Tuesday, November 18, 2008

the many hands

“Dying to save Edinburgh, the Doctor thought. It could be worse.”

It could be Cardiff.

Though in the past few months I’ve read some decent and some excellent Doctor Who novels, I can confidently say Dale Smith’s The Many Hands was at least as fun as Sting of the Zygons—in fact, it may be one of the best DW books I’ve ever read. It certainly has the advantage of being a historical, but it’s set in such a rich atmosphere, it completely complements its plot that’s full of horrors Gothic and grotesque. It is a very frightening and disturbing book, with possibly the scary factor of “Blink.”

As I noted, setting is everything in this book—and the setting is (principally) Edinburgh, 1759. Maybe I’m biased because I’ve toured the city, but the way Smith describes Edinburgh is both familiar and atmospherically grim. I know from being there that its closes and alleys are labyrinth, and that it has a reputation for ghosts—Robert Louis Stevenson was certainly thinking as much of it as of London when he wrote Jekyll & Hyde. The book also has perhaps the best opening scene of any Doctor Who book I’ve ever read—easily a crowd-pleaser were it on TV, but much less expensive in book form. It involves the Doctor fighting a reanimated corpse on top of a racing stagecoach through Edinburgh’s winding streets as Martha follows on foot—said stagecoach containing none other than Ben Franklin. Franklin, electricity, and reanimation all weave in and out of the narrative, which is highly appropriate for several reasons.

Of course, any story that puts the Tenth Doctor in Scotland is amusing for two reasons. ‘My men tell me you have a passable Scots accent,’ says the sneering English guardsman McAllister—what a great dig at David Tennant! It also gives the Doctor an excuse to allude to Jamie: ‘I did know a man who fought at Culloden . . .’ The companion, this time, is Martha, making much less of a fool of herself than Rose did, though she doesn’t use the opportunity to dress up (nor did Rose, actually). Smith’s Martha is a good likeness, very much the companion with whom to identify rather than particularly lovesick over the Doctor (though she has one very funny moment I’ll get to). On page 19 she keeps her mind busy while running by listing the organization of the human lung—something I’m convinced Martha would do. A few seconds later she’s confusing bustles and panniers (at least I assume that’s her mistake; if it’s the author’s he’s in grave trouble). There’s also a very funny moment where she’s arrested for wearing pantaloons (against the law in Edinburgh at that time apparently).

It’s a good thing Smith can write Ten as effortlessly as he does, for the sheer horror and grotesquerie would overwhelm the reader were Ten not that curious combination of brave and grave and silly and bouncy. I imagine him saying of Ben Franklin, ‘I think I must have seen his photograph in Heat,’ in the same sarcastic tone as he said “Harvey Wallbanger?!” to Donna. ‘There’s always someone to tell you the last one was twice as good as you are,’ he says to a minster named, improbably, Reverend McVicar. He does a lot of running, negotiating, swimming, sonicking—your range of active Doctor-ish things. He offers to give up a life to save Edinburgh (and Glasgow) and one can only imagine the screams we could have gotten out of that Tennant!acting.

It’s difficult for me not to give away everything, but suffice it to say dead bodies rising out of St Cuthbert’s churchyard and the Loch are not the worst our heroes have to face. There’s an anatomist/resurrectionist/grave robber who isn’t what he seems, and the usual company of authoritarian soldiers not eager to believe anything the Doctor says has a particularly prickly Stahlman character. Martha has all of the most frightening encounters with disembodied sentient limbs that will make anyone with a fear of creepy crawlies shiver all over. Worse still, she’s pursued into Edinburgh’s pitch black underground city and runs into what may or may not be the ghost of a plague doctor. No amount of triple-sun sunsets cold be worth this. Martha spends the book being remarkably brave. Then the Doctor tells her to activate a TARDIS protocol, the git: ‘Just . . . well, just don’t take it the wrong way if it calls you Rose.’

There are, surprisingly, moments of humor in the midst of all this grimness. I couldn’t keep a straight face during this scene: ‘Just rub it against your head, would you?’ [the Doctor] asked. . . . For no reason that he could fathom, McAllister found himself rubbing the ball [a balloon] against his wiry hair. . . . The Doctor, meanwhile, pointed at the hand he was holding. ‘This,’ he said simply, ‘is a piece of snake.’ Anyone who’s seen John Adams and “Unite or die” will understand the Doctor’s curious statement. Really, the Doctor’s interaction in this story with Franklin is the closest thing to an American history lesson we’ve had since . . . well, “Daleks in Manhattan.”

I doubt I’ve done the book justice with this review, but take my word for it: it’s a scary, funny, delightful whirlwind of a ride through eighteenth century Edinburgh.

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