I really like Jac Rayner's voice. Reading this straight after Steve Cole's The Feast of the Damned was like having a lovely refreshing bath after coming home from a unpleasantly sticky day at work. I found it breezy and charming. I've always liked her knack with character, even in books which seemed to get a lukewarm reception. EarthWorld for instance has heart, wit and a light but deft touch with its cast, which helped me enjoy it more than certain solid but stolid offerings.
Of these first three 10th Doctor novels, it's the only one where I actually enjoyed reading the pages as opposed to the story they contained. Steve Cole was Steve Cole, whereas Justin Richards was putting on his "Ho Ho Ho Look At Me I'm Robert Louis Stevenson" hat.
Unfortunately the plot is bollocks. It starts well, if predictably, but soon wanders off in strange directions before disintegrating into complete bibble. The Doctor and Rose spend a third of the book not even suspecting what's been blatantly obvious to the reader from the beginning. If you'll forgive a digression, one of Farscape's virtues that one that I particularly appreciated was their ability to flatter the audience's intelligence. They recognised that these days we can see cliches a mile off and would thus take them as a mere starting point, subverting them in a whole chain of toppling dominoes almost before you knew what was happening. It was delicious. Jac Rayner, er, doesn't. She presents a predictable SF idea with utter wide-eyed sincerity and takes forever to let the regulars realise the bleeding obvious. It makes them look like idiots, not to mention the author.
Admittedly there are twists. The book's first act has genuine surprises alongside the complete non-surprises that had been obvious for eighty pages. That might even have been cool had the regulars been allowed a little intelligence. Unfortunately they're constrained by the plot to react instead of thinking, to potter in Jac Rayner's admittedly charming fashion through Ancient Rome without ever considering possibilities that might be awkward for the story.
Then the Doctor gets himself in trouble for no good reason whatsoever in a mini-episode with no relevance to anything else. It's lazy plotting. "Hey, it's Ancient Rome! We need gladiators!" It's his own stupid fault, too. He thoughtlessly annoys an influential local, is gratuitously flippant when they meet again and practically lets himself get captured. It's probably a good thing that this section has no consequences and goes nowhere, because it would have killed the book for something permanent to happen because of the Doctor's thoughtlessness.
What's most annoying is that these days there's even less excuse than normal for a "whoops, this needs padding out, better throw in a couple of pointless chapters that add nothing to the story before returning to the main plot". How long are these books? 50,000 words? Theoretically there's no reason why one of these annoyingly-formatted hardbacks couldn't feel like a normal book with the fat cut out. There's a simple dramatic spine to something like Love and War or Human Nature, for instance, although for something like Just War or Alien Bodies you'd have to start cutting out characters or plot threads. However The Stone Rose seems to think that being a 50,000-word children's book means it needn't bother with anything so boring as a well-constructed story.
Anyway, the gladiatorial stuff disappears after thirty pages never to be seen again and it's back to the plot. I quite enjoyed these bits, but again they weren't over-burdened with intelligence. The best example is a present day scene with Mickey and the Doctor. The Doctor has some bad news. He tells it and Mickey reacts as anyone would in a genuinely well-written moment. The emotion in those more pages felt truer than anything in the Stephen Cole book I'd just read. I believed in Mickey's grief. What I didn't believe was that the Doctor would torture him like that by waiting so long to tell him the good bit. It made the Doctor look like a bastard and an idiot. Admittedly this lapse in plausibility is so blatant that even the book realises it, with Mickey getting a little speech in which he hurls precisely that accusation at the Doctor, but the response he gets isn't exactly convincing. The real reason is that Jac Rayner had a set-piece she wanted to write and wasn't particularly worried about riding roughshod over logic and the reader's intelligence to do so.
Despite such problems, there's good stuff in this section. We've long since left behind the pure historical narrative of the early chapters (which I'd been enjoying), but the book's still dangling some intriguing questions. Unfortunately in due time we learn the answers. Sadly the ending is just stupid. I'm not going to stamp my feet and object that it's not real Doctor Who or anything so daft. I like silliness. Weird is good. My problem is that it's just not very dramatic or interesting. Yet again someone sheds about fifty IQ points for the sake of the story. This time it's Rose. Her stupidity is at its peak during a set-piece scene around page 200 although frankly she's a bit dim throughout the entire final act.
The book's last six pages are genuinely sweet. I really enjoyed those, but they didn't make up for the preceding 75 pages being amusing but bleah with an "anything goes" plot coupon and no dramatic tension whatsoever. There are developments which could theoretically have been interesting, but they're undermined by the twin curses of that aforementioned plot coupon and the obvious laziness of the plotting. If anything can (and probably will) be undone in a couple of paragraphs, who cares?
I liked the ancient Romans, even if they end up sidelined in favour of nonsense. If we must get all these Earthbound stories, at least give us some history. It's nice stuff, fun and interesting. However I was almost shocked to read in the afterword that Jac Rayner has a degree in ancient history. She could have written a nice juicy historical, but this Roman era feels more like a holiday destination. There's something slightly half-hearted about this book. It doesn't have the courage of its convictions, throwing in all kinds of random ingredients in a vaguely crowd-pleasing way without making the most of any of them.
This is the least intelligent book I've read in a long time... but I still enjoyed it. It's charming. It has heart. These are qualities that I've often felt can be lacking from the Doctor Who books in general. I admire Jac Rayner's way with words, but unfortunately this book makes her look stupid.
Sometimes artists are struck by inspiration and write a beautiful song, novel or verse and then are stumped to think of a title that really encapsulates their work. On other occasions, they come up with a title that is funny, clever and catchy before they even have the vaguest idea what their work is going to be about. I might be wrong, but I’d guess “The Stone Rose” falls into the latter group… Thankfully, Doctor Who veteran Jacqueline Rayner does her wonderful title justice with a novel that is every bit as fun, imaginative and scary as the TV series that it is tied-in to.
The ‘second’ of the tenth Doctor’s adventures in print (well, I say ‘second’ but the three books actually were released simultaneously) is one that wonderfully captures the new Doctor’s personality. As this book is set very early in the second series (definitely after “New Earth”, and definitely before “School Reunion”), we still have a “new, new Doctor” that Rose and Mickey are still getting used to. Nevertheless, the Doctor’s babbling dialogue is right on the mark, as is his Troughton-esque faux-naiveté. There are some particularly funny scenes with Ursis (one of the story’s villains) where the Doctor takes everything he says literally, reminding me of how sarcasm used to always fall flat on the old second Doctor!
Rose and Mickey are both also represented very well. Rose has changed so much since she first met the Doctor, demonstrated by Rayner in the final third of the novel where Rose has to save the day almost single-handedly. There are also signs that Mickey has begun to benefit from the Doctor’s inference in his life. He may have been through that year of hell and suffered a great deal of heartache because of the Time Lord, but already in this novel Mickey is starting to show his potential. He might not be “Mickey Smith – defending the Earth!” yet, but he’s at least Mickey Smith, doing his bit for charity and the local kids.
“The Stone Rose” is by no means perfect though. After the first two or three chapters in present day London, there are several chapters set in second century Rome that although well written, struggled to hold my attention. Historical Who is hard to write, but recent efforts like “The Council of Nicaea” and “The Kingmaker” have shown just how good such stories can be when handled well. The first Doctor’s trip to Rome during the original series’ second season was a charming but lightweight affair, and as I read through chapters about the toga-wearing Doctor fighting off Lions with the help of his buddies John, Paul, George and Ringo I think I can be forgiven for thinking that “The Stone Rose” was heading in the same direction.
However, around the halfway mark Jacqueline Rayner really shifts things up a gear as the multi-faceted plot opens up. The GENIE is a fascinating creature for Rose to pit her wits against, and the temporal paradox that the Doctor ends up stuck in is so head-scratchingly clever that Steve Lyons could have written it! Best of all, “The Stone Rose” is a story about something the new series has only really scratched the surface of – time travel. Okay, there was “Father’s Day”, but aside from that, one has to admit it’s convenient how the Doctor and Rose always go back to visit Jackie and Mickey after their last visit. This novel has the Doctor doubling back on himself, asking poor ol’ Mickey questions like “Is this before or after last time?” Fantastic!
At the end of the day, this isn’t the best Doctor Who novel I’ve ever read, but it’s a damn good read anyway. As with last year’s batch of novels, fans of the more ‘adult’ Virgin and BBC Doctor Who novels may find these novels somewhat lacking, but if BBC Books can keep churning out tie-in novels of this quality (both literally and physically – these new series novels are absolutely beautiful to look at!), then hopefully a good few children should get hooked on reading.
When BBC Books changed the format of the Doctor Who novels for the new series by cutting the page count and aiming at a younger readership it was inevitable that the resulting books would feel rather ‘dumbed down’, but Jacqueline Rayner’s previous contribution ‘Winner Takes All’ was so condescendingly childish it would surely annoy even those it was aimed at. As such hearing that this author was to be given another shot at this format filled my heart with dread, but the good news is that ‘The Stone Rose’ is considerably better than ‘Winner Takes All’, and while by no means could it ever be called a great book it is at least readable, and even occasionally enjoyable, which for Rayner is surely some kind of triumph.
The storyline sends the Tenth Doctor and Rose back to ancient Rome for another pseudo-historical (will the new series ever have the guts to do a ‘pure’ historical?) where - in a reversal of Gareth Robert’s ‘Only Human’ - they find a girl from the future stranded in the past. The story ultimately most resembles the sort of time-twisters that Steve Lyons excels at (see ‘The Fires of Vulcan’ and ‘Colditz’ for example) with the Doctor and Rose having to jump through various time hoops to avoid the seemingly predestined fate of a literally petrified Rose Tyler on display in the British Museum. It breezes along in an amiable fashion, though the Doctor displays levels of idiocy that are fairly hard to credit (let’s see: there’s missing people, statues of them that turn up overnight, and a mysterious sculptor who always wears protective gloves – I know, thinks the Doctor, I’ll let Rose sit for a modelling session with him, ‘cos there’s no way he’s going to turn out to have the power to turn her into stone with his hands now is there?) and the book gets a little waylaid with a very predictable section where the Doctor finds himself fighting in the Coliseum and – yawn – persuades the other prisoners to join forces rather than fight amongst themselves. The novel also turns out to revolve around a wish-fulfilment device of staggering God-like power, and Rayner can’t seem to decide whether it really does alter reality or merely peoples perceptions of reality (different sections of the book contradict each other on this subject – I suspect when Rayner realised how ridiculously powerful her GENIE was she tried to throw in a more believable explanation, but the plot as it stands simply wouldn’t let her). The Doctor and Rose are fairly true to their television counterparts, but in print they come off as even more smug and flippant than usual, with the Doctor in particular being guilty of eccentricity for eccentricities sake.
Still, despite the odd predictable moment, the slightly annoying regulars, and the whopping great deus ex machina that ties everything up, ‘The Stone Rose’ is an amiable enough way to kill an hour or two, and while the time-twisting elements will be familiar to any Who veterans for children coming to this fresh from the TV series it will be a head-spinning concept. A decent children’s novel.