Jenny Colgan’s first published Doctor Who story (she is also part of the recently announced Time Trips short stories line-up, alongside AL Kennedy, Trudi Canavan and Nick Harkaway) is a breezy pseudo-historical tale; a fun read, but not one that lingers long in the memory.
Colgan’s prose is efficient and readable. Turns of phrase won’t stick out but you’ll speed through the novel with ease. It’s clear that it was fun to write at times, the joy leaping off the page. As ever with original Who fiction, there are nods and winks to past adventures (including The Myth Makers) for those who get them. Before we know what kind of threat the Doctor is facing, the story is reminiscent of early Historicals. There are no aliens involved bar the solo-sojourning Time Lord, and the mysterious fire that attacks anything above the surface of a bay.
Set on a Western Scottish island in the 12th century, the best part of the novel is the opening third where the mystery remains intact. A Viking ship carrying a Princess to an arranged marriage sinks after being attacked by a mysterious flame, and an uneasy truce exists between the survivors and the dwellers of a nearby island. Unable to head out into open waters to fish because of the flame, they are trapped by an unexplained force and aided by a trickster who talks in riddles.
The Doctor arrives and is immediately noted as being similar to Loki (this before Joss Whedon even suggested Tom Hiddleston for the role). Being Doctor Who, the story explains many an historical event as being caused by the Doctor, including the Lewis Chessmen. The opening works almost as a Pure Historical. While a lot of research has gone into the tale – with evocative descriptions of sights, smells and sounds of island life – the story is grounded in relationships.
For those screaming “Fie! A rom-com! A soap opera! Kill it with fire!”, stop that. It’s unseemly and narrow-minded. Anyway, Colgan is surprisingly brutal at times, and there’s no coming back from the dead for those consumed by the fire. Instead, a fate similar to that of Astrid Peth awaits some, but handled more deftly. There are some notably haunting self-sacrifices before the final happy ending. Elements of the finale are glossed over (some people survive pretty much because it’d be nice, with pat explanations at best) in favour of more emotional beats. The Doctor’s solution is surprisingly merciful considering, fitting in with the note of cautious optimism.
The novel sags in its middle section, once the nature of the threat has been revealed. The Consciousness of Arill feed on electrical energy (including that of the human brain) but their form and means remain unexplained. The monster is just there to be a monster, really. Consequently the means used to defeat them seems a little convenient. It’s reminiscent of a scene in Evolution Of The Daleks which not many people are especially fond of. This is where the novel falls down: its science-fiction element is both unexplored and lacking in novelty, and there are large chunks of its middle dedicated to not a lot happening.
Where it succeeds is in its depiction of a time and place, in the educational remit of the original series. There’s a child-friendliness to the book, with the island Chief having both young and teenage sons, and with the depictions of peat-walled dwellings, seal blubber candles and rabbit stew. It conjures up a vital image of island life, as well as the wider world and the Vikings of the time. Some are characterised as typically bloodthirsty, others are at sea because their parents thought it best for them, or because the lifestyle had been oddly romanticised.
Characterisation is another strong point, Colgan balances the Doctor’s unhelpful witterings with the sense of a keening and regretful mind. The supporting cast are well drawn, with a satisfyingly irksome human villain, and stopgap Viking companions who regard the TARDIS as unimpressive in nearly every way, apart from one (which is for linguistic reasons). There’s also a non-annoying little boy, Colgan clearly taking note of Matt Smith’s affinity with child actors.
Its length and style make Dark Horizons feel like a Target Novelisation taken to the length of the current book range. It feels very much like it should have been part of that range though, rather than a more expensive release. At no point does it feel especially momentous, but then it’s not trying to be. There’s a lot of fun to be had here if you don’t go in expecting things from its relatively prestigious launch. Like Dan Abnett’s The Silent Stars Go By, it’s a blast, and it might attract new readers to the range, but then so might people like Naomi Alderman and George Mann (whose titles were part of the standard release pattern of Eleventh Doctor novels).
With no more titles of this ilk announced, we’ll have to wait for the ensuing eBook to see what Colgan comes up with next. Meanwhile, Dark Horizons will place her as the third and final (for now) author in an otherwise unlikely triumvirate of her, Abnett, and Michael Moorcock in writing standalone Eleventh Doctor novels.
Ignore the cover blurb (“Still at least they have the Doctor on their side…don’t they?” SPOILERS: They do) and the title (which feels like another title was rejected first, and then someone came up with Dark Horizons in a panic). Colgan, growing up on Terrance Dicks, has produced an equally readable take on the Doctor that screams: “Read me. On Skye. Over a weekend. In a wigwam. In the rain.”
Dark Horizons is out now in paperback.
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