Dreams of Empire has a reasonably interesting plot, fairly interesting characters, and a storyline that twists and turns in a proficient enough manner, but ultimately contains little to really excite or engage the reader. Justin Richards is the most prolific Doctor Who author of recent times, and sadly this is one of those novels that feels as though it was conceived and completed within the space of a few short weeks.
The story falls neatly into the ‘base under siege’ template, with the 2nd Doctor, Jamie and Victoria trapped on an asteroid as a revolutionary robotic army attempt to free a deposed Emperor. Richards starts his novel with an achingly familiar format, as the TARDIS team land and are immediately arrested for a murder they didn’t commit. Much of the novels tension is kept up by the ongoing mystery of just who the killer is, but Richards rather shoots himself in the foot by making the murderer the most obvious suspect, instead tagging on an extra little plot twist regarding the ex-Emperor himself to keep things interesting. There’s occasionally a feel here that the TARDIS has brought the Doctor sideways into the Star Wars universe, with the plot concerning a power play to transform a republic into an empire, while the imprisoned would-be Emperor fits neatly into the Darth Vader role, with his burned features having to be hidden be a mask that transforms his voice into a rasp. The plot is functional but obvious, with all the moves blatantly telegraphed – for example, early on in the novel we get a long description of an exotic star chart room which otherwise seems to have no bearing on the storyline, so it’s hardly a surprise when this suddenly turns out to play a deciding role in the climax – while the subtext concerning the characters actions mirroring that of pieces on a chessboard is rammed down the readers throats with clumsy heavy-handedness.
Richards handling of the regulars is reasonable, though his 2nd Doctor is painted in rather broad strokes. The 2nd Doctor has often been described as the most difficult to capture in prose, and Richards writes the role to the extreme of the character shown on TV, with the Doctor vacillating between deadly serious and over the top clowning and comedy “Oh my goodness!” pratfalls: the character is certainly recognisable, but it teeters on the very edge of being a caricature. Jamie and Victoria sadly seem rather underused in the novel, playing little decisive part in the outcome of the story, instead paving the way for a fairly weak subplot concerning a love triangle between a jealous Jamie, a gullible Victoria and a rather obvious android.
Ultimately Dreams of Empire is functional but bland, and its reliance on one setting makes this a rather dreary novel. By no means awful, just a bland workmanlike pulp science fiction adventure.
There is a myth amongst Doctor Who fans that the second Doctor is remarkably difficult to capture in print. This was bourne from a number of desperately poor interpretations that littered the Vurgin Missing Adventures. The point that nobody seems to take into account is that these books were written by poor authors. Gary Russell, Martin Day, Chris Bulis and such like, writers who haven't found it in them to write a decent book despite several attempts (except possibly Bulis on the odd occasion). The BBC books have been a lot more fortunate in this respect by not only giving us some well written second Doctor books (The Murder Game, The Final Sanction, Combat Rock) but some spot on characteriations of the main man too.
Justin Richards has always been my favourite Doctor Who writer and this is another superb book in one hell of a run. And one of the best features of this story is his near perfect take on the second Doctor. It's so good in places you can actually hear Troughton saying the dialogue and goofing about throughout. It's so Doc 2 to improvise this much, he always seemed to guess his way through his stories and hope for the best. He always seemed to hop about sheepishly when he realised he had made a big mistake. Of course he always had a plan after all and triumphed with a wicked smile on his face. All those characteristics are here but it was his movements and mannerisms I was so impressed with. Justin has him lacing his fingers together, shifting from a smile to looking utterly crestfallen, dancing about as things get exciting, pulling faces as though he is sucking a marble (come on you ALL know that face Troughton pulled!)...it's so vividly Troughton. Most of all he seems to be enjoying himself and that is the biggest asset of this book, the Doctor's lust for adventure is quite infectious. His quick flaring temper too (ooh I better stop or i'll be here all day).
Jaime and Victoria are also well developed. His protection of Victoria reaches levels of insanity as it did in the series to the point where he doesn't care if his life is in danger just so long as she is safe. His sulks when the technical talk starts up felt very real, Jaime nods and smiles as though he knows exactly what everyone is talking about but in reality he is embarassed to know so little. Of course the gorgeous scotsman was alwys a man of action and he gets to flex his muscles quite a bit in a book that throws him in a heroic light. Victoria was always a favourite of mine and not just because I always wanted to give her a big cuddle what with all the horrible monsters she was always facing. She was actually tougher than she looked and Justin captures that well, her exploration of the castle to find a quick escape route should things turn nasty felt very realistic. Its typical Troughton fare to thrust all these horrors in her face, burner corpses and such like and Victoria's horrified reactions are always good for raising the tension.
I always thought Justin was better at plot than he was at character but this book has proven me wrong. His secondary cast are all well done. Cleverly he sets up the whole book in the first chapter, a little confusing at first as we are expected to get involved with these people instantly but it is soon clear that this is a good approach to storytelling, not only because when we skip years ahead in chapter we are already familiar with the political machinations and relationships but it also helps lays the seeds for the barrage of twists in the last third.
The four major characters Trayx, Kesar, Crugar and Helena are especially thoughtfully written. The book hinges on their relationships and much of what they have done in the first chapter affects the rest of the book. It is worth taking note that not everything is as it seems with these characters and Justin is renound of playing tricks with the reader so paying close attention to what they say and do is important. The Helena/Kesar affair is sensitively handled and I was waiting on tenderhooks for Trayx to find out. It is one of the smaller (yet biggest in terms of the war) twists when we find out his reaction. Trayx was my favourite character of the bunch just because Justin seems most comfortable telling his story, his immediate acceptanc that the Doctor was not the murderer won me over straight away.
Smaller characters were just as good and strenghtening the chess motive you can feel them circl;ing each other on the board which is the novel. Hints of relationships, whispers of rebellions...it is impossible to know who to trust but is intense fun trying to guess who is involved. Darkling and Haden are quite memorable despite their scenes being kept to a minimum and Prion was also worth keeping an eye on, his bizarre behaviour not just spotted by Jaime.
Did I mention twists? Oh come on this is but that git Richards! He knows how to play with you in the most wonderful way. He always leaves a few twists out in the open which I jump on immediately and once again proclaim I have outfoxed his tight plotting. But there are always two or three MAJOR twists in the last few chapters that catch me out. It is one of the most fun things about reading his books. I kind of guessed who was behind the killings in Dreams of Empire but was entirely unprepared for the shock identidy twist in the last chapter. Very sneaky and yet painfully obvious.
The book thrives on its claustrophobic atmosphere and small setting. A castle in space is an easy location to picture and Justin does his best to make it as atmospheric as possible. This is everything Peladon should have been. Once the VETAC's arrive there is plenty of action to go around especially if you found the ponderous chattiness of the first third a little slow. The robots themselves are very cool, fast and scary just as they should be.
I really can't find much to fault this book, it is just the right length to keep you interested, the chess motif is discreet and not at all overdone and the prose is quite fluent. It is another old PDA that is worth a second read and proof that Mr Justin Richards is a master storyteller.
The plot to this novel appears to be a hanger for the same metaphor, which crops up in various guises. However, the surface is concerned with the incarceration of a would-be Emperor, and a mysterious vessel bearing down on his prison with a variety of interesting motives.
I hope you like chess. I really, really do. Otherwise it's very easy to get bored. Justin Richards at least assumes no previous knowledge, which means that chess terms are explained. However, more entertainment can be gleaned from counting how many times the word 'chess' is mentioned, on a par with the 'biodata' game in 'Alien Bodies'. It's a pity, as with a little more restraint the chess metaphor would have been deeply effective as a description of the sheer boredom of incarceration. Instead, we have the various characters cast as figures from the game, actually spelt out to us. Dumbing down is one thing, but this is taking things a little too far.
And speaking of things going too far, Richards' portrayal of the second Doctor is enough to make the reader cheer for his opponents. The intial TARDIS scene is so deeply irritating, I nearly gave up on the rest of the book there and then. However, once the plot is brought to bear, the Doctor settles down a bit, and at last begins to display some of the qualities we know and love in our hero.
Far more acceptable are the rest of the characters. Kesar, for all he fits the classic profile of the kind of megalomaniac DW so excels at, remains a deeply likable person. Especially when seen with his two friends, revealing a relationship able to survie being on opposite sides of a civil war. It's deeply touching, and the great emotional highpoint of the book. Indeed, it's hard not to get attached to the human 'bad guys', and were it not for the VETACs, the reader would have nobody to boo- a terrible quandary for a seasoned DW fan! This ambiguity towards the chracters makes a surprisingly effective point about the nature of civil war, a subtlty that seems odd in the light of all the chess.
The possible exception to the above is Helana Trayx, wife of one of the men and sometime lover of Kesar. She has very little bearing on the plot, except for a speculation right at the end, and seems to be there simply to float around in a tight white dress and make Victoria look positively capable. Is now a good time to point out that, since this is a novel, it's all a bit of a wasted effort?
And more decoration arrives in the form of the Stardial. Lovingly described, it too suffers from not being in a more visual medium. So the one fact the reader takes away with them is that it holds a vast store of energy. Ho hum. It's just as well Richards then proceeds to forget about it for half the book, as it's just a little bit too obvious.
The above statement could apply to the entire book. It's just a little bit too obvious. The target audience may be (fairly!) young, but that's no excuse to assume it's stupid as well.
In brief: Very well done. Richards captures Troughton extremely well and provides a strong plot that feels like a return to his strengths. Highly recommended.
I was quite surprised by this book. I wasn't really sure what to expect, which is always a nice way to go into a book. Unlike Richards' recent books, the story here is utterly focused and superb. There's political intrigue aplenty, but it's all very well thought out and the reader is constantly rewarded. This really feels like the epitome of the Justin Richards approach.
Characterisation is also a strong point. The Doctor is incredibly over the top and ridiculous - and never once does this feel out of place. The Doctor is every inch Troughton, something I never thought I'd see in Past Doctor fiction. I'm astounded by the feat that's been pulled off here; it really puts the other writers of second Doctor fiction to shame, proving that you *can* capture his character, if only you're willing to put a bit of work in. I'm still in shock.
Indeed, one of my few complaints is that the energy level dipped a bit as the book went on. This isn't such a problem, really, as the early chapters really set the tone with a deceptively simple authority and subsequent chapters continue to ride on the crest of this wave. The Doctor becomes slightly more subdued (though only slightly), but it's a testament to Richards' wonderful approach that I was crying out for more.
Jamie and Victoria are also well portrayed, although it's always clear that this is Troughton's book. Richards' love of the second Doctor era absolutely shines through with this loving homage: there's a base under siege, attacking monsters (of a sort), running around, a Doctor who may well have no clue about what's going on, yet succeeds, possibly by accident and saves the day. And still the story is exciting and fresh and extremely well structured. Wow.
The politics of the Haddron Empire are very well set out in the first chapter. It's a bit of a struggle to get through, with the (initially) unfamiliar characters, but it really pays off again and again throughout the book (and I'll guarantee that you'll find yourself flipping back to it again and again to discover more and more clues that were in plain sight).
The chess theme is very strong, but somehow never quite crosses the line into annoying. It really fits in with what's going on, from the chapter titles to the games the characters play to important plot points to a metaphor for the motivation of certain players.
My only real complaint is a minor one: I thought there were just a few too many characters. It's always tough with characters with Science Fiction-y names, especially when there are a few who appear only so they can be killed off dramatically. I don't really mind this so much (and most had a useful function somewhere in the plot) and I'd always rather a book were aimed too high than too low.
The plot twists and turns expertly and for the first time in ages I felt that the author had pitched it just right. I saw some things coming, but only when I was supposed to (and a few things I really thought I'd pegged earlier than I should have... only to turn the page and realise Richards had been toying with me). Even the back cover blurb is in on it, cleverly misdirecting attention away from the really obvious things that aren't obvious at all until you know about them. Indeed, the whole book has the really satisfying feel of a professional magician smoothly guiding your attention exactly where he wants, but making sure you're having lots of fun all the time.
The ending absolutely blew me away. I won't say too much about it, except that endings are usually Richards' strong points and he doesn't disappoint here. I'm also quite pleased that a typical weak point (the OTT villain) didn't detract too much. The ranting villain did appear, but there was far more going on than just this (and there were some differences between this and other books by this author) that it didn't feel out of place.
In short, I loved this book. The PDAs have been doing some wonderful things and Dreams of Empire maintains the high standards the line is aiming for and so consistently achieving. There are so many wonderful things about this book that I cannot recommend it strongly enough. A superb piece of Doctor Who magic.