In brief: The longest short story ever written.
The BBC's latest short story collection features The Suns of Caresh, by promising newcomer Paul Saint. It's a compact little tale of the Doctor landing on the world of Caresh, fighting off some local giant insects and putting right the mistakes of a renegade Time Lord in a pretty clever way. It's a neat little tale, with some nice worldbuilding thrown in, a bit of Time Lord shenanigans and it suits its length perfectly.
What's that? Oh, yeah, there are also 200 pages of padding tacked onto the beginning as well.
Hmm. It's not that The Suns of Caresh is bad -- far from it, I enjoyed it immensely -- but it's incredibly uneven. There's nothing in the final Caresh segment that needed the preceding 200 pages to exist at all. It doesn't even add depth to what we do get, because the author has to introduce the world and its concepts basically from scratch in those eighty pages. This is definitely an interesting approach to novel writing.
And yet, if you ignore the plot concerns, those preceding 200 pages are fabulous, probably better than the second part of the book. The Caresh segments aren't terrible, by any means, but the book is chopped in half so oddly that it's hard to remember you're reading the same novel.
The Earth segments live and breathe from a mix of their detail and the inventiveness of established Doctor Who concepts. The pseudonymous author is clearly an overenthusiastic bearded fanboy who's just been itching to get his pet theories out there - but the theories he presents are so inventive and clever that you can't help but be astonished by it.
Seriously, the list of things he does with the TARDIS alone are fabulous. There's the all-action materialisation, the scanner in the floor, Roche's TARDIS swallowing an entire lake, HADS in a hailstorm and the reference to materialisations on knee-deep ocean worlds and inside caves (page 82). Although when the Doctor and Jo had time to do that is a complete mystery to me, given that the TARDIS is only just making its first forays into the unknown after the Doctor's gotten his freedom back. I simply can't see the Time Lords sending him on a mission that involved landing inside a cave and then leaving again. What gives?
Then there's all the regeneration malarkey, from Roche's persona-hopping and his Princess Astra-style regeneration into the Doctor's double (which is hilarious) to an early appearance of the zero room and even a regenerating dog (!). There's some wild stuff here.
There's only one original character to speak of, but she gets some lovingly detailed attention. It's a bit weird having a grand buildup and characterisation of Simon, only for him to be casually murdered in a throwaway scene later in the book (and he's not even handwaved back to life later, like the other characters we don't care about), but that seems like par for the course by that point. Lord Roche never feels real and Solenti is all intrigue and no character (and a bit too similar to Miss Gallowglass from earlier in the year). On the other hand, the Furies do actually seem unstoppable for once, thanks is part to the detail and in part to the things Roche thinks up to evade them. The Leshe threaten to be interesting, but as they're trapped within one and half obligatory appearances in the short story, they don't get time to succeed.
The cover is grossly inaccurate. Troy Game's hair is black, not blonde and she has blue irises, not brown (page 25)... but it's also a beautiful cover in other ways, one of the most striking in ages and it's one of the very few to do something interesting with the regulars. I guess sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.
The view of contemporary Earth through Troy Game's eyes is really nicely written. There's a level of detail here that's extremely engaging. There's also a look at 1999 through Jo's eyes, which is cute, although we don't quite see enough of it. That said, this is another PDA which does the loopy "let's throw a past Doctor and companion into a modern setting, but we won't make it the current year, we'll pick one essentially at random." Why 1999 and not 2002, say? It doesn't make much difference for Zeke Child, who is the only constraint on the timezone. I guess the only answer to that is "Why not?" and that's fair enough.
Speaking of which, the timeloop thing with Zeke is another wild and loopy touch, although a) I think we really needed some more detail about the practicalities of living your life backwards b) it gets plopped in at a random point and doesn't feel integrated into the rest of the story at all c) none of the characters in this part of the novel are at all engaging d) has no resolution whatsoever and e) has a lame copout ending. I realise that d) and e) are essentially the same point, but it's one I feel so strongly about that I think it bears mentioning twice.
Seriously, the ending is a metaphor for the book itself: part genius, part handwave. The Doctor's solution to Caresh's problem is stunningly brilliant and packs a real punch. But the incredibly wimpy restoration of the Earth-based plot is a huge copout. Move over Psi-ence Fiction and Book of the Still, we've got a new contender for the honorary Trial of a Time Lord "most wishy-washy ending by restoring dead people back to life because we're feeling needlessly sentimental and don't want to deal with the consequences" award.
Oh yeah, and just what *was* Roche's connection to the people we never met on the far side of the planet? The book makes a big deal about it, including the fact that the Doctor doesn't know, but then neglects to tell us. I searched and searched for the answer hidden somewhere, but I honestly couldn't find it. We're not talking about a minor in-joke or reference that we could have guessed on our own, we're talking about a fairly fundamental motivation for the entire novel. Somebody email me with the page this appears on, please. I honestly want to know.
The Suns of Caresh is uneven, sloppily plotted, has no emotional payoff for the bulk of its story and appears to be lacking the answer to one of the key questions it sets up... but I loved it. It's an easy book to nitpick, but that doesn't do justice to the writing and the detail that's on display here. It's one of the better PDAs around, although you wouldn't know it from all the problems it admittedly contains. But there's a real sense of effort and creativity here that overcome other flaws and I've got a lot of time for something that has a real love for its subject material. If you check a third of your brain at the door, this'll wow the remaining two thirds.
Paul Saint is the lovely man behind this fast paced Third Doctor and Jo adventure and any praise he gets his undoubtedly deserved.
One of my main loves of this novel is that the narrative changes regularly which makes it easier to read and refreshing.
The characterization of the Doctor is superb and you can easily imagine Jon Pertwee doing this on TV, although in this novel he does say, "Good Grief!" far too often and 'rubs the back of his neck' that often that you start to worry he'll wear it down to the bone!
A nicely set piece is this too - on both Earth and Caresh, with some points which did make me giggle - like the bit where the TARDIS is moving and is straight on course to go straight through two men carrying a pane of glass between them.
As the cover suggests it would definitely be great to have seen Pertwee and Manning shave their heads bald if this was an original TV adventure.
Sadly it does get a bit dull and lacking in the last few chapters which makes you think that if this had indeed been on TV it would have been one of those long, drawn-out, six parters which were common of the early seventies.
All in all though it is well worth checking out and here's to us hearing from Mr Saint again!
What a deeply frustrating novel this is. And not because it's bad, it's most certainly not but the annoying thing a book can do is start well and end badly. And it does.
The first tow thirds of The Suns of Caresh are stonkingly good. So good, I was willing to call this the best PDA in ages. It's clever, it's involving, it's full of great ideas and wonderfully identifiable characters. The prose is good, nothing fancy, but easy to read and absorbing enough. Unexpected things happen, the Doctor and Jo are peripheral until about 70 pages in but its not even noticable, Saint's story is so entertaining its actually a shame when they do arrive.
I've always enjoyed books that showed us a human perspective of an alien world. Well Saint reverses the deed and shows us an aliens perspective on Earth. It's an intruiging idea and one that he pulls off with a lot of style. By crafting Caresh and all it's alien ways he expertly explores all the unusual things Troy Game experiences in Chichester. And of course by introducing Simon Haldane, one of the most identifiable characters the range has ever produced (surely) they make a highly engaging couple. The 'romance' that springs up isnt half as up chuckingly bad as you would expect and actually provides the book with one of its best shock moments.
The Suns of Caresh is one of the most blatant SF stories the range has thrown up. Time anaomalies, alien worlds, space travel, time going backwards, monsters, time loops, it's all in here and more! You'd think this would seem like a hodge podge of ideas thrown into one book but they actually applied quite effectively and for the first two thirds the plot unfolds both unpredictably and quite excitingly! The middle of the book is especially good where there are three or four plots running at once, each full of action and suspense (whilst revealing some anwers to the mysteries posed during the first third!). Needless to say I didn't want to put this one down during the middle section.
I should mention that the Doctor and Jo are both portrayed well, Jo actually getting a larger slice of the action. She comes across as capable and quite intelligent in this one whilst still being her natural dizzy self. it makes quite a nice change.
So what goes wrong? What I found extremely insulting was how certain plots were wrapped up. The major plot line for the first two thirds (the time fracture) is convieniently ignore for much of the last third and wrapped up quite unsatisfactorily in the the last few pages. Yes it is adequately explained and all that but after waiting the whole book i was expecting some sort of rabbit out of the hat trick, something to blow my mind not just a poor whimper of an ending. Also irritating is the sudden appearance of another plot in the last third that had had no relevance to the book until that point. And THAT is the race-to-finish plot we're expected to care more about at the end. It's as if Paul Saint has run out of interesting things to do with the time anomaly plot so introduced another quickly to to your mind of it and then rounded it off at the very end. Very irritating.
Also grating is the fates of certain characters. Simon particularly, after having a MAJOR slice of the action early is just forgottern and Lord Roche too is hardly thought of later on. I don't expect the world but when I have invested time in these characters I expect some pay off.
But don't get me wrong for the most part (and the prose and characterisation were still solid for the last third any-hoo) this is an excellent novel. Troy is a great character who deserves a second novel. The dizzying mixture of hard SF ideas makes this good escapism and more than a little fun too. Solenti is a marvellous Time Lord. The first few chapters are the most promising for a Doctor Who PDA in ages.
And there are loads of stand out scenes that remind you how good this is long after you've bitched about the stupid ending. The bumpy TARDIS landing is the best one I have ever read. Troy and Sai-mahn's 'date' is brilliant. The scenes of the decaying ship are tense and effective. The furies pose a genuine threat. The Doctor's reaction to the crashed ship at the archelogical dig is priceless...as is his reaction to having his hair shaved off!
And I love the cover.
So I would say yes, give this a go, it's a solid read despite my qualms and many of you may find the ending more than acceptable. There are plenty of thrills in the first two thirds, that's for sure.
'Now, listen to me, Jo. When I told you the deadline was sixty-three minutes away, I meant exactly that. In other words, we have missed the deadline.'
'But surely...' Jo began.
'No no no no no! Good heavens, Jo, for the past two years I have been trying to turn you into a scientist. Now can't you get it into your thick little head that the time has passed? Time and tide waits for no man; do you think that a nuetron star cares that it was supposed to be diverted an hour ago?'
"A funny thing happened on my way to read through The Suns of Caresh..."
While reading the novel The Suns of Caresh something rather unexpected happened. I began to reflect on just how much I actually do appreciate the Pertwee era of Doctor Who. "So what?" you might find yourself asking. A whole generation called Pertwee their favorite Doctor. He's the top of many fan polls. I even once met a martial arts instructor in Chicago who claimed that the only Doctor Who she'd ever liked was the Pertwee era. TV, novels, audios, comics, the whole bag! She loved all things Pertwee and wasn't a fan of the series beyond him!
When people ask me my personal favorite Doctor, the choice is difficult to assess. It usually breaks down that Troughton is my favorite "Television" Doctor, McCoy is my favorite "Novel" Doctor, Colin Baker is my favorite "Audio" Doctor and the rest sort of rank up there in one way or another. Tom Baker is to my childhood as McGann is to my adulthood. They all hold their special place, but it's difficult to pick one's favorite Doctor. It simply changes all the time. Often, my favorite is the one I'm currently watching or reading at the time. But, oddly, the Pertwee era quite often falls as my LEAST favorite.
I admittedly do love most of the Third Doctor stories. The Daemons is in my top ten of all televised Doctor Who, and Planet of the Spiders holds a very personal place in my Mahayanan soul (which, incidently, doesn't truly exist). I adore the dynamic of UNIT and the Brig and all the supporting characters. Pertwee's portray often comes across as too pompous, too big for himself, pushing too much of a "I'm right and you're an idiot" sort of attitude in everyone's face, which I overlook because the writing, production value and everything else is so accomplished.
And therein probably lies the main problem. Doctor Who, to me personally, is about a mystic hermit who wanders the cosmos in search of justice. He's not part of an ensemble cast, no matter what continuity hater might think. He's not "supposed" to be like James Bond. He's just not at his best trapped on Earth. It hinders the potential of the franchise's most basic premise which is "he can go ANYWHERE in Time or Space".
The Suns of Caresh, however, manages to break through all that. It does Pertwee properly, draws out his strengths, not his weaknesses, and relies of the inherent Doctor-ness of the character to get through it all. It's the spider on Pertwee's back that gets this Doctor in trouble, his desire to solve riddles that causes him to fall into a request of Lady Solenti and her talking Time Lord dog Jess. Solenti fills the role of the bowler hatted gent from Terror of the Autons, but she's a fresh take on an old conceit. The Doctor honestly fears her and doesn't want her to see Jo, plus she's thankfully not working for the Celestial Intervention Agency. Jo Grant is ever inquisitive and equally pro-active as she does her own thing to solve the mystery of a backwards folding time anomaly. She's fleshed out, still ditzy and over-anxious, but likewise very much able to handle herself in abstract situations. The characters are every bit as defined as the original actors portrayed them, but they react to real situations an unconfined and enriching way.
The Suns of Caresh builds upon the potential of the Pertwee Doctor, rather than limiting itself to the restrictions of the era. It's as if we have the Pertwee Doctor in the midst of a Davison or even McGann adventure.
The first two thirds of the novel are written with such artistry that one immediately begins to celebrate this work, venerating it up with the likes of Morris' Festival of Death or Parkin's Father Time. The prose is engaging, enticing and makes it difficult to set this book aside. The original characters are so well fleshed out that one barely notices that the Doctor and Jo don't get involved much until maybe a third of the way in. And it works!
Troy Game is the archetypal "stranger in a strange land", an aquatic alien woman from Caresh, a planet that orbits two separate suns, Beacon and Ember, causing long periods of warmth and ice ages. Troy Game is on Earth, lost in a world she had not made, doing her best to cope with hairy heads and dangling earlobes and the customs of humans who breed for pleasure, not just at breeding times. Her inability to take in daily life in Chichester is one of the book's most memorable strengths. She's fallen in with Simon Haldene, a huge science fiction fan, a reader of the Creation Echo books, who exists in an ordinary world of boring jobs and loneliness but who views life in terms of science fiction. He's much more developed than Anji Kapoor's late boyfriend Dave, and there is so much that the Doctor Who readership will find immediately recognizable in him.
Paul Saint offers the reader one of the most magical scenes in Doctor Who with the first date between Simon and Troy Game. This will strike a familiar chord with most anybody who's felt world's apart from their opposite right at the start. Simon takes Troy Game into his care, and starts second guessing everything he's ever imagined was possible. He doesn't know whether her desire to be nude or in water is due to her alien-ness or whether she's mentally deranged. Troy Game seeks a way back to her home on Caresh, but she's being pursued both by killer Leshe, hunter furies from the vortex that home on mindscents, and a pesky UFO chaser Michael Sheridan from Open Minds magazine. In the wake are left human sculptures when people are turned to stone, as if they'd met with Medusa herself. How is Troy Game going to get home and why does she keep having visions of the number "18"?
The Doctor, meanwhile, has taken an assignment from Lady Solenti, whom he doesn't trust, to track the origins of a time fissure that he and UNIT had investigated in Israel. He eventually arrives at a lake that has been drained and realizes that all the water has receded into the opened door of an abandoned TARDIS that lies petrified with human stone shapes. He meets Ezekiel Keller, a man suffering Jeapes Syndrome, who's life is being lived backwards due to the time anomaly. Though born in 1980, Zeke met the Doctor in 1972 and the Time Lord soon realizes Zeke's life, and all of space time, are in a serious crisis.
The Doctor finds still another dynamic character, Lord Roche, a sort of cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Sabalom Glitz. The Doctor begins to suspect that Roche is somehow responsible for the fissure, but how is it caused and what is its link to the destruction of Caresh? What is the history of Caresh and how do the Dassari people and the Time Lords of Gallifrey fit into the equation? What happens if Caresh falls into a long orbit creating another great Ice Age? And what happens when the Doctor's involvement causes everything he hoped to prevent, and he's finally presented with a situation in which it is simply too far past the point of no return to solve the crisis?
One of the most rewarding scenes in the books happens when a bus hits Lord Roche. The Doctor doesn't want to get the contemporary Earth authorities involved, so he waits for Roche's regeneration and tries to pass him off as "not the guy" who everyone thought had been hit. It gets rather tricky when Roche regenerates into an exact duplicate likeness of the Third Doctor, nose, while hair and all.
This book has everything from backwards time, ocean people, twin suns, vortex trackers, science fiction fans, space travel, alien conspiracy fanatics, nuetron star collisions, time loops, the Atrium circuit, the mercy gun, the Zero Room, a deadline countdown to save the world, an alien girlfriend, the number "18" and even a talking Time Lord dog! And it's all in there for a purpose, crafted so methodically that the reader takes it all in casually and eagerly without even realizing how much has just happened. Paul Saint has created one of the greatest cross-character multi-level plots in Doctor Who. It keeps you guessing until the end which, unfortunately, ends too abruptly and unbelievably too conveniently for such a brilliant first two thirds of the book, but the pay off from the whole experience is well worth it.
After I read The Suns of Caresh, I decided it was going to be one of the small handful I would have to buy for my friends. I wanted to re-read it almost immediately. It was so much fun. And the most amazing thing was that I started watching all my Pertwee episodes again. I have NEVER before gotten so much happiness out of Ambassadors of Death, the Claws of Axos or the Carnival of Monsters. Amidst my reading of the novel The Suns of Caresh something rather unexpected happened. I began to reflect on just how much I actually do appreciate the Pertwee era of Doctor Who. So if you ask me who my favorite Doctor is? Well, for some time to come I'm just going to have to say the Third, Jon Pertwee. And if you ask why? Well, I'll have to mention The Suns of Caresh!
Unbelievable! An excellent BBC Doctor Who novel. It's been so long since even a good Doctor Who novel has been released that I was starting to think I'd never see another one. There have been lots of ordinary novels, and even quite a few bad ones, but nothing that fell into the very good or better range.
A few insightful reviews of this novel have already been posted to this site, so instead of treading old ground describing the plot and what made the book so good, I'll just describe my feelings while I was reading Suns Of Caresh.
I generally start reading about 4-5 sci-fi books a week. On average I may finish about 1 or 2 of them and decide to keep just one. I judge my Doctor Who novels differently from how I judge my general sci-fi novels. My sci-fi novels must be at least 8-9 out 10 on the quality meter before I keep them, or in some cases before I'll even bother to finish reading them. Years ago I discovered that most Doctor Who books don't reach this level, but since I'm a big fan even a mediocre Doctor Who book is relatively enjoyable. For this reason, Doctor Who books only have to be 6-7/10 before I'll keep them.
The day after I wrote the paragraph above, I was reading a review of 'Ghostship' by Craig Boardman. Craig expressed the same concerns I have, but stated them more eloquently. "Maybe it's just me, but as a fan of this character I regular suspend my critical levels, read books about his adventures which I would never normally force my way through, just because it's Doctor Who. We let the standards drop and accept them because it's our character and we don't get a lot of options. Sometimes I wonder if that's the right choice."
What is so surprising about Suns Of Caresh is that it holds it's own even against general sci-fi books. I'd rate it a 9 overall. It's good enough to keep even if it wasn't a Doctor Who book. A VERY rare commodity.
Pertwee is the Doctor from my childhood and Jo has always been among my favourite companions, so I was determined to like this book. Surprisingly I decided I loved the book by about page 20. The Doctor and Jo had only been in about 2-3 pages by then. In fact, it's at least page 70 or after before they really enter the plot.
This book made me realise what has been missing from the majority of the BBC novels, both PDA and EDA. A sense of mystery! A fascination with the plot! Interesting questions raised early on that keep the reader wanting to read more and more. I found myself exhibiting quite unusual behaviour whilst reading this book. Every time I put it down, I was loathe to pick it up again (in fact I started and finished 2-3 other books during the time I took to read Suns Of Caresh). This wasn't because I disliked the book, but because I did like it! I realised I wanted to make the experience of enjoying (not just reading, but pondering over and thinking about) the novel last as long as I could.
My three favourite science fiction themes are time travel, parallel worlds and first contact. This novel explores the third theme from the point of view of the alien, and does a damn fine job of it!!
Easily one of the best Doctor Who books yet written!
It often seems as though there are only two main ways that authors approach 3rd Doctor novels - either as a straight down the line recreation of an era, or as a tongue in check satire on the 1970's. It is refreshing that with The Suns of Caresh Paul Saint has managed to tell a tale that doesn't rely on nostalgia for its enjoyment, but defiantly treats the 3rd Doctors era as just as capable of sustaining serious story-telling as any other. While there are the requisite neck-rubbings and "Good grief!" s from the Doctor he is treated here as a real character with his own motivations, rather than the usual collection of iconic motifs. Similarly, and for the first time I can recall, Jo is treated as an intelligent and resourceful human being - her dizzy 70's dame act is amusingly un-PC, but it's a refreshing change to have her shown in this light.
Story-wise, this is the most blatantly science-fictional take on Doctor Who for many years. Whether someone with more knowledge on these matters than myself may eventually start picking holes in the science remains to be seen, but with current range direction increasingly heading towards outright fantasy, it is heartening to see an author take Doctor Who back to its science fiction roots. This is certainly miles away from the monster parade of Who in the 70's - with its body swapping Time Lords, chameleon circuits and zero rooms, The Suns of Caresh feels more like a late Season 18 than Season 10. The plot itself is expertly played out, and consistently wrong foots the reader. Ah, it's a mission for the Time Lords story, oh no - its an alien stranded on Earth tale, no wait - it's a time paradox, no hang on - its an alien world adventure - just when you think you've got a handle on where the story is going it suddenly veers off in another direction. With main supporting characters with pages invested in back-story suddenly being killed off in a couple of sentences, and sudden shifts in location, this novel holds the interest to the end.
With its twisting but ultimately satisfying plotting, this novel is highly reminiscent of Mark Michalowski's Relative Dementias - which is no bad thing as far as I am concerned. A novel to restore faith in the PDA's.