Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Wolfsbane by Jacqueline Rayner

Plot: Is Harry Sullivan dead? Trapped in 1936 in the midst of a devilish adventure of sorcery with an amnesiac and a boy from Arthurian legends, it certainly looks as though his fate has been mapped out. Determined to discover what happened to him, Sarah and the Doctor seek out the only survivors to those terrible days…

Top Doc: (I am only concentrating on the eighth Doctor here, lest anyone forgets this is an eighth Doctor marathon!) He has an air of being…different. He has never heard of Skaro, UNIT or the TARDIS when questioned by Harry to test if this is the real Doctor. We learn that since Casualties of War he has been a sailor and marked as a man who invents things. He pauses when he calls England “home”. He lives in a nice little cottage in the countryside but wishes to see more of the world. In a touching scene we see he has tried his hand at writing fantasy stories (almost as if to make up for not experiencing them) but the editor writes to him telling him he needs to discipline his imagination (brilliantly he has concocted a story out of elements from The Mind Robber, The Tenth Planet, Meglos, City of Death and The Time Monster!). He looks up at the night’s sky wistfully, yearning almost. He is entirely sexless and sees no embarrassment in barging in on a lady in her underwear. Brilliantly we discover most of his possessions are either books or things to make tea! He has certainly regained his sense of adventure and is set to dive right in the thick of things at the climax which makes his attack from the Holy Grail all the more shocking (it can only be touched by somebody pure in thought and deed and after what he has done to Gallifrey he has clearly been marked…). In the uplifting climax the Doctor and Emmy cry for their lost pasts but decide to make up for it by rebuilding their lives with recent happy memories to replace those they have lost. Does he realise he
is an alien…? “Human lives are so short”

Right-o! : Jacqueline Rayner is clearly in love with the character and weaves a magical spell around him here. He is aware of his limitations, half in love with Sarah, intensely loyal and charming…how can anyone not love him? He remains bumbling throughout but good-humoured too and his gentlemanly behaviour never falters, even in the most trying of circumstances. He has a lot of trouble distancing science from magic; he would rather except that the events that take place are due to aliens rather than genuine magical occurrences. The scene where Harry is seduced by Emmy in her bedroom is deliciously funny; he tries to remain chivalrous and charming whilst trying desperately to escape her grasp. He comes to the conclusion that he when he returns home he will not step into the TARDIS again. He gets to play hero at the climax and take on the bad guys on his own, proving without a shadow of a doubt what a brave man he is.

Andy-Pandy Wannabee: Sarah heaves when she discovers Harry’s grave. Her desperation to prove he is alive is touching. Harry treats her as though she is made out of glass. Brilliantly she wonders if they leave behind a whole string of graves after they leave their adventures and that they just don’t hang around to see them. Her reaction to the bite by the wolf is terrifying, she almost goes mad with desperation to find out if she has been turned. I love how independent she is, digging up Harry’s grave, bargaining with the Dryad…this is one gal who never lost her sense of self when travelling with the Doctor. Most excellent of all is when she is gobbled up by the Dryad only to spat out again because of her incessant chatter a few minutes later.

Both Sarah and Harry are word for word perfect. You would swear Lis Sladen and Ian Marter are acting the book out for you!

Twists: Harry being left behind at the beginning and the discovery of his grave are an excellent way to hook the reader. It comes as something of a surprise when Harry teams up with a mysterious traveller known as ‘the Doctor’. Equally perplexing is the sudden appearance of Godric, a character from the King Arthur’s Court! We see Emmeline chained up, force fed raw meat and to mate with a wolf, just to try and get her to change. Sarah’s adventures in the graveyard are terrifying, her desperation to dig up Harry’s corpse and the heart stopping moment when the coffin traps her inside and mounds of earth pile on top, burying her alive. Chapter six is a mini masterpiece, a very human piece of writing concerning the capture, abuse and conscription of a
werewolf. It is soaked in feeling and atmosphere. In a shock moment Emmy sniffs out Lady Hester as the killer, which gives the book a strong Sleepy Hollow vibe. Emmeline’s transformation is frightening, the full moon runs through her veins and aches for fresh meat. The Doctor’s eyes fill with pain when he touches the Grail, punishment for his wrong deeds. The slaughter of six villagers is given more weight by the fact that we know about it already.

Funny bits: This is a riotously funny book in places. Basically any scene with either George or Harry will make you laugh at least once. George’s recounting of how the trees attacked him (“Hi! Hi!”) is hilarious. Harry thinks the Doctor’s thinking is a might fantastical until he remembers he was just attacked by root vegetables. George tells Sarah “I’ll have your head on a spike!” ad nauseum. Harry extracting information from George is blisteringly comical (“I say, your majesty, if you’re the reincarnation of this Mordred, does that mean your mum is the reincarnation of Morgan Le Fay?” “Of course she is” “Right-o”). The Dryad spitting Sarah out…the dialogue here is priceless (“I put up with a thousand years of chastity and purity, but there’s no way I’m putting up with another minute of that…”).

Embarrassing bits: The ending really, which made a lot of sense at the time (when it was smack bang in the middle of the alternative universe arc) but just sticks out like a sore thumb now. The numerous endings with Harry turning into a killer is nice. As is the fact that you get the choice of choosing your own. But shoehorning a scene in from Timeless just feels weird.

Result: One of the sparkling diamonds in the rough of an extremely inconsistent year for Doctor Who fiction (2003), this is one of those stories, which reminds you perfectly of why you fell in love with this silly show in the first place. It is blisteringly entertaining with lots well observed comedy moments but that never gets in the way of what is essentially a touching horror story about a lone werewolf. Some moments are astonishingly dark (especially when Sarah gets buried alive…) and Jacqueline Rayner’s descriptive prose is at its peak, immersed in nature and magic. The potentially catastrophic idea of pairing up the eighth Doctor with Harry is pulled off like a dream and they read like they were made for each other. The dual plotlines add suspense to the tale, Sarah discovering more and more horrors just ahead of us experiencing them! Top it all of with fantastic dialogue all around and you have a little gem which rightfully belongs in this (so far) astonishing Earth arc: 9/10

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