First the good news – Matthew Jones second novel is an improvement over Bad Therapy, being more consistent and coherent. The bad news is that some fairly crucial flaws prevent this from being more than an average book. For the most part Beyond the Sun is readable and engaging stuff, with a plot that looks to be going somewhere, but it falls down spectacularly at the final hurdle.
The novel kick-starts with Benny engaged on another archaeological dig, (the third in three novels – I’m beginning to sense some repetition problems here), and the unexpected return of Jason, which just reminds me how unconvincing their split was in the first place. With Jason kidnapped Benny finds herself encumbered by two students - Emile and Tameka - on her rescue mission, getting involved along the way with a hunt for an unearthed archaeological artefact (nothing like Dragons’ Wrath then). With Jason largely absent it’s up to Emile and Tameka to provide the supporting leads, and they are a distinctive and well-drawn pair, the only problem is that the characters – a Goth girl who talks like a loud-mouthed American brat, and a chubby boy in self-denial over his homosexuality – seem like characters from the 1990’s rather than people from the future. Emile is also painfully obvious – ‘write what you know’ I’m sure, but after Bad Therapy and Jones’ Fluid Links articles in DWM, having the lead male turn out to be a gay ‘issue’ character (Emile’s afraid to come out of the closet you see) is so predictable for this author that it’s almost a cliché.
Despite this the first half of the novel is enjoyable stuff, as the characters find themselves marooned on a planet whose inhabitants seem to have no egos. The culture clash between the locals and offworlders makes for some of the strongest material in the novel, and goes some way to justify the inclusion of the repressed Emile. Unfortunately Jones suddenly seems to lose the plot though, and turns the camp factor up to 11. After a fairly dark and compelling first half the mood is suddenly broken by the silliness of Benny and co breaking into a comedy drag routine for the most tenuous of reasons, which is then followed by a car chase where the life and death drama is completely undercut by the characters quipping comedy action movie dialogue at each other.
After these moments of madness Jones stops mucking around and starts rebuilding the tension again to what looks like it’s going to be a great finale on the planet of The Sunless. Which is when everything goes tits up. For nigh on 250 pages the plot has been building to what The Sunless ‘weapon’ is, but when we get to it the resolution is quite simply rubbish. There is not even the slightest attempt to explain how the device works – it may as well be magic – and the backstory makes little sense either, turning out to be as contrived and illogical as Pyramids of Mars. How does the device work? Why does it require two ‘visionaries’ to make it work? What power could they possibly be giving it? What on earth is the point of the two useless visionary statues? Where is the logical explanation for any of this? Not here, that’s for sure. Beyond the Sun is ultimately revealed as poorly though out science fantasy rather than the science fiction it appears to be, with the most nonsensical cop-out SF ending since the 1997 Doctor Who TV Movie.
Again, I’ll re-iterate that for the most part Beyond the Sun is an enjoyable read, but that ham-fisted ending may well leave a bad taste in your mouth. As it stands, an average book, but with a little more effort and rigorous plot construction this could have been something quite special. A pity.
On an archaeological dig with a couple of inexperienced students, Bernice's ex-husband Jason turns up out of the blue. After that, things begin to go even *more* horribly wrong. Bernice and her students wind up on a prohibited planet, where the indigenous population is being enslaved by the cruel Sunless, in search of a weapon with powers "beyond the sun".
In case you haven't noticed, Beyond the Sun is very much a Doctor Who story, with the exception of the ex-husband bit (unless there was something the Doctor wasn't telling us). The title is a bit of a hint, being the title of an abandoned William Hartnell story. Bernice is very Doctorish in many ways, but she does it on her own terms and this is never made absolutely explicit, providing the charming implication that she's really just doing what comes "naturally" to a former assistant turned star of her own series. The two students even serve as companions for the duration of the story!
The majority of Beyond the Sun can be summed up in one word: bleak. This is not to say that it's a bad book, however. Quite the contrary, in fact. However, the events are continually distressing for all involved, as well as the reader!
Fortunately, just when things turn bleakest, there is dramatic relief and one of the funniest scenes ever as Benny and friends try to break into the enemy HQ, armed with only some makeup and a few frocks!
The two students, Emile and Tameka are characterised very well. Not once did they seem contrived, even though in hindsight some of Tameka's affectations were a little convenient. The fact that the reader doesn't notice this and the actions spring naturally from the characters is a testament to the strength of the book. Emile is given more attention, with a journey of growth, but still remaining wonderfully in character. In fact, the two characters and their relationship to Benny and each other reminded me very strongly of Roz and Chris. I'm not sure this was intentional, but given the Doctor Who undertones this book possesses, I suspect it was.
However, aside from the Doctor Who-ish undertones, the book stands well on it's own right. The supporting characters are mostly well drawn (especially Kitzinger, Iranda and Scott, although Michael left me a little cold). And the resolution, something many New Adventures have problems with, is wonderful.
Overall, Beyond the Sun is a very strong entry in the Bernice New Adventures canon. It's a wonderful and very necessary look at Bernice as the central figure in a series of her own, the way the previous two books weren't. It's not all thrills, but it does take the reader on an interesting ride. The Doctor Who overtones in the final scenes are just perfect (both the final tagline and the question one character asks Benny when things are all concluded). Beyond the Sun is not quite the mind-blowing book the new New Adventures need to really cement their position, but it's exceedingly worthy and necessary. Recommended.
I'm not quite sure what to make of BEYOND THE SUN. At times it feels as though it simply isn't trying very hard, as if it's coasting on a reputation that it hasn't earned. It's certainly not a bad book; I found myself mostly engrossed in its straightforward plot. But it has enough flaws in it that I must reserve myself from fully recommending it. It's fairly unambitious, which isn't a crime unto itself (though personally I do prefer to read about something that's trying to be original), but it constantly seems to think that it's better than it really is. Its occasional attempts at levity and humor are welcome, though not always successful. Ultimately, I did enjoy it, but I doubt I'll be rereading this one any time soon.
The story is based upon an ancient artifact, a long dead civilization, and a deadly weapon, rumored to have powers beyond the sun. Professor Bernice Summerfield with the help of two unwitting students must unravel the mystery (and save her ex-husband's hide) before the dangerous secrets fall into the hands of those evil characters who would no doubt unleash deadly horrors upon the universe, as soon as they finish twirling their mustaches and tying Mr. Jason "Ex-Hubby" Kane to the train-tracks. The back-cover summary gives the impression of a fairly run-of-the-mill adventure, and to be honest, I found that to be an accurate assessment in many places. The plot is fairly entertaining, despite its limitations, and there's a satisfying (if not totally unexpected) little twist at the end to give the conclusion a needed shake-up.
I didn't find any of the characters here to be anything to write home about. They range from those who are adequate and occasionally interesting all the way down to those who are Really Bloody Annoying. And unfortunately, it's Benny's surrogate companions, Tameka and Emile, who fall into the latter category at most times. They do have moments where they become tolerable plot devices, but for the majority of there scenes, they're just whiney and annoying teenagers. It's rare for me to actually wish death upon a fictional creation, but when one of the characters appeared to be finally deceased I was actually pleased that I wouldn't have to read any more of their banal observations and dull thoughts. Imagine my supreme disappointment when that character popped up a few pages later in a distressing state of not-deadness.
And the surprising thing about the cardboard characters that do exist is that they are placed side-by-side with an environment and culture that are absolutely fascinating. Jones managed to pull off something that is usually very difficult to do; create an alien society that thinks and acts differently enough from humans, yet still manages to be logical and believable. Kudos for that. Their biology, their background, and thought-processes all make for fascinating reading. Perhaps Jones made his human characters such shallow creatures to better contrast the alienness of his new creation. If so, I wish he could have found a less annoying way.
Still, BEYOND THE SUN is a good read. It's not exactly demanding, yet it is enjoyable. The plot won't blow your mind, but it probably won't bore you either. The clever way in which Jones paints his alien landscape does make up for some of the failings in other areas. I didn't love it, but at least I didn't hate it.