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The Shadows of Avalon

By Paul Cornell

Book review by Brad Schmidt

Like Love and War and Human Nature, The Shadows of Avalon is one of those pivotal Doctor Who novels which not only knocks the series askew, but will also be discussed for years to come - and they're all by Paul Cornell. The events of the novel are certainly extraordinary enough to assure Avalon's place as one of those novels that'll be lauded even by fans who have not read it. The seeming removal of two of Doctor Who's steadfast icons from the regular canon seems the intention here, and it also knots a few of the loose threads whipsawing through the books lately, as well as setting up several disturbing ones to come. After this novel, nothing in the series would surprise me.

Avalon is not a sequel to Battlefield, as the Doctor explains, it's simply another Arthurian dimension which opens alongside the series' own. There's a lot of dimension-reconciling going on, since the Brigadier is still youthful a la Happy Endings, and Romana is still President of Gallifrey (albeit a shade more nasty), and a Bernice Summerfield did indeed get married in the BBC world. It's exciting to see such acknowledgement given to the fairly worldwide assumption that the BBC novels are simply the Virgin ones with an embarrassingly large logo, and it opens a good few possibilities for the future.

Despite all this, Avalon is not a terribly wonderful book. It's littered with tedious battle scenes, yet it's the smaller events that really don't matter which make the story work, more often than not as a symbolic or metaphorical tale. The Doctor builds a wooden police box - how many fans have or have wanted to do that? - and the Queen of the Catuvelauni is called Mab, reminding us again with an allusion to the greatest of writers that Doctor Who is now literature.

The Brigadier is hardly likeable throughout the story, and of all the Doctors it is surprisingly the Eighth alongside whom he does not easily work. Making us want to cry for him at the end, however, and being utterly disturbed by what becomes of Compassion is what assures Cornell's cherished reputation in the face of some dull storylines. It's this glut of emotion which typifies Cornell's work and what makes Avalon a nice end to a frustratingly ambiguous story-arc. Avalon is fantasy, and cathartic at that, and utterly atypical for the BBC. [4/5]

This item appeared in TSV 60 (June 2000).

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