The opening chapter of Tomb of Valdemar is so rotten I prepared myself for a right stinker of a novel. Everything about those first eight pages disgusted me, the loose, tripping prose, the dull characterisation, the story within a story (an idea so old I was shocked to see it attempted here) and the groan-inducing final joke. If there was ever an opening that would put you off reading a book, Tomb of Valdemar would win hands down.
Which is why I was so shocked to discover upon turning the final page that this was one of the best PDA/missing adventures I have ever read, an extremely dark and compelling fantasy that matures considerably and proves beyond a shadow of a doubt how strong a storyteller Simon Messingham actually is. It is certainly miles better than his recent EDA, The Infinity Race and that was okay enough.
Season sixteen is one of my favourites for a variety of reasons, chief among them the abundance of humour that lights up even the drabbest of stories (The Power of Kroll) so the thought of Messingham writing an (extremely) gothic horror more akin to the earlier Hinchcliffe years is quite audacious. We saw flashes of the early, dark Doctor during season sixteen but he was so bubbly and frothy on the whole but here we get to experience a much blacker look at his adventures. Certainly this story would be a joy to watch as a part of the Key to Time season, a diversion from the main arc like The Androids of Tara and a complete divergence from the tone of the season.
Despite my initial misgivings Simon does manage to do something quite clever with his unusual narrative style! This man just loves playing about with narrative doesn't he? The Face-Eater brilliantly spent its first eight or so chapters switching point of view with the principal characters, giving us a chance to get inside their heads before horrible things start happening to them. The Infinity Race switched perspectives all the time, the childish Bloom, the hysterical Fitz and Anji in extremely dry (read wet your pants funny) form. And why not? These are novels after all and narrative style is (after prose and characterisation) one of the few aspects you can have fun with.
The fact that Tomb of Valdemar is a story being told by an old woman to a group of savages over a few days of inclement weather adds to the gothic atmosphere to the piece. The imagery during the storytelling sequences, rough furs, crackling fires and biting snow plants you right in the story. It seems obvious that that this (apparently) superfluous plot is going to link to the story being told but I promise you you will never guess how, not until you've reached the amazing ending that will subvert your expectations and leave you with an insane grin on your face. Plus the surprise death of the old woman halfway through the story leaves you reeling, scared that this particular might not have a climax! How the native, Ponch picks up the narrative, revealing how much he has learnt from her, is sweet and touching.
And the story itself is such a joy you can see why he was so gripped. The narrative voice during the story is so good because at times the old woman/Ponch are making up the details as they go along, embellishing the bits they weren't actually present in. This leaves room for some wonderfully irrelevant (and hysterical) observations about characters and locations. If the story is inconsistent or not playing by the rules who cares? It's only a story... Ashkellia is brought to life with real vivacity. The planet is a harsh, bitter wasteland, acid storms beating at the surface. The Doctor and Romana are trapped on the space station above the surface, their isolation from the TARDIS creating an enticing sense of claustrophobia. The legend of Valdemar creates a terrific mystery and an oppressive atmosphere... just when will the Dark God wake up and claim his lands? Surrounded by bizarre and frightening characters the locations really create a discomforting tone. The station, almost organic, coming alive with the Doctor's administrations before decaying and the surface, angry, viscous, malevolent. Most planets in the Doctor Who canon have made me want to visit but few have scared me this much, so much so I would never wish a visit on my worst enemy.
Imagine writing a story for Tom's Doctor in season sixteen and leashing in his vivacious sense of humour. A story that refuses to make him the clown, to take responsibility for his actions, that dares to give him a label, a fixed role in the universe. Very brave and pulled off with style. The horrific material forces Messingham to write a worried, sensitive Doctor, one who is constantly improvising and having some disturbing internal battles with his conscience. This is the exact opposite of Terrance Dicks' Warmonger, which similarly forced the Doctor (in this case the fifth) in a role that did not match his television persona. It was hopelessly overdone and did the character a grave disservice; Tomb of Valdemar shows how to do it right, shades of the old, jokey fourth Doctor but with the weight of the world on his shoulders giving him much more edge.
This is certainly the Mary Tamm Romana Rob Matthews is in love with and if she had been written with this much verve I would probably be joining him. Her annoying tendencies are all present and correct, the sharp tongue, the sardonic streak, her naivete but they are all kept in check with a wonderful feeling of humanity that many writers fail to include (Dave Stone in particular). One sequence where she believes the Doctor is dead and numbed at the choices ahead of her, her mind begging her to contact the Time Lords to get her out of the horrible mess she is in is brilliant, revealing just how conflicted a character she actually was despite her outward arrogance. Her reaction to the spoilt brats, all the funnier because they are practically her mirror image (albeit with the conceit and overconfidence ten times worse), is priceless and her shameful mistreatment of Huvan, playing on his feelings to keep him in check is only redeemed by the last, uplifting chapter. Any writer who can make this character palatable is worth his weight in gold in my book!
The secondary characters are revolutionary because they are so stereotypical and shallow to begin with and yet each of them show tremendous growth throughout the story it is impossible to think of them as the same people they were at the beginning.
My personal favourite was Miranda Pelham, the old woman storyteller (or is she...?). A fantastic creation that during the first few chapters seems utterly bland and boring and yet flowers with astonishing maturity. As the twists surrounding her character pile up and we realise how much she has been pushed around, abused and tortured it is impossible not to sympathise with Miranda. She is such a humble character; openly admitting she is a coward and sells herself out merely to survive. I loved her bits with the Doctor who can see how much of a coward she actually is but never refuses to give up on her. How she draws on his kindness and generosity makes their friendship one to watch.
Huvan is similarly brilliant but he starts off on exactly the right foot. He is responsible for the book's scariest moments, especially the heart stopping moment he seems to be possessed by Valdemar, gunk oozing from his pustules. Huvan is scary because he is a child with a child's emotions and yet he has access to phenomenal powers. His childish crush on Romana is vomit inducing, his poetry even more so. But inside Huvan is just a frightened, lonely person who has been horrifically mistreated and that is why he is so compelling because his murderous, terrifying actions all the work of another mans greed. Huvan is just as manipulated as any of the characters in the book.
Rivalry can create wonderful drama, just look at the amazing Morgus/Sharaz Jek bitterness that Caves of Androzani is built around. The Hopkins/Neville squabble has a similar feel, so pathetic in its infantile nature and yet so powerful in sweeping so many characters into action. I loved Neville's melodramatic internal monologues, almost a caricature of all those overdone Who baddies. The book exists to tell the tale of these two men, one an obsessive loser, the other a bully and how their obsession with killing each other was their ultimate downfall. Their final fate, locked together in some sickening monster in constant conflict, is a perfect demonstration of how worthless such conflict is.
There was an abundance of chilling moments that rank this amongst the best scare novels Doctor Who has produced (not quite as surreal as Anachrophobia but almost as good). The Doctor suddenly realising what a mistake he has made turning on the station, Romana confronted with the possessed Kampp, the extremely sinister Mr Redfearn all the more scary for being so damn camp!, Kampp and his obsession with cutting women... Messingham seems to have had fun filling the book with lots of icky moments and with this bunch of macabre characters and the disturbing locations they are extremely pronounced.
I really did enjoy this book, so much so I will have to agree with everyone else (and I hate to do that) and call it Messingham's best work to date. For such a throwaway period of the PDAs it is packed full of ideas and atmosphere, proper characters and a genuinely uplifting ending.
So good it could be an EDA.
In brief, “Tomb of Valdemar” is one of the best PDAs I’ve had the pleasure of reading. (Despite having a cover illustration that neatly rips off the sleeve of the early ‘60s Decca recording of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”). Everything, or almost everything, about it is fantastic—the setting, the plot, the characters, and the wonderful story-within-a-story framing device which leaves you guessing until the end, or at least until the name of the villain’s dead dog is revealed.
I’ve seen it written that “Tomb of Valdemar” is entirely consistent with the “Who” era it’s set in—the Key to Time Season—but this is forcing the point a tad. The book is a little out of whack with the jokey “house style” forced on the Graham Williams/ Anthony Read production team by the BBC in the late ‘70s. Instead, it’s a haunting and horrific tale (as few PDAs are, let’s face it) more consistent with the Hinchcliffe/ Holmes period than with “Power of Kroll” or the one with the mediaeval robots and the original Jabba the Hutt and the bloke with the humungous nose).
“Tomb of Valdemar” presents us with an inhospitable world (a la Karn, or the sandstorm planet of “Robots of Death”), horrific transformations (Ark in Space, Seeds of Doom), over made-up Bright Young Things ripe for harvest as monster fodder (again, “Robots of Death”), weird cults and occult goings-on (see “Morbius” and “Image of the Fendhal”), and a series of Holmesian double acts livening up the action (Neville and Hopkins; who end up as the ultimate double act, Romana and Huvan, Miranda Pelham and the Doctor, maybe-Miranda and Ponch, and so on), and a sinister, obsessive pair of psychotic villains (Neville and Hopkins again, with Paul Neville as described being a ringer for the late Tony Beckley of “Seeds of Doom” fame).
If I’m seeing comparisons all over the place, it’s because “Tomb of Valdemar” worked for me on a lot of levels, and captures many elements that made the Fourth Doctor’s era so bloody marvelous. When it’s in Hinchcliffe mode, it’s a brilliant piece. However, there’s a nod to the “Pirate Planet” era in the form of the “gunslinger” assassin Mr. Redfearn, but this character was the only aspect of “Valdemar” that seemed a little forced. He turns up, he tries and fails to shoot the Doctor, and he gets blown to bits. So what? Maybe if he’d been given more to do apart from firing wild shots and drawling he might have made more of an impact. As is, the character seems a little misplaced.
The two main villains, Neville and Hopkins (sounds more like an estate agents’ firm than a pair of interplanetary nutters) are, as you might imagine, totally cracked and, in Hopkins’s case, really rather chilling. Neville is a “decadent necromancer” in the Aleister Crowley/Mr. Magister in “The Daemons” mode, out to resurrect the Old One Valdemar who he believes has been imprisoned on the Venus-like world of Ashkellia. Neville is bunkered down in a palace suspended miles above the surface of Ashkellia by a constant up-blast of superheated gas from within the planet (a fantastic piece of sci-fi whimsy, by the way). Hopkins is witchfinder-general for a (literally) puritanical New Protectorate on Earth. He lives in a cage and wears hair shirts under his iron-and-leather outfit, as the Puritans of Cromwell’s time largely didn’t. (The Puritans have generally been given a bad rap by history, but it’s what you get for being succeeded by the son of a man you decapitated). Of the two,! Hopkins is by far the more genuinely chilling. Neville, with his ranting and magic incantations and following of dumb young acolytes, is rather a pathetic figure—a Master wannabe, if you will. Their ultimate fate still leaves me feeling a bit queasy, as does the fate of the main villain in “The Fly 2,” which it sort-of resembles. Ditto the porcine, bovine and ovine fates of Neville’s retinue of spoiled brats, although this was equally fitting. Hopkins is more believable simply because he embodies Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”—the “little man” as Death, the destroyer of worlds. Or something like that. The Doctor himself is done very well indeed. The character’s tactic of strategic prattling (to think aloud, to engage others in his thoughts, and to disorient adversaries) is captured brilliantly, as is his use of “the scarf” to escape the incongruous Mr. Redfearn’s six-guns. His brashness is, for once, slightly off-mark (he misjudges the depth of Hopkins’s megalomania and misses the importance of Huvan in Neville’s plot). Yup, that’s how I remember him. I still miss the fellow, really. That tumble at the end of “Logopolis” marked the end of Doctor Who in so many ways. (Especially the Saturday afternoon timeslot, but this isn’t the place to kvetch about audience ratings). “Tomb of Valdemar” gives us a wonderful sketch of a brilliant character at the height of his powers, and it’s worth reading the book simply to enjoy the Fourth Doctor in action once more.
Romana mark 1 is used well—a fine entry in the Perpugulliam Brown “Warmonger” Challenge for the fastest attempt at becoming the target of every potential sex offender on the planet. The main potential sex offender in “Valdemar” is Huvan, ultimately a very poignant character. He’s been genetically and surgically modified by Neville to remain in perpetual adolescence (ouch), to act as a focus for the psychic energy needed to communicate with Valdemar. (Valdemar himself, as you might expect, is not what Neville cracks him up to be. But I digress). Romana’s early vapidity and complacency is highlighted by her attraction to the Daft Young Things accompanying Neville to Ashkellia, and her condescending attitude to the Doctor. (Which does alter between “The Ribos Operation” and “The Pirate Planet,” so I suppose Messingham’s more consistent than I wrote a while ago). In any event, Romana, like the Doctor, is skillfully recreated by Messingham. Huvan spends the first half of “Valdema! r” writing positively Vogonic love odes to Romana, and the back half annihilating people in various explosive ways. He also appears in the book’s framing story, although I really don’t want to ruin the surprise for others by saying how so.
In conclusion—Hats off to Simon Messingham. I liked “The Infinity Race,” but this one’s even better. This book has a brilliant plot framed ingeniously, fantastic “visuals” (the floating palace, for instance), and wonderful characters. “Tomb of Valdemar” is a PDA that broadens, deepens and extends the televised version of the franchise, and neatly distils everything that made the first half of the Fourth Doctor’s tenure the era that the Great Viewing Public still remembers best. If only the BBC would only let Paul Magrs loose on the back half…
A sense of humour in the PDA's ? Unheard of in these days of action and adventure. It is not difficult to appreciate, but it is an acid bed of pitfalls for a novel if taken to excess. Messingham's Valdemar, on first reading, oscillates precariously between pastiche and style. Given the manic untamed portrayal of the Fourth Doctor in this period of the show's history it is difficult to argue that any PDA capturing the spirit of the time can go too far. Messingham's creative juices seem to have relished this side step in the hunt for The Key to Time. At points his comic timing is immaculate (often with non-recurring characters), in other places the novel smothers itself by being a stream of sarcastic wisecracks. That these are, in the main, delivered by an over the top (and in places down right buffoonish) Doctor is a constant reminder of the excesses of the Williams production team. And, as ever, one can hardly criticise this in context, but the argument might go that emulation is only half the battle. To truly add value to a PDA expansion is just as valuable as celebration.
The author has been studying form. This is apparent in the contrived first person narrative and the regular introspective tit-bits of character viewed by the same narrator. To Messingham's credit this is not a mooted attempt to try and divert the readers attention. It is an experiment in itself. On the whole it works because the idea of a story within a story keeps one guessing as to the purpose of the narrative. It is intriguing and at its best when removed from the central plot. So it is that that the characters telling the story, or involved in the telling, such as Ponch or the old lady are more grounded and, perhaps strangely, more motivated. The conclusion of this aspect of the story telling is the most satisfying, even if it briefly touches on a broader question of approaches to wrapping up loose ends which might have benefited from a little extension.
Unfortunately, once you get into the actual story a good deal of interest dies with it. This is partly to do with the plot which is little more than rabid desires to stop Phillip Neville from releasing the higher dimensions juxtaposed with the rabid desire of Citizen Hopkins to hunt down his arch nemesis - the same Neville. The Doctor's intervention is arbitrary and, on one occasion, downright foolish. It is customary for the Fourth Doctor to undergo some form of psychic attack but his quite inept ability to recognise the attack until he has moved the plot along is frustrating. However, unlike some PDA's where covering distance is just as important as covering plotholes (and even the author admits that the novel has plenty), Valdemar is more rooted in televisual set constraints. The action is focussed around one point which given the plethora of characters we are forced to endure if only to give the author some efficient means of dispatch is something of a relief.
Which is the other part where the book dies. With the exception of Miranda Pelham (who behaves in a very amusing "out of her depth" fashion) the remaining clutter of ancillary protagonists are as pastiche as they come. The torturing butler, the effete youthful aristocrats, the mad zealot villain, the bully boy law enforcer and the pistol packing bodyguard Texan are all untamed excesses of the imagination. Messingham tries to tie them into the art of good comedy by having them appear as nothing more than mythical players in a game of comedy (of course the Doctor is the fool) but this comes far too late and it looks more like an afterthought than an avowed intent. Huvan, the manipulated psychic who is key to all their "destinies" (you see how the point is stretched beyond credibility) is as awful as his poetry. His side of the star-crossed lover's angle played out with Romana is so juvenile that one feels for Romana's ensuing embarrassment. It is mildly amusing to think that when the higher dimensions are released (and without recourse to a vaccine) these characters act as though they have taken a trip - their minds dealing with the reality of the dimensions in a not-quite-fantastical fashion. One can see this coming early on when Erik turns into wolf boy. Quite why, after that, almost everyone regresses to some level of bestial behaviour when exposed to the higher dimensions is anyone's guess.
Sadly, the denouement is clumsy and predictable with a few elements of Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. All good comedy deserves some form of tragedy but Huvan isn't it. Ponch, ironically, is. As a diversion from the Key to Time the Doctor should have left well alone as only by his actions do the motley bunch get any further. It is difficult to appreciate a story where, if events had taken their natural course, Neville and Hopkins would have ended up destroying themselves anyway. The idea that they spend eternity as (yet another) fiendish hybrid ripping the shit out of each other is some form of justice for the zeal they have wrecked on the poor reader. Had the Doctor said "Let them get on with it" in the first place we may have been spared.
Still, Messingham does deliver something different when he is not trying to thrill and make us laugh with Valdemar. There is a nice, if under-developed, section where we see the Protectorate as a future quasi-Parliamentarian outfit without the philosophy which, again, could have been developed more. Given that Zeta Major is a testament to the author's interest in social elite's it was surprising that this didn't happen. Unfortunately, Messingham's explosion of a novel errs on the wrong side - it fails not because it is trying to be too clever, but because it is trying too hard to be funny.
Yet, as no doubt the author would argue, the central plot is only a story. No more. No less. That said, any book that tries to lift the art of story telling in the PDA range is worth some praise. This novel will be greeted enthusiastically as it moves the goalposts on what is achievable in the PDA range. With or without it's problems it at least has the confidence to be different. One can only hope that other writers have the tenacity to do the same.
In brief: It's not quite perfect, but it's actively trying to get there.
Simon Messingham has officially taken Steve Lyons' place as the least predictable author. Honestly, could anyone have predicted this, based on his previous output? What's more, the quality of his books just keeps improving. There's as much an improvement over [the quite good] Zeta Major here as there was between Strange England and Zeta Major (I leave The Face-Eater out of this rigorous analysis, since it was a last-minute commission). Yes, it's that good.
This is a rather dense novel, written in the present tense, containing stories within stories, self-referential metajokes, an ending so bizarre that I'm still not sure if I've figured it out and an appalling Scooby Doo joke, that looks suspiciously like the novel's raison d'etre.
The story, once you unravel the obfuscation, is quite good. Comparisons with The Scarlet Empress are unavoidable, I think, but Tomb succeeds in having a reasonably interesting story underpinning the telling. Miranda is a great choice to tell the story (we'll leave aside the true identity of the storyteller for the moment), as it allows the tale to be fanciful and elaborate for a reason. I like an attempt to tie in the bizarre stuff with the regular DW universe (succeeding once again over TSE, in my opinion). It's not quite as literary as TSE and you can tell which of the two authors teaches writing and has original fiction to his name and which one wrote Strange England, but it's a decent attempt. (And despite some of the comparisons, it's also nothing at all like TSE, so don't let that put you off if you hate Magrs' work.)
The Doctor is improved by being seen a step or so back, through Miranda's eyes. The fourth Doctor isn't the easiest Doctor to capture in novel format, but there's a valiant attempt here. He has a lot to do, for one thing, which is always pleasing. There are a few recycled lines, yes, but he also gets a few good jokes and some moments where you can almost hear Tom Baker reading the script (which I'm sure he would have adored). I really liked his re-reading of the scrolls being the clue to his working out part of the mystery. It's quite clear that there's no point in us seeing it, for the contents would be the High Literature equivalent of technobabble, so this is an effective solution.
Romana works quite well indeed. I really liked the references back to the Sontaran invasion, which is something I've always been surprised Romana never mentioned. She's just inexperienced enough to be believable. It would be a bit of a shame that she gets removed from part of the action towards the end, except that the meta-story more than makes up for this.
The story is also rather well linked to its season. The quest for the key is mentioned often enough to make it seem quite urgent, yet we understand perfectly the reasons for trying to stop Neville. It's an extremely rare thing for a PDA to actually fit thematically with its season (witness the bright and cheery Season 21 adventures, for example) and not doing so is usually forgivable... but season sixteen demands it and I think it's one place where the authors need to adapt to the existing structure. The secret to doing so is in the inventiveness; The Shadow of Weng Chiang tried the obvious route, but forgot all about the tone and urgency of the quest. Here, we get something that's a true PDA, yet also far more of a novel than yet another runaround/alien invasion of Earth/horror story/fan theory.
Neville and Hopkins are quite well done. Neville has just enough insecurities and paranoia to be a surprisingly effective villain. Hopkins shows up a bit late in the day, but he's been mentioned often enough and there are just enough hints to make his appearance shocking, yet clever. Having him set up in opposition to Neville leads us to expect that he'd be one of the good guys, so his true nature comes across as something of a surprise. Their final fate is a little contrived, but satisfying enough.
Messingham has taken the wonderfully repulsive characters from Zeta Major and inserted them here... but he's also given us some sympathetic ones as well, which improves the novel no end. Miranda is great and despite her role in events, remains unscathed in our eyes. Part of that is almost certainly because of the way the story is told, but that only adds to the power of things, I think. Her early fears of the worst are a clever way of building to a surprising cliffhanger resolution, but that whole sequence works wonderfully. Her handwaving of the technicalities, on the basis that she's an author, is marvellous.
However, the standout character in the novel has to be Huvan. Messingham has excelled himself here, with every word Huvan utters being sublimely evocative of the most annoying of teenagers. It's hilarious and terrifying at the same time (and his poetry is incredible). He's an amazing character. The only slight fault I found was the mention of the dog with the name very similar to the one Huvan takes on later, which started connections running in my mind until I figured out who he probably was. Without that, I probably wouldn't have thought to start doing so... but maybe that was the point. You can never tell with these sneaky literature types.
The setting might be the best character of all. I always thought the setting of The Face-Eater was its highlight and the setting here is similarly well evoked. Messingham has sensibly taken all the best elements from his previous novels and discarded the things that weren't up to scratch (so that the ending actually works here, we sympathise with some of the characters, the regulars are mostly on form etc) and produced a well-rounded and enjoyable novel.
Of course, he also explicitly tells us that the setting is another character, as well as pointing out other things, like the roles each character is performing at the end (although I agree that the Doctor has some claim to being the fool, but I don't think he's quite so simple to slot into just one; it's close, but it's not *quite* right). Others have complained that this reduces the book somewhat, but as someone without an English degree who just wants to follow along, I have to say I appreciated them. I think the explanations help the story along (although they might have been patently obvious to some people, which I agree would be frustrating) and I get the sense that Messingham actually wants us to understand his tale. Another victory over the Magrs approach, then.
It's rare to see an author come this far with their own work. Some will iron out the kinks between first and second novels and then gradually improve, but Messingham is onto his fourth novel now and each has been significantly better than the last. Even the writing course that you can just *tell* he took before Zeta Major isn't showing any more.
The meta-story is quite good as well, with tricks a-plenty. Some things are meant to be guessed, as I mentioned above, others shocked the hell out of me. My favourite has to be what happens to the story-teller two thirds of the way through the novel. I have to say, I didn't see that one coming at all... The ending is fantastic, IMO. Confusing, yes, but I think there are enough clues there to help us figure at least part of it out. I'm a little surprised that the author missed some of the obvious commentary at the beginning about K9 not being in the story, but on second thoughts I think we've done the behind-the-scenes-production-in-jokes to death now.
Tomb of Valdemar is an excellent novel (where I use neither of those words lightly). There's a lot to take in and I'm not sure I have on one reading. It's a complex and challenging book, which is extremely refreshing. It's also very good indeed. The books were starting to feel a bit samey and predictable, as though they could mould Doctor Who into one particular type of story. Every so often, it's great to have something like this come along and show us that the series can be so much more than that. Highly recommended.