Thursday, 16 August 2012

Dark Horizons by J. T. Colgan

Plot: The Doctor comes to the aid of a group of villagers who are besieged by Vikings, famine and an alien intelligence that wants to fry their brains…

Nutty Professor: ‘The great snake eating its tail is simply the wheel of time, rolling around and around, ever on. And the poisons of the snake are the wounds of time. And yes it is my destiny to endure them, and to find them, and to fix them, if I can. But I don’t think of it as a terrible destiny. It doesn’t make me sad…’ I never would have thought that the eleventh Doctor could be transformed so potently in print. There have been a great many novels that capture his spirit (Touched By an Angel, Nuclear Time) but their reduced word count has prevented the authors from probing too deeply into his character, instead having to charge on with the plot. Colgan brings a unique, female voice to the range and captures his essence perfectly – giving him a great deal of time to ponder his responsibilities, much humour and capturing that mad energy of a crazed child juggling fifty problems at once. He leaps from the pages and makes every passage he appears in a joy.

With no companion the Doctor is lonely and finds himself playing chess by himself and always losing. He finds it much easier to have somebody else around to tell him precisely what he should be wearing. Humans and their ability to do astonishing feats for ridiculous reasons never ceased to amaze him. In his next regeneration he makes a silent wish for body fat. He’s a true action hero when he pops up with a plan to capsize the remains of the Viking ship and save the remaining crew. The Doctor always had to resist the urge to stay underwater because it was so beautiful down there, so new and with so much to see. This time the psychic paper lets him down and promotes him as a rabbit inspector! The Doctor talks to all but takes no sides. He’s a God, a trickster, a shape shifter and a joker. He can empathise with children because basically he is one. He tries and fails to look bashful, its just not in his nature. It took a lot to make the Doctor feel small. Normally he felt he danced across the universe on the tips of his toes like Fred Astaire. But this, somehow, seemed like a world that was not quite yet his to play in. He finds it an unsullied world, a bit horrible but doing its own thing. ‘This planet is very much not open for business to the rest of you, thank you’ he tells the rest of the universe. He draws the sea up into a defence wall, like a God controlling the elements. In a moment of pure cool he proceeds to surf the wave all the way to the shore! Suddenly the Doctor doesn’t feel flippant when a boy with his life ahead of him is reduced to a ghastly outline and the proud man who loved him is howling in pain. Even when he is in a hurry the Doctor is unable to stop himself from examining the more unusual species as he makes his way across the surface of the young ocean, bursting with new life. In the throng of asphyxiation the Doctor wonders if he might regenerate into something with gills. On the verge of death the Doctor feels for the first time in a very long time, relaxed. Nothing could scare him or chase him, he felt totally comfortable. The Doctor’s relationship with the TARDIS has never felt more intimate as he orders her to run and save herself, leaving him to die. He admits that he isn’t a God but he is a Lord and he has no magic powers apart from his astonishing brain thank you very much. ‘Who says I’m grown up? Perhaps I’m just unnervingly tall!’ – there’s a lovely moment where the Doctor pauses to dance about in the rain with a child. He feels real frustrating because he isn’t used to problems that he can’t solve in an hour. The Doctor hates lying to children but not as much as he hated scaring them. He doesn’t know much about women but he does know that its always the mans fault. The Doctor is really torn at the climax because the Arill form a field of iridescent jellyfish that he finds utterly delightful to look at. He offers himself to the Arill, his brain like a massive battery full of energy, even though it will mean the end of his life. At least he wont have to eat anymore raw rabbit. His head is desperate to burst into flames with the millions of strands of consciousness feed on him, his brain screaming. How awesome is it that they become the Aurora Borealis? A line of charged particles, circling endlessly. ‘You’ll be able to check up on them whenever you like.’ Eoric isn’t saved but he does get to live with the Gods. All fathers and sons should get a chance to say goodbye and the Doctor manages to arrange that as the power leaves his body.

Great Ideas: You might find yourself instantly drawn to Freydis who is the Donna Noble of the Vikings, a loud mouthed, flame haired woman who is being held captive against her will and being taken as a gift to Gissar Polvaderson, the Icelandic King and the fattest man anyone has ever seen. Snakes of flame attack the Viking ship, bursting through its decks and crew and leaving an ominous fiery ghost ship approaching the shore. The fire snakes are indiscriminate, blazing, unstoppable. The Viking ship is capsized with all the spectacle and drama of the Titanic. Braziers are lit to warn the neighbouring towns – one means send help and two stay away because they have war or disease. Corc is described as a good chief but a terrible father which pretty much sums him up. His son Eoric resents his brother Luag because if it hadn’t been for him he would still have a mother, she died in childbirth. Erik’s Viking crew want to rape and pillage exposing just how extraordinary Ragnor’s crew were for not behaving that way, thanks to the Doctor. Suddenly Ragnor’s crew can see how terrifying the raiding parties can be to those on the land. For the first time ever the outside of the TARDIS impresses somebody far more than the inside (‘I realise you haven’t really invented perspective yet. But everything in there is actually bigger, you know, not just closer’). The TARDIS can jump galaxies in a heartbeat, throw herself headlong into hundreds of thousands of years and bounce along the very edge of existence…but she really, really, really doesn’t like water very much. Henrik’s way of telling the Doctor that he is impressed with the TARDIS (the ship that can ‘jump through the air’) is absolutely gorgeous. The world at the bottom of the ocean is dangerous, alien and utterly beautiful. The Arill live as ghost webs and trolls and throng cyberspace and endospace and any non physical existence. They are a race of pure consciousness that need networks in order to survive. They love war planets, anywhere they can parasite on energy sources with causing too much trouble. This time they are ridiculously, embarrassingly early. On the Earth at this stage all they have is tiny amounts of electrical energy in the brain to feed them. They are swarming wanderers and they need power connections to continue the line. They are beautifully visualised as a colourful fountain of 1s and 0s at the bottom of the ocean. The TARDIS has been trying to hide from them because she is the only power source in the world capable of sating them. They want to suck the life out of her once she has helped them to escape this primitive world. I loved the sudden leap to Henrik’s backstory, his story of falling through the ice and being carried along the river beneath the ice is rivetingly told. Its great set up for the climax, telling of how he was pulled from the freezing river close to death and survived – an impossible boy. The Arill can drain any power source, they could suck up a sun. They can’t stop being hungry and they will feast on everything and everyone they can get their hands on. To maintain their species they will feed on the only power source available to them – the people. ‘They steal and ravage planets and plunder all their power and leave them for barren waste. But some people think that’s quite romantic.’ I love the idea that Henrik thinks that other worlds are really small because that is how they appear in the sky. Braan killing his wife to spare her from an even worse death is painful to read. There is a fascinating passage about the many different hunger pangs a human being feels. Colgan suggests an anti-climax by making it appear as if the Arill are sacrificing some of their number to escape the Earth but its just a ploy to get the reader and the characters of their guard so they can attack in force. Some of the villagers are made so cold by the lack of fire they choose to join the warmth of the Arill. ‘They didn’t start out a bad race, you know. But they seem to have got a taste for it. Like children playing with matches.’ The Doctor’s very clever plan is to use swords as a lightning attractor and force the Arill out of his body as the bolt hits him, the unwanted hitchhikers flung into the sky with the awesome power source.

Funny Bits:
  • ‘We’re going to have to make like fish’ ‘Under the water?’ ‘No, flying fish. Yes under the water.’
  • The Doctor’s boat didn’t look seaworthy for a Sunday duck pond, never mind the wild North Atlantic!
  • Freydis’ escape from the Viking’s the second time around is very funny, attacking the guard who hadn’t even bothered to ogle her and holding Erik hostage and hoping that he wasn’t fearsomely unpopular! Just as the ship is turning back to the shore the Doctor blunders in with the TARDIS and ruins everything!
  • ‘Argh! I am not going to die in metric!’ – the TARDIS falls to the bottom of the ocean like a heavy stone and the Doctor counts down their descent.
  • ‘Unless we all start living underwater. But that doesn’t happen until the year 3000.’
  • The Doctor is desperate for that game of ‘Chest’ so he teaches Luag who resorts to a battle featuring a red headed Queen, a fat King, Horsies and Prawns!
  • He is appalled that the Vikings have a word for ‘cool’ but not one for ‘bow tie’ especially when the two are practically synonymous!
  • Only Doctor Who would dare to stage a sitcom domestic between two Vikings!

Notes: There are moments and images in this story that feel like kisses to previous books in the range even though it is probably entirely coincidental. There have been so many books in the Doctor Who range now that you are bound to happen across similar ideas and set pieces from time to time. Eoric with glowing eyes and smoking footsteps is reminiscent of the fire creatures from Justin Richards’ The Burning. Henrik in the diving suit attempting to rescue the Doctor brings back memories of an Impossible Astronaut (which is referring to the TV series but could also be a reference to Apollo 23). Eoric’s burning boat funeral brings back images of the Doctor’s death in the season six opener. Freydis trying to save Henrik feels remarkably like Amy’s attempts to revive Rory in The Curse of the Black Spot but it has much more tension because unlike ‘cat of nine lives’ Rory you actually feel as though Henrik might die. The Doctor using the elements so powerfully to save the day recalls The Year of Intelligent Tigers.

Result: Dark Horizons is an effortlessly readable book, concealing evocative imagery and charming characterisation within. Potent set pieces, an unusual and voracious villain and a great deal of humour add to this books charms and help it go down like a spectacular desert. Henrik and Freydis have a terrifically engaging romance that sees them coming from different worlds and triumphing despite their heritage and the dangers that are constantly thrown at them. Colgan allows you to get close to the characters so that their losses really hurt and without undoing those deaths allows for a marvellously uplifting climax. Its not an especially complex plot but this is one book that will bewitch you with the quality of its writing, its fabulously drawn setting and a cast of characters that really come alive. Chief amongst them is the eleventh Doctor who has never been better served in print and made me laugh and cry in equal measures. He’s absolutely delightful here and you might find yourself longing for more full length novels featuring him once it is over. With her delicious prose and exciting storytelling, Colgan is a fresh new voice for the range and continues the strong line of female writers attracted to Doctor Who (Orman, Rose, Rayner). I had a blast reading this book and found that once it had got its hooks into me I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it: 9/10

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