Ever since it came out in 1998, The Witch Hunters has been the top-rated PDA on Shannon's Online Rankings (it's currently at 85.3%). It's obviously much-loved. And it's underwritten, oppressive and no fun at all.
To state the screamingly obvious, this book is a tragedy. It retreads the ground of Arthur Miller's The Crucible (as is acknowledged by characters in the book watching the play, twice) with a Whoish twist of "can we change history?". I'm not normally wild about such stories, but with the Season One regulars I can see the justification. It's a live issue for them. They're caught in that no-man's land between The Aztecs and The Time Meddler, still trying to make sense of nonsense before the Pertwee era would toss out a random name (Blinovitch) and make that the answer to everything.
Of course "we can't change history" stories usually require the Doctor to be an utter bastard... but the 1st Doctor could be an utter bastard when he wanted, so that's fine. Admittedly it makes for a rather depressing story as our heroes spend 279 pages basically struggling to get back where they started, but fortunately the book throws us a few crumbs at the end. Steve Lyons wrote an awesome two-part article for DWM called Temporal Orbits (see issues 243-244 in late 1996) which is still pretty much the last word on the ever-shifting rules on time travel in Doctor Who. The Witch Hunters may be a "we can't change history" story, but it's a thoughtful and detailed one. Here the rules aren't being churned out like Star Trek's Prime Directive, but instead scrutinised and tested. Reluctantly I admit that this once, it worked.
The regulars aren't the best they've ever been, but even moderate portrayals of the 1st Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara would guarantee a high level of quality. In my opinion the Season One line-up was the strongest dramatic ensemble of regulars the series ever produced, including the books. Even within the constraints of a "you can't change history" story, they're strong, as always. Susan's headstrong and stupid, but I suppose that's not uncharacteristic.
Mind you, I'm not wild about a steerable TARDIS being shoehorned into the black-and-white era. Steve Lyons has an excuse (the fast return switch), then *another* excuse (it's Richard Hurndall!) and... oh dear. All these books which give steerable TARDISes to the first two Doctors are eroding something fundamental, no matter how ingenious their reasons why they and they alone can break the rules. I cite Venusian Lullaby, Invasion of the Cat-People...
I called this book underwritten. This feeling was less strong on the reread, but I still wasn't transported to Salem in 1692. The people and their attitudes are captured faithfully, yes, but not their world. It was almost like reading a very detailed play script. However that's a perfectionist's quibble, with Steve Lyons mostly doing a good job of conjuring up the scary and oppressive atmosphere of this seventeenth-century Puritan community, more alien than anything we might find on the planet Zed. The book's most frightening chapters are *before* the storm breaks, with Ian and Barbara trying not to betray themselves with 20th century mindsets in a village that's about to murder almost randomly a score of innocent people. Meanwhile Susan's getting in over her head...
This book is mostly a cut-price The Crucible, with neither the force of Arthur Miller's writing nor the central tragedy of doomed protagonists. We know the TARDIS crew will survive. Admittedly even a fraction of The Crucible's power is still strong stuff and this is never a weak book, but it's the ending that really makes it special. Those last dozen pages justify the story's existence. This is the reason why it was worth retelling this story as science fiction. Steve Lyons may (perhaps) have written the most moving ending in Doctor Who; that's a big claim, but I'm not sure what else might beat it. Human Nature, Sanctuary, Lunar Lagoon, The Chimes of Midnight... powerful stories, all of them, and worth seeking out - but I don't know if any of those endings outdo The Witch Hunters.
I couldn't call this book fun, but if only for the sake of those last dozen pages it's strongly recommended. Even by the standards of 1st Doctor books, this is a winner.
In brief: Quite good. Heartwrenching and engrossing. Relies a little too much on some odd plotting, but is otherwise a very fine addition to the historicals.
There's really not that much to say about The Witch Hunters. Or rather, there isn't very much I want to say. Most of the cool things that I could say about this book are contained within its pages and I recommend the book itself, rather than a review of it, to get the most out of what the book's about. Sadly, I suspect this means I'm going to end up pointing out the flaws instead. Three of the regulars are characterised excellently. Unfortunately, the one who isn't is the one around whom most of the plot and action revolves: Susan. There are a number of odd things that Susan does in this book that strike me as being extremely out of character. I can see why they had to happen, but I think there should have been a better way of getting to plot to work. Susan wasn't always sensible, but she wasn't the hysterical mess that she has to be in order for this book to work.
Not only does she make one pivotal decision that seems so fundamentally stupid that you wonder how anyone, even someone like Susan in the state she's in, can even contemplate it, but she later does lots of little things that seem out of character. There are a number of suggestions that her telepathic abilities caused much of the problem, but this is rather understated. I thought that this should either have been explicitly used to explain why she was out of character, or left as it was (since I think it works better in hints) and put her back in character.
That said, the other regulars are excellent. Ian is very, very consistent with the Ian we saw onscreen and as he goes through a number of gruelling situations, his character shines through. Barbara has less to do, but she's still quite well done.
However, it's the Doctor who's really on form. He's wonderful in this and so very first-Doctorish. He's on the sidelines for much of the action, but takes action when he needs to. He's mostly untouched by the surrounding events, when anyone else who looked and acted like him would have been branded instantly. He talks down a lynching mob with nothing but his air of authority and a few wise words. However, he's also the vulnerable and very human character that Hartnell so carefully portrayed. He makes mistakes, his judgment is awry on more than one occasion and he lies outright. His solution to the problem he almost caused borders on the chilling, but makes perfect sense.
The villagers are also well portrayed. The reader is desperately drawn into their plight and Lyons makes no pretense at maintaining any sort of mystery, instead utilising the sheer tragedy of it all to further capture the reader's interest. There's also something deliciously clever going on in the first few chapters that works absolutely brilliantly if you're aware of the time period (and doesn't detract if you aren't), but I won't spoil it.
I have a few qualms about how easily the TARDIS was used. Lyons seems to have pulled out all the stops in getting the Doctor around through history in this, but I think a few of them went too far. The one at the end, with the Hurndall Doctor (which, I might add, is extremely cool!) works fine IMO, but some of the fast return switch stuff is a bit overdone. I can see why he has the crew wanting to leave Salem and if they hadn't, it would have been very uncharacteristic, but he has to jump through so many unlikely hoops to get them to return (including having Susan become a moron and have the TARDIS steerable) that I suspect it would have been easier to simply have the crew trapped in the village while the TARDIS was undergoing repairs or something. I appreciate the effort to make the actions plausible, but the price that has to be paid for this is a little high.
I don't want to say too much more about the action that goes on. Suffice it to say, I really enjoyed it. However, I will add that the final confrontation was very well done, especially because I kept wondering why someone hadn't thought of that earlier!
In summary, The Witch Hunters has a few logistical flaws that are just a bit too big to get around. Aside from that, however, it's a captivating and entertaining read that is showing how surprisingly well the BBC Past Doctor Books are doing. This and last month's book, Eye of Heaven, are very, very different, yet have one thing in common: they strike me as being very mature books, more interested in telling a good story than being pieces of DW fiction (in all the best ways, I hasten to add!) I'm slightly surprised at this, from a line that doesn't lend itself very easily to outstanding books, but I'm certainly not complaining.