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Strange England

By Simon Messingham

Book review by Chris Girdler

Weird can be wonderful, but recent efforts by New Adventures writers to diverge from the more conventional plots have had limited success. Strange England is Doctor Who in the mould of Ghost Light but fails to capture the panache or style of that serial.

Often the prose is awkward or self-conscious and the characterisation shaky - the first chapter is particularly unimpressive. Messingham's strong point is his depiction of violence or horror. Brutal deaths are delivered with chilling clarity. "'I'm shot,' he murmured through a ruined mouth and slid to the ground." (p.137); "Bert fell into his arms, a hole in his stomach spilling his life away." (p.145). The atmosphere of these passages, during the Ace sub-plot, is similar to that of a Quentin Tarantino film, but with the edge of science fiction.

Benny initially has an uncharacteristic lack of tolerance and too much is made of Ace's 'tough soldier' attitude, but as the story develops they become more recognisable. They are both successfully integrated into the story but there is too much focus on the companions, as the Doctor is left to make pots of tea or tell the time. Having the Doctor appear less frequently is not a guarantee that he is going to appear more sinister. Not once did I visualise the Doctor in this novel as the seventh Doctor - in fact, the Time Lord is unlike any of the Doctor's incarnations.

The revelation that the Doctor, Benny and Ace were responsible for the upsurge in evil within the environment makes for some messy plot holes. The deadly bug flew into Victoria's mouth before the TARDIS crew met any of the inhabitants of the house and Ted got swallowed by a tree before the TARDIS even landed. A plethora of surreal imagery such as this is inimical to the whole project. The strangeness becomes excessive and the attempt to explain it all in a straightforward resolution falls flat. Aside from the bug imagery that recalls Burroughs' Naked Lunch, Strange England is an insubstantial book and well worth a miss.

Book review by David Lawrence

Interesting cover. Interesting book. The Doctor, Bernice and Ace arrive at what seems to be a normal dull Victorian country house. Fortunately it isn't. Like the last time the Doctor visited such a place in Ghost Light, this house is far from normal and rather macabre. An innocent young girl gets impregnated by a funny insect thing and supposedly dies, and the inhabitants of the house have never before experienced notions such as death, cold and fear. And in the best creepy Victorian house tradition, something nasty is lurking in the cellar, and it's not the cheap wine.

Strange England is quite an enigmatic book at first. Lots of bizarre things are happening and you expect there'll be some highly complicated answers as the book progresses. There are intriguing concepts, like the rapid changing of time and Charlotte's ageing, and ample opportunity for horror - Victoria's return from the dead is chilling but over all too quickly. And there's quite a bit of violence too. "You're the cultured one", says Ace to Benny. "I just kill things". Oh yes, yes.

The big disappointment about Strange England is that it all turns out to be pretty straightforward. The highly complicated answers never come - the book sets up a whole lot of incredible ideas and then wastes them by either not following them up or explaining them all away as just being part of the Matrix where anything is possible. As if that idea hasn't already worn totally thin. And while we're on the subject, let's stop all this 'people from the Doctor's past' bollocks too.

It might not sound like it, but I really enjoyed Strange England; I was just frustrated by the explanations (or lack of them) for the strange goings-on. Certainly it is one of the better books of late. The back cover blurb is interesting though: "A world ruled by the Quack... whose aim is the total destruction of the Doctor"? Isn't that a bit off-track? Deceptive, to say the least.

Book review by Jamas Enright

If I were to name one story that this book reminded me of, it would be Ghost Light. Once again, we have a strange Victorian manor, weird people, and change being a major part of the proceedings.

Strange England is however a book in its own right. Despite what Felicity (and Messingham) think. I found this book very good and quite believable. The plot does seem twisted, but the approach I took was not to try to understand it but just to read the story and trust the author to know what he is talking about (it worked for Ghost Light). It's quite surprising how much you realise you understand when necessary.

As for the plot, a Victorian England connected to Victorian England story, it made a refreshing change from the usual England connected to a strange planet. Even from the very first death, Messingham manages to keep people and things from being what they seem.

The Doctor is not so much manipulative as manipulated, but still aware of the rules of his confinement and manages to work out what is happening long before anyone else. Towards the end he is working behind the scenes to keep his companions safe (which is a more familiar position).

Bernice is familiar, but Ace has becomes more compassionate than usual. Instead of her usual tough exterior (although she had mellowed in Blood Harvest), Messingham seems to drift towards the other extreme with Ace caring for others after only a short introduction. Although the other characters are somewhat one-dimensional, they fill that dimension quite well, but their main purpose seems to be to have as gruesome and graphic (and innovative) a death as possible. While this is interesting reading, this does tend to make the characters rather meaningless. The Quack especially is rather pathetic in hindsight.

The main villain, Doctor Rix, had potential. Having had him define God's plan as one to cause pain, and then set out to defeat that (having read the Prelude made this more understandable), I thought that Rix would have initiated some interesting scenes where he causes pain to eradicate it. Instead, Rix gets involved in an elaborate chase sequence. His eventual downfall, after gaining power from Assimilation, was stupid.

While this book is not bad enough to make it rejectable, and indeed is quite a good read, that are some aspects which could have been done better.

This item appeared in TSV 42 (January 1995).

Index nodes: Strange England