This is the first BBC Eleventh Doctor novel I’ve read, and my first reaction was dismay at the even larger leading and font sizes. Eighth Doctor novels, these are not. Despite the length, though, I think this book successfully layers many subtexts while at the same time providing a cheerful and enjoyable story bolstered by the author’s skilful proficiency with the three main characters. The secondary characters, are, perhaps, a bit less completely formed, but overall the book is quite fun to read.
The author’s epigraph is from Beowulf, and with the titular king named Beol, it’s the first signal that there’s more to this story than the surface. That is generally the mark of a good Doctor Who, after all: enjoyable surface story for the very young with allusions to other, more adult themes. As the Doctor, Rory, and Amy land on an alien planet whose development is roughly equivalent with medieval Europe (Rory wonders why an alien planet has horses), I was a bit alarmed that the story was going to be similar to Wooden Heart, but despite early thematic similarities, The King’s Dragon quickly carved out its own niche.
To her credit, McCormack writes the Eleventh Doctor, Amy, and particularly Rory really well. The dialogue is natural, very funny, and there’s a real visual element. Even in the first scene, the writer combines comedy and image to give us the quite funny scene of the Doctor being splashed with mud from horse and cart who has refused to give him a ride, and then pops back up again as his irrepressible self. As we all know, it helps in terms of narrative to have more than one companion as point of view and storyline can be advanced from the normal two-hander. In this respect, the normal annoyance I have for shifting POV in sci fi books was lessened as the story was more Amy’s and Rory’s than the Doctor’s.
The visual appeal of the book continued as the trio reached the city of Geath, which was quite literally paved in gold. While the feast of “bling” (in Rory’s words) is a delight for the senses, the Doctor is concerned because gold does not occur naturally in Geath; nor do kings. When the Doctor meets the Teller, whose function it is to be like a king’s bard, his anxiety increases. Touches like this, along with the importance of a ring and its summoning of the Herald, do allude to the rich Anglo-Saxon/Nordic mythology (with hints of Tolkien as well) that will hopefully encourage younger readers to eventually seek more in the tradition of Beowulf (in common with Beowulf are interesting meditations on expectations of heroism and how they fall short, in both the case of the Teller, Hilthe, and there’s a wryness that reminds me of the bits of Robin Hood I most enjoyed). Speaking of precedents I enjoyed, the Doctor’s speech to Amy and Rory about the effects of Enamour remind me very much of Wolf warning Virginia about the shoes in The 10th Kingdom:
You’re thinking that it’s beautiful, aren’t you? That it’s the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever seen. Rory doesn’t match up. Amy doesn’t compare. You’re wondering how you ever lived without it, and you can’t understand why anyone would say that it’s dangerous. How can anything so gorgeous be so dangerous? But it’s all these things—beautiful and necessary and dangerous. The people who made it understood how powerful it was. Because it bewitches people. It can turn minds, sell merchandise, sway elections. And it has done its job far too well.
One of the themes is certainly storytelling and the possible problems created for the same story told by different people. Geath is caught in the middle of a larger conflict between two civilizations, one who contact them through the Herald, and one who contacts them through terrifying dark manifestations. Neither is what it seems; the dragon is mechanical; the gold is commercial Enamour; and the Doctor’s insistence on “I-know-best” is quite rightly challenged.
So what gave him the right to come in and demand that the Geathians did what he told them? Rory eyed the Doctor. It was all pretty high-handed when you thought about it. Wasn’t it just as bad as the Regulator screaming its demands and sending its ships? Or waltzing in the night before a wedding and spiriting away the bride? What gave the Doctor the right to interfere?
I think 1960s and 1970s writers of Doctor Who would approve of undercurrent of (possible?) capitalist criticism, or at least a condemnation with the obsession with greed.
Rory is at his most endearing in this book: And yet still he found himself picking his way round said strange city in the middle of the night in search of a little old lady. And why? Because the Doctor had asked him to. Talk about Enamour. Amy comes off as very go-get-‘em but slightly shallow: ‘I’m not any kind of lady. But if you do that smile again, I’ll forgive you.’ Beol obliged. Amy wrinkled her nose at him. ‘So cute! I’d vote for you.’ I don’t want to spoil the ending too much for you, but the Regulatory Board aliens are both very amusing and suuuuuch a 180 degree turn that the narrative almost psychs itself out. Fortunately their amusing interlude is brief. (And I think McCormack is poking fun at herself and her involvement with Star Trek when the Doctor says, ‘Non-interference? Prime Directives? So 23rd century. All a bit retro. And not in a good way.’)
If all the Eleventh Doctor books are this complex beneath their short word count, I think they will be quite enjoyable.