Tuesday, February 24, 2009

city of the dead

B y title alone, you could easily get this book confused with “City of Death.” But fewer Doctor Who things could be more different! I complain (maybe too much) about lack of female involvement in official Doctor Who stuff, though the books contain the highest ratio of females. You wouldn’t know Lloyd Rose was a female, though, unless your friend Lori told you so. In any case, The City of the Dead is Rose’s first Doctor Who novel, followed by others, all of them highly acclaimed by Lori. So that’s why I decided to read this eight-year-old EDA. And that was a good move. This is a very strong book in an EDA world that is inconsistent.

Now, would you believe it? This author is female and American. It shows. The setting, the characters, are all authentically American though she can’t be shown to slack on Anji and Fitz, who are decidedly British. The setting is possibly the strongest element in the entire book. It’s New Orleans (pre-Katrina
[1]). The Doctor lands the TARDIS in one of New Orleans’ famous above-ground cemeteries (the rather boring cover shows just that), the “city of the dead” (it seems to me that epithet works just as well in relation to Père-Lachaise, but . . .). It opens with a murder investigation in “Chic’s House o’ Bones,” one of the many occult-catering businesses in the French Quarter. Immediately, I gobble this stuff up. The devil’s in the details, and the details spell authentic, interesting, and a bit wicked.

Jonas Rust, the policeman in charge of the murder investigation, is the one who suggests that all the crazies seem to congregate in New Orleans. The book is full of them and pokes fun at nearly all. Jack Dupré is a vicious buffoon who gives New Orleans ghost tours not unlike the Ripper tours Steve Pemberton’s character gives in Whitechapel (though with considerably less accuracy). He ends up cutting pentagrams and spells on the chained Doctor’s torso in an attempt to raise some demons (the Doctor gets his shirt off a lot in this book and is also broken, beaten, burnt, drowned, etc; I hope Rose’s tendencies aren’t toward sadism!). Teddy Acree is truly mad and wants the Doctor to pose with his loopy wife Swan for necrophiliac sculptures in a haunted house described by the author in hilarious, loving detail. There’s a visit to wife-beating trailer-trash (when the wife in question is a water-sprite, but I digress). It’s all in search of a bone-charm, carved from a willing magician’s flesh, which (it gets complicated) was given to the Doctor and is now part of a “Nothingness” pursuing him. I know—like Anji and Fitz you may just want to sit back and enjoy the food as the Doctor goes through the adventure. I really wonder if Rose is quoting verbatim from some of these freaks!

It goes without saying, but Rose has the essence of McGann down: The goblin beauty resolved into a more conventional handsomeness. (Eight, by the way, is several books past his lost century that began with The Burning.) On page 22, we find out that the Doctor has been suffering from nightmares, screaming “No!” to Anji and Fitz’s discomfort (a similar thing happens to Ten and Martha, but really it seems to be a motif in my writing!). You could argue that all the later, angst-ridden Doctors could fit this pattern of behavior, but this seems to me pure Eight. (Unlike Nine, Eight doesn’t appear to shave. At least, Anji has never seen him do it.) Eight is, thankfully, also a cat person. Before he quite realized what he was doing, he had picked up the cat and carried it into the TARDIS, which then transported him to a farm in South Wales whose owners, though perplexed by this sudden visitor bearing the gift of a cat, welcomed the little animal. In the same moment, he does some timey-wimey stuff not strictly kosher (well, look at what Nine did in “Father’s Day”).

I enjoyed, perhaps more than I should have, the dreamy section of the narrative which is like a hundred Beauty-in-the-Beast’s-castle scenarios I dreamed up as a kid (though in this case the Doctor is Beauty!). When the Hades to his Persephone offers him chocolate chip ice cream, he declines and searches his pockets for digestive biscuits. This is the part where Eight gets down with a water-sprite, and I’m a bit grateful for the sake of my own synapses that Rose stopped the description with Once, in a fit of pique, she smashed a peach on his forehead and smeared it all over his mouth.

I have to say, with the exception of Grace and possibly Lucie, I’ve never had a warm fuzzy feeling for any of Eight’s companions. To my taste, Rose’s treatment of Fitz and Anji is perfect—their scenes, mostly together and independent of the Doctor, are brief, to the point, and never reek of overkill. Fitz has never crossed over from the merely likeable to loyalty-inspiring, though there are some enjoyable moments from him here. (He’s the one who starts grave-robbing in New England circa Halloween, hoisting a buried log at scared Anji—for some weird reason, that whole bit reminds me of bits of my book Superstition.) Anji, about whom I know very little, nevertheless gets entangled, very human-like, in a relationship doomed to go nowhere. (I think I can say, without giving anything away, that this book might be suited to a radio play as it would need only a finite number of actors.)

If you asked me to plot diagram this book, though , I couldn’t do it. It was a good mystery, with a parade of characters, fabulous settings and situations, though I found the climax rather anti-, and full of the pseudo-magic that annoyed me at the end of “Last of the Time Lords.” Still, it’s hard not to feel good about the Doctor beating the odds: ‘I don’t think that’s helping, Anj.’
She leaned over and swatted at the time rotor. ‘Show us where he is!’
The door slid open and the Doctor, water running off him, came in from the lightning-shattered night.

Highly recommended.

[1] Though in an off-hand comment the Doctor appears to predict Katrina.

1 comment:

bookdelver said...

I've just started re-reading the 8DAs, so it's going to be a while before I get to this one again. At this point in time all I can remember, other than the weirdness (not being a fan of the Big Easy), are the Doctor's dreams* and the bits and pieces about the water-sprite.

This is the only book in my memory which has authentic American characters/culture. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it is interesting to see how different authors approach using American settings. (Mostly LA/NY if any.)

Poor Anji never got quite the fair handling she deserved. Sometimes Fitz gets ignored too for that matter. I find it ironic that the authors who hated those characters the most were often the ones who wrote them best.

*The nightmares (the sleeper [didn't he look familiar?] in the garden behind the fenced in area the Doctor dreams about wakes up ...) get picked up by that Parkin fellow and followed through in The Gallfrey Chronicles.