary form. It's not
easy to pinpoint what it is about the book that goes wrong. If pressed,
I'd hazard a guess that a lot of the dialogue feels forced and unnatural.
There's also the annoying tendency to begin scenes by finishing off an
a) isn't at all funny if you don't get itThat's a fairly amateurish way to write, but thankfully it disappears in the second half of the book.
b) is rather intrusive, unlike most in-jokes and
c) is a pretty darn annoying thing to do in the first place.
Speaking of which, the second half of the book really is a treat. We never actually see the events of the prologue unfold, but we don't need to. The more that events proceed, and the revelations start flying, the more you realise that there's no easy way out of this at all. And the ending is just... Wow!
I can't believe I now have to wait two whole months to see what happens next -- which is a great situation to be in from an editorial point of view. In terms of shaking the series up (not exactly needed, but useful anyway), spinning things in a new direction and capturing interest in the line as a whole, I think this book is an unqualified success. Which, to an editor (or two) must sound just about perfect. Sadly, the writing leaves something to be desired and I think that's had a far more detrimental effect on the book than it should.
Where Angels Fear isn't a bad book, by any means. It's a very important book and it has grand ideas and an ambitious outlook (as well as being the shortest epic I've ever read!) The actual writing holds it back quite a bit, but considering the wealth of material here, it's a testament to the power of the book that it still ends up being as good as it is. I can't wait to see where they go from here!
A Review by Rob Matthews 21/6/03
I was a bit trepidatious about this one - a Big Important Book co-written by a line editor revolving indirectly around ideas originated by Lawrence Miles? Was I in for another perfunctory arc-greaser a la The Ancestor Cell? Fortunately not. I'll admit I was worried by the opening chapters, where everything felt like it was being set in motion with all the subtlety of a flushing toilet, the brevity of the passages suggesting the authors were more interested in sowing plot points than involving us with story and characters. But as the narrative began to unfold, the quick, almost clipped pace started to seem more of an advantage. I very much doubt this was a deliberate stylistic thing, but it nevertheless helped give a sense that events were unfolding rapidly out of control - and I guess that's what the story is ultimately about, the sheer speed at which a 'civilisation' can go completely mad if nudged in just the right way.
The nudge in this case, of course, being a quick prod at at the human religious impulse, and that at its very darkest - that nasty reptilian urge to believe that you're somehow chosen, you're the only one that really matters and that everyone else is going to hell. Secular humanist socialist libertarian that I am, my own thoughts on this are that it's better to base your moral compass on knowing that other people are exactly the same as you are than on some pie-in-the-sky system of arbitrary reward and punishment; My problem with the latter being that, yeah sure, if your god tells you be nice to people in order to gain his favour then why not, you'll be nice to people. But if on the other hand he tells you to kill people to gain his favour, well, you'll do that too. Because deep down you know you're the only one who really matters and you'll do anything, anything at all, to deny death. Probably - hopefully -that mentality's a perversion of what the various theistic myths were going for, but in practise that all too often turns out to be the case.
Even in Doctor Who, incidentally, the occasional story dealing with a theme of this sort will lapse into a commonplace - but horribly mistaken - assumption that 'faith' is a quality superior, indeed somehow more moral, than compassion; look at the respect the 'Grand High Bastard'-style character of Timanov is afforded in his final scenes in Planet of Fire - a man who has callously and arbitrarily sent several innocent people to horrible deaths, and yet we seem to be expected to let him even slightly off the hook just because he did, after all, have 'faith' - a suggestion I find appalling.
Where Angels Fear doesn't let any of its nutters off the hook in this fashion. Cruelty and callousness are traits easily awakened in any of us, especially when we're surrounded by it and it's easy to go with the flow. Naturally the 'gods' of the book are all trickery and flimflam, but what's evoked - what's almost assumed on the part of the writers - is the ease with which madness and murder can get a stranglehold if we let our guard down.
It's a sorta tragedy, in other words, and I guess it established a new paradigm for the remainder of the NA run - just scanning the blurb on Tears of the Oracle and Return to the Fractured Planet, I assume trips in and out of the Dellahan quarantine got pretty frequent. Ironically, I'm betting Bernice spent more time on Dellah after it went barmy, a sealed off planet of loonies being a more dramatic part of the NA landscape than a mere second-rate university.
Anyhow, I mentioned the slight flimsiness of the opening chapters - admittedly, this ain't a particularly fine novel, not an Interference, say, or or even a half-and-half triumph/failure like Beltempest. It's more of a solid genre pageturner. But what rough edges there are are extant mostly at the front, and once you get into the flow of it it's a very absorbing and genuinely tense read.
What makes the book work so surprisingly well despite its shortcomings is the characterisation. Benny here is as excellent as she's ever been - dealing with the events around her with her usual glib humour, but here in a attractively self-deprecating way, and also in a manner that's written very much as a coping strategy - the humour isn't something that's tossed in, isn't really that funny in fact. What it does is reveal a lot about Benny's way of dealing with the monsters she encounters - she literally has to make light of the situation, for the very reason that the situation is entirely, perhaps irredeemably, terrible. She resembles the Doctor in this respect, particularly the Fourth, making herself brave by acting like she is. And her relationship with the Grel servitor Shemda is a lovely running thread.
Braxiatel's the character I think I identify with most, particularly in his sheer outrage as events on Dellah become worse and worse - that sense of 'How dare this happen here?' is very effectively conveyed, and would cerainly be my own reaction in those circumstances.
Renee's a rather lovely character too - and it's appropriately NAish, appropriately Doctor Whoey that this pragmatic, fun-loving tart-with-a-heart kinda character would be one of the few to ultimately be ingenious and compassionate enough to effect some kind of change in the situation, no matter how slight. It wouldn't be overstating things to say that she's the character who really represents all that's good about the human spirit here. Benny does too, of course, but her effectiveness is inevitably slightly dulled by the fact we're used to her - she's already well established by now as a hero so, unlike Renee, there's no surprise in her turning out to be one. Familiarity breeds, well, familiarity.
Emile... I'm not that enamoured of him. Wasn't in Beyond the Sun either, the only other book I've seen him in. I'm not entirely sure why, since if nothing else his sweet humility ought to make him likeable. Perhaps it's because he's the only character who's noticeably shoehorned into the story. You have to wonder what Benny's thinking of, entrusting the investigation of a murder to a flakey adolescent... (I'm not clear on what happened with Emile and the little pixie thing either. Is it meant to be ambiguous, a dangling thread to be followed up later, or did I miss something?)
'John', baffled me somewhat, though I found him very effective. I wondered for a while if he was some future incarnation of the Doctor (you know, John Smith), given that he was obviously a Time Lord, and a manipulative and cheeky one at that. But it didn't seem that likely a proposition and, given his ultimate fate in the book, I guess it's not the case! Oh well, my fault for coming so late to the party.
Among the more peripheral characters, James Harker is another triumph, indeed perhaps the one who really makes the book work, for the simple reason that not since Nyder in Genesis of the Daleks have I found a character in a Doctor Who (ish) story so utterly contemptible. And as with Nyder, it's not just that he is an obscenely horrible, it's that he's utterly dedicated to an obscenely horrible cause. Somehow that dedication makes this kind of villain feel more loathsome than, for example, a Magnus Greel, because with a bastard like Greel you can at least comprehend his selfish motivations. Perhaps for the sake of economy, the loathsome Harker seems to be the lone representative of what's happened to the Dellahan mentality. Luckily he serves this onerous function perfectly. He's given comparatively few passages of text, but the spare unfussy prose does its job with razorsharp clarity, establishing him as a vile, horrible credulous toady twerp, and I was absolutely dying for the eventual cathartic moment when this vicious, truculent little wanker would get a taste of his own medicine.
But that's what makes the story most-of-the-way effective as a tragedy. He never does. There isn't any catharsis. And that's quite neat, because if this was a few years back and the NAs were still going, I'd be on tenterhooks right now waiting to see what happens next. After the flaccid Beige Planet Mars this feels like a real shot in the arm for the post-Doctor NAs.
Abandoning Dellah... by Joe Ford 19/11/04
Wow! What incredible developments for the Virgin Bernice Summerfield range. As if from nowhere the range suddenly achieves crystal sharp focus, the somewhat aimless characters have a clear direction and the location for these books is treated to an overhaul of unprecedented upheaval. Surely every follower of this series should be desperate to discover what happens next...
Not me. This is one of the worst Doctor Who (and its various spinoffs) books I have read and not because of the arc developments, which as I have mentioned are necessary and welcome, but because the book is so badly written. This is written by the two editors of the bulk of the New Adventures and it is appallingly cobbled together. Maybe this explains why so many NAs were so bloody awful. Almost every area of the book can be hacked to pieces, characterisation (sketchy at best), pace (the book chops and changes plots so often its hard to get wrapped up in any one storyline) and most of all the prose, utterly amateurish and undramatic. And for what is THE most important book in the Benny range yet it is unforgivable mistake.
Where to begin. I tried six times to get into this book, the average Doctor Who book is tackled in about a day or two, this 241 paged monstrosity took me over two weeks to endure and I had to get to the end because Dead Romance and Tears of the Oracle arrived with this and I was determined to read the three in order. The cover got me quite excited, more so than the turgid nonsense within.
For a start there are far too many characters involved. I remember making a mental list once I was a hundred pages in and came up with this bulk... Benny, Brax, Clarence, B-Aaron, God, Emile, Elspeth, Renee, the three Grel, Kalten, Fec, James Harker, Maa'lon... now Doctor Who books have juggled heavy casts since (Timeless springs to mind) but they achieved what was neglected here, a healthy balance of plots constantly kept in flux, Where Angels Fear (great title by the way) took ages to return to certain characters (Emile was constantly neglected although I'm not sure that's a bad thing...) by which time their plots were forgotten and I was flipping back to find out where I had left them. The book was very choppy as it knocked back and forth between (apparently) unrelated plots, a similar tactic used to far superior effect in Jim Mortimore's Sword of Forever, and it was hard to grab hold of anything to engage me.
Another huge flaw was the story's length, which definitely works against the plot, trying so hard to be epic but falling waaay short of that laudable goal. How can you tell a thoughtful tale of reawakening Gods satisfactorily in 241 pages when you don't get to the juicy stuff until two thirds through? As Finn Clark points out this book requires three times its length (the pain!) to suck all the potential out of such a juicy concept. Instead the book is willing to waste time on a action oriented plot where careful character in introspection was required. I hate to make such a poor comparison but when Deep Space Nine handled a similar plot (where the main characters had to abandon their home, not the God thing) they still had plenty of time for intense character work but the race against time to leave Dellah left a bad taste in my mouth. Subsequent books did a much better job of dealing with the human side of this mammoth shift in the series and if Where Angels Fear was just set up for The Mary-Sue Extrusion and Tears of the Oracle it shouldn't pretend to be otherwise (and the stabs at religious perceptive are a good hint that that was the intention).
If you want a book that deal with religion in a fascinating and genuinely surprising manner go read The Sword of Forever, you won't find anything of interest here. Where that book was ready to play about with an accepted faith and abuse it to its own ends Where Angels Fear sets about creating some religions of its own, none of them especially believable, particularly the highlight, the Maa'lon. The scenes in where Benny trudges of to see this religion that has gripped Dellah are a real bore, even when the head man, Maa'lon himself, turns on Benny over her unwillingness to slaughter needlessly (well duuhh!). The book tries to channel this faith through James for the first half but it never spends enough time to share his thoughts and as such comes across as shallow and uninvolving. And he's a treacherous, evil bastard so it's hard to put any trust in his passages.
It's a problem that plagues the entire book. Is it a murder investigation? Is it Worldsphere politics? An end of the adventures on Dellah? A bomb plot? Another look at Benny's faith? It saddens me to admits it's all of these and a semi-romance for Brax too. With so much going on and so little space, it's like being on a roller coaster without a direction, being thrown this way and that until the book just sort of... ends. I could have wept, all that running around for this?
The characterisation is pretty standard all told. Benny is well done of course but had the controllers of this unique dealt with her cack-handedly I would have been very worried indeed. I found Brax more enjoyable to follow though and found his uselessness at the religious fervour spreading rather interesting. His eventual decision to leave is clearly a hard choice to make and you have to admire the authors for letting Brax, the most enigmatic of characters, make the choice to abandon Dellah. His scenes with Renee are the most emotional of the book, their gentle flirting is a delight and she remains the only secondary character I could get worked up about, how she manipulated Brax was extraordinary.
Emile on the other hand was just boring, boring, boring... another twee, awkward, unconfident guy who happens to be a homo. It's not exactly a thrilling role model for us gay guys is it? How he is eager from romance from any looker who throws him a promising look made me want to throw up. His introverted, mock-brave personality tempted me to reach into the book and strangle him. I rarely have reactions this strong to characters in books but this is incredibly poor work, Benny's decision to leave a murder investigation in Emile's hand is one of a hundred ill thought out decisions on the writers' part.
I also found the authors expecting the reader to be up on New Adventures lore to be a bit arrogant. No wonder readers were abandoning the series in droves... there is little (what there is has little substance) explanation for God, the Worldsphere, etc. The People are written as important and known to our characters but the events of The Also People, Down, Walking to Babylon aren't even mentioned. Are we supposed to guess? As such I found Clarence and B-Aaron pretty useless, the book suggesting previous tales with them but sod if I know what they are.
It's rare that I have such a violent reaction to a piece of Doctor Who related fiction but this book pissed me off on pretty much every level. Taking into consideration it is a vital cornerstone in the Benny series only strengths my resolve. If I didn't already know that the marvellous Dead Romance and Tears of the Oracle were due soon I would have given up reading this series right here.