This month's reading begins with The Night Alphabet, a collection of twenty-six short stories - arranged into an alphabet of themes - loosely bound by a common source in dreamed inspiration. There's a broad range of works on offer here, from the Gaimanesque whimsy of 'Mr Martello and the Cloud Castle' to the Lovecraftian horror of 'Solomon's Gate' or 'The Gap', to more distinctly unique chapters such as 'The Cherry Tree' and 'The Sandwich Thief'. The bad news is that this means that few readers will get on with every story in the book, but the good news is that is that - unlike with, say, Lovecraft himself, who can get a little samey - there is no danger of tedium setting in, and that there is something for most palates within.
Generically, the book is broadly described as horror, although 'dark fantasy' is probably more apt, with only a few of the stories slipping into full-blown chiller mode. Some of the stories are very short, others a little bit longer. The writing is strong throughout, even in the simplest works, with characters efficiently drawn so as to quickly engage the reader's sympathies.
Next up was a repeat of an old favourite, as I kicked off a re-read of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings with The Fellowship of the Ring, and the thing that really strikes me... Well, it may seem odd, but I really hadn't considered before how odd it is that the Shire has a postal service. The single greatest kingdom in the known world exchanges diplomatic communiques with its client states by sending a man on a horse with a red arrow, and the bucolic, forgotten pastoral has stamps. Also, having made an informed decision to not skip the Old Forest this time around, damn I'd forgotten how weird and creepy Tom Bombadil (Tom Bombadillo) actually is. I mean, everyone remembers that his whole episode is random as hell - Peter Jackson memorably replaced his entire impact on the wider plot(1) with a bag - but as much as I don't think it was Tolkien's intention, having Goldberry begin and end her explanation of who Tom Bombadil is with the phrase 'Tom is the master' is pretty fucking cult programming.
It's amazing how much re-visiting a familiar text allows you to focus in on the small details, is what I'm saying.
The book begins with the famous foreword in which Tolkien discourses on his mortal horror of allegory, before proceeding to 'Concerning Hobbits,' a rambling history of the 'little people,' which I usually skim, and hoo-boy is there a lot that I didn't remember. The bulk of the story - from Hobbiton to Rauros, by way of the bloody Old Forest, of Bree and Weathertop and Rivendell, Caradhras and Moria, Lothlorien and the Anduin - I remember much better, probably because it gets much more love in adaptation(2). It quite surprised me, however, that I left Boromir alive, and Merry and Pippin quite at liberty, rather than Fellowship encompassing the skirmish at Rauros.
My last actual book for the month was The White City, follow-up to Down Station, continuing the misadventures of an ethnically diverse group of survivors in an alternate dimension with no clothing stores(3). Dalip, Mary and their dwindling group of friends continue to seek for the secrets of Down, the alternate dimension to which they fled from the apparent annihilation of modern London. Their quest leads them to the fabled White City, but all that they know of this place comes from the treacherous Crows. Loss and separation follow, and even on reaching the city the group remain fragmented. What do the masked rulers of the city really want? Will the group find freedom with a band of pirates? What did happen to Grace back in Down Station? And is there a reason why this Narnia is so shit?
The White City is a decent follow-up to Down Station, although I'm not sure that any definite cause was ever going to be as satisfying as the mystery of Down. The whole is well-crafted, and the peril to the characters, both physical and spiritual, feels real and compelling. As before, the contrast between the fierce, instinctual Mary and the measured, analytical Dalip provides a rounded perspective. The infinitely duplicitous and self-justifying Crows is a bit of a villain for the ages, utterly amoral, yet appallingly affable.
The rest of my month was split between comics and audio plays, which apparently are appearing here now.
I kicked off my comics with Hellboy and the BPRD - 1952-1954. A prequel to the main Hellboy series, they feature the titular archfiend as a young demon, going on his first missions for his adoptive father and the BPRD. This brings the same mix of folkloric monsters, weird science and vigorous face-punching that fans of the main series have become accustomed to, but with a less seasoned protagonist and a more expansive role for Professor Bruttenholm than being killed by a frog monster. If you like Hellboy, and I do, this is going to be another winner, although I can see that you might want to ration yourself a bit more than I did; binging Hellboy can get a little… Samey suggests a level of repetition that isn't actually there, but it is an anthology series, and that doesn't lend itself to bigger chunks.
I also finished off Book 2 of Saga, a sprawling space opera following the life of Hazel, the daughter of two soldiers on opposite sides of a galaxy-spanning war. Hunted by both sides as evidence against the alleged incompatibility of the two sides, Hazel and her parents find strange allies and stranger enemies, as they balance the need to hide and survive with a desire to change the world that they live in.
Saga is… Well, it's big. It's also self-consciously mature and edgy. It's actually kind of a triumph that it transcends being one step beyond PWP(4), although it does mean that my usual reading opportunities - sitting with my daughter as she goes to sleep; the waiting room of my daughter's ballet class - seem inappropriate, hence it has taken me a while to get through this one. It has a gritty edge to it which means that no-one seems safe, but develops enough sympathy for its characters that not only mortal perils, but separation and potential breakups work on the heartstrings.
Sadly, Book 3 is a long way from omnibus.
Completing this month's comic trifecta was Volume 1 of The Complete Valerian. I'd read the first Valerian story - City of Shifting Waters - before, but this omnibus also includes the zeroth book, Bad Dreams, and the second, The Empire of a Thousand Planets. Despite the title, the comics are very much Valerian and Laureline, with the female lead, a strikingly intelligent young woman from mediaeval France, surprisingly close to being the equal of her male partner in the Spatio-Temporal Agency; impressive for a comic created in the late sixties.
Bad Dreams tells the story of the first meeting of our heroes, as Valerian is sent back in time to protect the fabric of history from a wizard. Here he encounters Laureline, a tough survivor with somewhat unlikely hair, who helps him to complete his mission, despite being temporarily transformed into a unicorn. In The Empire of a Thousand Planets they are sent to scout out a new civilisation for first contact, only to find that the name of Earth is known… and hated. Empire breaks away from the first two and contains no actual time travel, although the same technology that allows the Spatio-Temporal Agents to travel in time appears tosolve the problems of FTL travel.
Valerian and Laureline contains a lot that feels familiar, from Valerian's hapless everyman antics - his cunning plans are as likely to end with him falling on his face in plain view of his enemies as in success - to Laureline's role as a female partner who is competent, intelligent and driven, but it's hard to imagine that this would have been the case in 1967. I feel as if Luc Besson missed a lot of potential in his film adaptation, but then again it's a lot easier to take a risk like setting your pilot story in the last years of modern society as seen through the eyes of a time agent from the distant future in a comic than a big budget movie.
So, the last part of this month's 'reading' is made up of audio plays, as I've been getting back into Big Finish via the medium of sales.
Dark Eyes is a sprawling serial, bringing the 8th Doctor out of his Byronic phase and towards the cynicism that led to his embrace of the War Doctor at his regeneration in the short film The Night of the Doctor. After the loss of a companion and a family member at the conclusion of the 8th Doctor Adventures series, the Doctor was prevented from throwing himself to the far end of time by the Time Lords, who recruit him to find and protect Molly O'Sullivan, a WWI voluntary aid worker who turned out to be the key to an insidious plot hatched by the Dalek Time Controller and a renegade CIA(5) agent and caught up in the transtemporal rise and fall of a terrible galactic menace known as the Eminence.
In the third series of plays, Molly is kidnapped by the Master and his 'companion', Sally Armstrong, with the intention of using the power forced into her body to usurp the Eminence's control of its zombie-like Infinite Warriors. This Master, played by Alex Macqueen, is a slightly camp, slightly cheeky character, but as ruthless and calculating as any of his incarnations, and is more in control of his temporary alliances with the Daleks and the Eminence than his earlier versions, who always seemed not only unprepared when his fair weather friends turned on him, but actually surprised. The Doctor and his current companion, future physician Liv Chenka, take on the Master and thwart his plans, only to find him resurgent in Dark Eyes 4, conquering the Earth once more.
Dark Eyes is a dark entry in the history of Doctor Who. It's brilliantly performed and realised, and runs the titular renegade through several wringers in the course of its run. If I have a complaint, it's that it feels like running the Doctor through hell is a little too much the point, rather than a simple consequence of the plot. Still, I am a big fan of the McGann Doctor, and Nicola Walker and Ruth Bradley make superb companions as Liv and Molly respectively.
The Worlds of Big Finish was released as a celebration of the company's non-Doctor Who works, following a pattern established in The Worlds of Doctor Who, telling a single story by passing the narrative from each group of characters to the next(6).
We begin with Graceless, a series for which I frankly care very little. I'm not sure it's actively bad, but its positioning as adult, sexy and edgy puts it on the Torchwood end of the Whoniverse, for which I don't especially care even when it's good. Anyway, this entry features weird magic girls Zara and Abby - loosely the wild one and the good one, although from the one series I did pick up, Abby is also the more ruthlessly pragmatic of the two - visiting a vast, pan-dimensional library called the Archive. Arriving much later than intended, they stumble on an apocalypse cult's attempt to destroy every book which describes the destruction of Earth in the early twenty-first century by a force of multidimensional conquerors called the Magog. They thwart this attempt and send the last book to Earth, concealing it in an antiquarian collection.
We then proceed to the early twentieth century, as Sherlock Holmes thwarts a bomber targeting antiquarian book dealers, and then on a few more years to a time when Dorian Gray interceded in an attempt to usher forth the destruction of the world(7). The book surfaces again at the time of the described destruction, but trans-temporal adventuress Iris Wildythyme(8) rambles in to save the day by ramping a time traveling double-decker bus off of Tower Bridge. With the world saved, we then flash forward to the future, where travelling trouble - and person - shooter Vienna Salvatori is hired to recover the book for a criminal big shot on Mars. Now, Vienna is kind of edgy and sexy in the same way as Graceless, but somehow I mind a lot less. It's odd, because I really went into Vienna's first solo adventure expecting to hate it, but it really grabbed me. Maybe it's because it doesn’t feel the need of a lot of sex to be sexy, or just because it manages to make her more likable than either Abby or Zara, but I thoroughly enjoy her brand of sci-fi noir.
We wrap up with Bernice Summerfield thwarting a last hurrah by the Magog to complete their conquest of Earth, before falling more or less into Vienna's lap and finally choosing to conceal the book in question in the one place a book can really disappear: the vast, pan-dimensional library called the Archive.
The Worlds of Big Finish is a lot of fun. Essentially a single story with rotating leads, narrators - Holmes, Gray and Salvatori all provide their own voice-overs - and styles, it's a grand Macguffin hunt, and a fair introduction to the range of stories Big Finish are telling these days.
That being said, the one world decidedly not featured is that of Pathfinder Legends, which I visited after picking up the second series, Mummy's Mask, in another sale. I thought about getting the third, but I'm buying a house, so I have to draw a line somewhere.
Unsurprisingly, Mummy's Mask takes our four intrepid adventurers - atheist wizard Ezren, sassy elven thief Merisiel, lunk of the world Valeros, and grumpy dwarf Ranger Harsk - to the Aegyptian corner of the Pathfinder world. Entering a lottery to be assigned a building to explore in the necropolis of a city long-abandoned to an ancient plague, they stumble on another cult set on restoring a long-dead ruler to power, in this case the Pharaoh Hakotep, who has a fleet of flying laser pyramids and a major chip on his undead shoulder.
Mummy's Mask is a much more substantial offering than Rise of the Runelords, with each of the audio plays in the series twice as long as the previous. One of the things this gave me the chance to notice is that the dialogue is actually incredibly clever. The four leads are somewhat at odds with the world around them in their mode of speech because they are PCs. While there aren't the usual run of pop culture references, everything about them - Harsk's use of what are almost catchphrases, Valeros and Merisiel's lack of commitment to 'period' dialogue - makes sense if they are being voiced by the players, while the supporting characters are NPCs being run by the DM.
Although mostly a decent production, Mummy's Mask suffers a little from having an ancient Egyptian setting written with limited reference to academic sources and depicted by the voice actors available. In Big Finish's defence, the vast majority of the support players are of middle eastern origin, but there are a few dodgy accents, and of course the PCs have a bit of a white saviour role, having come from the more Euro-fantasy part of the world to save notAegypt.
Also, there is a gay couple in this one. They die, I'm sorry to day.