The Scarlet Empress
First person shooting games enable discerning gamers to immerse themselves in a world like no other games before or since. Your eyes have the edge of your monitor in your view, but you don't 'see' it. For all intents and purposes it doesn't exist while you focus on your in-game antics. This analogy survives the media transfer reasonably well when reading a novel written in first person.
The Scarlet Empress is one such novel, written in pseudo-diary form from the perspectives of the main characters (each of the main five gets at least chapter.) It makes characterisation a piece of cake, as each of them recalls various life-affirming events which imbue them with a sense of life sadly lacking in some characters from previous novels. We've got Gila the alligator man, brought up in relative poverty and enslaved until he escaped, Angela the bearded lady, whose exploits led her to form the group of 'superheroes' (more on this shortly) and the Mock Turtle, a genetically odd turtle with cloven hooves. Not only that, but these characters have a history with each other - the Mock Turtle has loved Angela for a long time.
I mentioned superheroes, and the three previously mentioned characters, plus the Duchess - a sleek cyborg - were as near to Marvel as 'real' Doctor Who characters have ever been (Norman Power in Conundrum doesn't count - he's fictional.) Gila's pretty strong, has a tail, vicious jaws and is able to belch fire; Angela is an ex-soldier with some ESP capability and (currently) an army of bears to back her up, the Mock Turtle possesses awesome swimming abilities, an armoured shell and moderate ESP capability, while the Duchess is super strong and virtually indestructible. Add to this the Doctor (a myriad of special abilities), Iris Wildthyme (well she is a Time Lord) and Sam (er...) and you almost have the Who equivalent of the X Men.
Speaking of Iris, this is the first time I've read/listened to any Who that features the character, and these are my initial thoughts - she's an irritating, frustrating, gormless old bag who more or less steals the Doctor's history and tells it like it's her own. However, she does mellow a little as the novel progresses and eventually she... well, that would be telling.
The Doctor and Sam have really made strides since Seeing I brought them together again, and play off each other extremely well here. Thankfully, this isn't spoilt by them being split up for too long, and the arduous bus journey proves them with an opportunity to share some excellent conversations with each other and with their band of merry... things.
As the novel gets underway (after the Doctor and Sam faff about in Hyspero for a bit), it's clear that the Doctor, Sam, Iris and Gila have to undertake a long journey, which they eventually agree on. At this point, alarm bells starting ringing, and I wondered if they were 'off to see the Empress, the wonderful Empress of Hysperon', especially with the cyborg Duchess doubling as a tin man and the timid Mock Turtle instead of the cowardly lion. Thankfully, it didn't turn out that way, quite. However, the way in which the novel progressed brings me back to games again. It's rather like an RPG. You start off with one or two characters (Doctor, Sam), and as you progress you pick up more and more party members to fight off all manner of evil beasties. Well, that's exactly what happens here. Iris and Gila join the party, and after a brief run in with the Empress' mural-tattooed guards, their travels eventually bring them into contact with Angela and the Duchess. At one point they even convince a giant spider to help them out.
All of which brings me to the bloody weird plot developments Scarlet Empress has to offer - it's comparable to Sky Pirates! in this regard, only it's not as funny. Firstly, it's important to note that Hyspero is an awesome world where magic and technology are indistinguishable from each other in many cases, and the sense of scale is grand, with vast deserts and ice fields, gloomy forests and bustling urban areas. You genuinely feel it's a world where anything can happen - and boy, does it!
Along the way, the party of travellers encounter an insect djinn (genie type thing) and his horde of biting mosquito buddies, a remote village (in which the annual village scrap is taking place) in which shopkeepers would surely ask 'are you local?', there are lift shafts and other connections between 'levels' (there's that RPG flavour again) and the giant spider and the cyborg fall in love and mesh themselves together to make a spyborg / cider. Then, just as they rejoice in their new found love, a giant walrus breaks through the ice and attacks them. So, a giant walrus fighting a giant spider cyborg - now that's what I call a scrap!
Then there are the Freudian references, such as allusions to the phallic Dark Tower and Sam having a conversation with an unknown entity that professes to be some sort of 'essence of woman', talking about the male and female journey. It's riveting stuff, even if it does feel slightly out of place in a Doctor Who novel.
The Scarlet Empress settles the Dying Days canon issue, because the Doctor remembers jumping out of an Ice Warrior ship over London, which means Dying Days must have happened in the gap mentioned in Vampire Science (most likely) or while he was out searching for Sam after the events of Longest Day (unlikely, but possible.)
Flaws? Well, as I've already stated, Iris can be a bit of a pain sometimes, but I guess you're supposed to think that. In addition, the first person viewpoints are largely very effective, except when the Doctor breaks the fourth wall by saying "I'm not all that used to this first person narrative mode" - OK, he's writing in a journal, but the way the sentence is worded in the present tense makes it sound like he's saying to the reader - 'I know there's someone reading a novel of my adventures ;)'
It's completely and utterly barmy, and not without its flaws, but for a change of scenery, you can't go far wrong with The Scarlet Empress.
10 minus breaking the fourth wall (0.5) and the odd boring section (0.5), minus Iris (0.5) =
Review by Tom Hey
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