Warning: This review contains spoilers.
When I first looked at this book, I thought, “Cool. A sequel to The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” But then I saw the first Romana on the cover and recoiled slightly. “Oh, another book that tries to ram itself into a place where there isn’t room for it.” I was wrong. Both times.
As the author points out at the onset, despite what it says on the back cover, it is not a true sequel to the televised story. In fact, it retains none of the same characters other than Mr Sin (aka the Peking Homunculus). And for those hoping for a return of Jago and Litefoot will have to keep waiting. The action takes place in China, initially Shanghai, in the 1930s.
We all know that the first Romana only appeared on the show during the Key to Time season. This would suggest that she, the Doctor and K9 are on the trail of one of the segments. But it doesn’t seem likely, given the setting, since they just found the last piece on Earth (in the televised story The Stones of Blood). So the premise is that something has gone wrong with the tracer, and it won’t lead them to the next segment until they find out what’s causing the interference and stop it. Fair enough.
David A McIntee has certainly done his homework. Like his New Adventure outing White Darkness, he spends a great deal of time and care establishing an accurate depiction of the setting and creating motivation for the characters. This is the strong point of the narrative, as backstory is given sparingly and sprinkled throughout the text. Missing information is delivered as purpose rather than revelation. Yan Cheh (alias Mr Woo, the nightclub owner - which is also an alias) seems to be an archetypal vigilante akin to the era’s radio stars. Sung-Chi Li is a police inspector with his own secret identity. Neither one is exactly what they seem in the unstable political climate of the region, but they do effectively create a literary yin and yang.
The main antagonist, Hsien-Ko (daughter of Li S’en Chang from Talons) is somewhat of an oddity. Her character is quite callous, but she appears to have virtuous intentions. Her affection for Kwok is touching, and the reader can relate to her anguish under certain regards. Perhaps the strangest aspect of her personality though, is the fact that she sees the Doctor as a supposed ally and assumes he will sanction her methods once he sees the fruition of her plan. She was born with the ability to manipulate time due to a side effect of Magnus Greel’s arrival in the past, under which circumstances she intends to change. Obviously, the Doctor and Romana recognize that it would cause a dangerous paradox, and attempt to stop her.
One weakness of the book is its rambling plot. The scene changes often and with differing perspectives. It gives the narrative the feel of a televised story, but can sometimes leave the reader confused for a paragraph or two. There’s plenty of running around from place to place with people getting captured and rescued for those who like that sort of thing. Also, the author makes it clear that Yan Cheh has a crush on Romana. In itself, not a bothersome point, but his occasionally referring to her as “Romy” did make my eyes roll at times.
There is also a good deal of violence in The Shadow of Weng-Chiang. However, due to the setting, it should probably be expected. Mr Sin is depicted as quite vicious, particularly after Hsien-Ko loses her control of him. Li and Yan Cheh also have a vividly graphic showdown at the end that almost renders the reader the ability to smell the blood being shed. Their are many deaths in this book, but honorable for those who deserve it.
The characterization of the Doctor is fairly consistent with the series, but Romana comes off as a little bland. She does seem to have the bon mots at her disposal, but her participation in minimal. K9 is used sparingly as well, which is always a good thing. In fact, there is a point where you’re sure that he’s going to appear and save the day... and he doesn’t.
All said, The Shadow of Weng-Chiang is an enjoyable book. There isn’t a lot of messing about with continuity references and all the characters have depth and realistic intentions. And David A McIntee gives us more than a Doctor Who story, he gives us a little insight into a world that most of us don’t know much about.
I was impressed by many aspects of this book. Its TARDIS crew are superbly evoked, as is its chosen world of Shanghai in 1937. For the first time after more than one half-cocked attempt, McIntee recreated the feel of a James Bond film in a novel. It's full of action, wit and exotic foreign locations.
Unfortunately Bond-ness is the book's downfall. I love James Bond films, but at times they're cheerfully empty-headed. Apeing their story structure in a novel is pretty daft. The Shadow of Weng-Chiang is lots of fun for a while, but eventually its running around, getting captured and escaping gets dull. The villain doesn't even want to kill the Doctor! The story gets stale around the halfway mark and only drifts downwards from then on. This novel desperately needs to lose about a hundred pages - and McIntee's next book, The Dark Path, actually *was* cut by a third by Virgin's editors.
However anyone who stopped reading around page 200 would find a lot to like. For example, I was gobsmacked by McIntee's rendition of the Season 16 regulars. Many authors have come a cropper trying to evoke the mighty Tom, but this book makes it look effortless. Really and truly, this is a fantastic TARDIS crew and the best in any McIntee novel by a gazillion miles. Check out the in-joke on p133; normally 'twould be groanworthy, but here it's genuinely funny.
The evocation of Shanghai is great too. Most of McIntee's books are historicals and most of those are impressively research-heavy, but for me this was up there with the 13th century of Sanctuary. I don't know how authentic it is, but it *feels* right. I never doubted for a moment that I was in China in 1937 - and it's not just a question of dressing the sets and checking the names. We get an oriental perspective on the white man and some kind of idea of what it must have been like to live in that time. You'll learn about the difference between China and Japan in the thirties. [There's even a glossary at the end for easy reference.]
There are even thirties pop culture references. Superman and Orson Welles get namechecked, while the characters include name-changed equivalents of the Saint and the Shadow. [Lucas Seyton, the Fallen Angel, annoyed me, but for that I should really blame Andy Lane and his story 'Fallen Angel' in the first Decalog collection.]
The book's placement is unfortunate, though. Shoehorning extra stories into the Key to Time season is a rather silly and distracting thing to do, especially since there's no reason why it couldn't go between The Armageddon Factor and Destiny of the Daleks instead. In 1996 I thought the Doctor and Romana paid too little attention to their mission for the White Guardian... but in fact they pay too much. Instead of just getting on with the adventure at hand, they're always being sidelined by worrying about the Key to Time. It undermines the novel, making it seem like a side-note instead of the main attraction. [Though having said that, the Doctor, Romana and K9 are so strongly written that even their filler scenes are entertaining.]
Mr Sin is a suitably nasty piece of work, though any possible shock factor is blown by the cover illustration. One offbeat problem for me was the Chinese names, which all looked similar and made it hard to keep track of the characters. "Yan Cheh? That name rings a bell... oh, it's *him*!" Fortunately the cast is small, but even so I had to pay close attention to remember who's who. Many people have enjoyed The Shadow of Weng-Chiang, but despite its good points I eventually got a bit bored by it. It includes McIntee's liveliest writing, but unfortunately tacked on to one of his most trivial plots.
I think one of the things that I like best about McIntee's writing is that though he takes the task of writing a good novel seriously, he never takes himself or the Doctor too seriously. How can you dislike a book where, during a chase scene, Romana (the first) gets away unscathed but the Doctor twists HIS ankle? Or a scene where the Doctor is taken to a specifically geologically important location? His response? "A quarry! How very interesting!" It is this kind of fond affection for the series and the characters that is evinced again and again in "The Shadow of Weng-Chiang".
The story takes place between "The Stones of Blood" and "The Androids of Tara" during the Key To Time arc. It never ceases to amaze me when Missing Adventure authors can sandwich in a story without sacrificing continuity and McIntee has accomplished this by constantly referring to their mission and their most recent adventure.
McIntee's second in the Missing Adventures series (following three terrific New Adventures) centers on a disruption in the chronon fields on Earth interfering with the Doctor and Romana's White Guardian-led quest for the segments of the Key to Time. These disruptions keep returning the Tardis to Earth rather than leading on to the next segment, so the Doctor decides to solve the mystery of the chronon fields and winds up in 1937 Saigon.
China's edgy political situation with neighboring Japan provides the political backdrop for the story and as in all of McIntee's New Adventures, we are overloaded with historical information. One downside of this is that at times the author seems more interested in the setting than the Doctor, which can lead to a historical fiction-feel rather than a Doctor Who story. Despite all the action and intrigue to be found in the book, it is not a light read.
In the author's foreword he warns that this sequel to "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" is definitely not the further adventures of Jago and Lightfoot in Victorian London. Rather, the only recurring character is Mr. Sin, the Peking Homunculus, who gets to run rampant through China. The atmosphere of the book is closest to the recent 1930's-period films such as "The Shadow" and "The Phantom". There's even an undercover millionaire good guy with a dark past.
The feisty villainess, Hsien-Ko, proves to be the key to the chronon interference. Her plot to provide enough energy to interfere with the time-stream that originally brought Weng-Chiang to the nineteenth century and the machinations involved therein keep the Doctor and his companions occupied trying to stop her from creating a paradox in the time continuum.
As in all of McIntee's books, the 'guest' characters are fully fleshed out and three dimensional. We learn about their misguided motivations and the circumstances that brought them into our story. These are constant reminders, however, that McIntee is a strong writer who should not be limited to "Doctor Who" novels, despite a dinstinct knack for writing great historical Who adventures.
If you enjoyed "White Darkness" and "Sanctuary" for their period settings, you'll enjoy this book. If you enjoyed "First Frontier" for McIntee's take on the Master, wait for his next MA, "The Dark Path", the Master's origin story. For those of you who enjoyed all of McIntee's fannish in-references (especially in "First Frontier") he will not let you down. One Trek reference in "The Shadow of Weng-Chiang" is as follows: the Doctor messes up K-9's translations circuit (yes, K-9 is in here, too, with the inevitable stair-master challenge to surmount -- how else can you stop him?) so he starts speaking is binary code, "11001001". Look familiar?
That's just one of the jokes. As in all of McIntee's books, there are James Bond references and references to Hong Kong action films galore. An example: one character goes by the name "Mr. Woo". John, anyone?
This is not the sequel one might have expected for Weng-Chiang, perhaps not even the one I might have wanted, with a different Doctor and companion, for example. Or the return of the giant rats. And of course I missed Jago and Lightfoot. But McIntee has provided instead an interesting historical portrait of 1937 Shanghai, while managing at the same time to be true to the Tom Baker whimsy of that era of Doctor Who stories. The Doctor trips lots of people with his scarf, Romana is appropriately superior and extremely naive, K-9 is K-9.
If there was any quibble I have at all, it was that there was too much happening with 'guest' characters and not enought time spent with the Doctor. There were definitely too many of Mr. Sin's violent rampages and it took the Doctor far too long to catch up with the rest of the characters in the last third of the book.
My final vote? A good book, but not the best Doctor Who MA. Definitely not fluffy reading.
If you do decide to skip this book, however, you will be missing out on some good writing by an up-and-coming author (who has indicated he'd love to be invited to Gallifrey One next year -- wouldn't we like to have him?!) who always has something interesting to say, even if it's through Tom Baker's voice as in the case of my favorite line from "The Shadow of Weng-Chiang": "Just because something is not possible does not mean it can't be done ù especially by someone who doesn't know any better."
If historicals are not your thing, try McIntee's previous MA "The Lords of the Storm" with Peter Davison's Doctor and Turlough for a wild action ride. For a very fun read, I recommend NA "First Frontier". My favorite of all of McIntee's books is his wonderful love story for Benny, the NA "Sanctuary".
Still if this setting or Hong Kong Triad films are your bag, or you just need a fix of Tom Baker or Mary Tamm, go for this and you will enjoy.