Monday, April 8, 2013

All-Consuming Fire

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of All-Consuming Fire (Virgin, 1994).

Since I've been reading or rereading some revisionist Sherlock Holmes stories, it's only natural that I'd want to dust off what I remembered as one of my favorite Doctor Who stories from Virgin's seven-year line of novels. Andy Lane's All-Consuming Fire sees the Doctor teaming up with Holmes and Watson, or, rather, the "real" people whose adventures were published under the pseudonyms of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. This concept is a recurring one in revisionist Holmes literature, and one that honestly doesn't stand up to very much scrutiny. However, this concept was nevertheless gleefully embraced by Who fandom, which is why some of us old-timers are a little aggravated with one aspect of the last couple of years of the TV series. We've lately been informed that the fictional Sherlock Holmes was actually based on Madame Vastra, a heavily veiled lizard woman who assisted police with their inquiries. I actually kind of liked Madame Vastra just fine until that insistence*. It messed with a perfectly good novel that had a much, much more sensible take on how the Doctor could team up with Holmes.

Well, I say "perfectly good," but it's actually very flawed in one respect: one of the Doctor's companions is utterly unlikeable. Having been away from the New Adventures series for so long, I had forgotten how unpleasant and downright awful Ace had become. The writers had played a pretty neat trick with the character, who had been depicted in the last two years of the TV series as an Earth girl in her late teens. After nine books, she left the Doctor in the far distant future, only to call for his help and rejoin the Time Lord three books, and three years, later. In the meantime, she'd joined the army (space marines, actually) and become much more jaded and surly. The writers of the books greatly enjoyed playing with the characters of the manipulative Doctor, his broken friend Ace, and the third part of the triangle, a fantastic and fun archaeologist named Bernice, who's one of Doctor Who's all-time best companions. The interplay between the three is almost always engaging and fascinating.

But Andy Lane, writer of this novel, makes the awful mistake of putting Ace and Watson together. This does not do Ace any favors, and it took me completely out of the story.

Lane does an incredible job capturing the feel of Holmes, and much of this book should be praised as one of the very best of all the countless Holmes pastiches. It is structured as a Holmes story into which the Doctor keeps interfering, rather than the other way around as Who readers might expect, and Lane nails the tropes and the characterization. He also proves that he's also very familiar with the tropes of the pastiches that have preceded him. So Lane becomes the latest in a long line of writers to speculate about a certain giant rat of Sumatra and the inner workings of the Diogenes Club - naturally, the third Doctor is a member, despite really being a much more clubbable sort of chap than their usual roster - and he follows William S. Baring-Gould's theories and provides Sherlock and Mycroft with an older brother. In fact, it's such an entertaining Holmes story that the more it blazes off into science fiction, the less I enjoyed it. It's not even simplistic alien invasion stuff, but body horrors and Lovecraftian old gods and sickening metamorphoses, not the sort of sci-fi that I like to read in the first place, and it feels like the whole novel, and not just members of the supporting cast, loses humanity as the book itself transforms from proper Victoriana into something hideous and modern.

Nowhere does this transformation hit home harder than in the Watson-Ace dynamic. I think that Lane made a bad miscalculation here. Watson is one of fiction's most beloved characters. To love Holmes fiction, even the stories written from alternative points of view or set, like Laurie King's often wonderful novels, after the conclusion of their partnership, is to love John Watson, for all his bad luck, quiet dignity, and loyalty. Now, I understand that he's the guest star and Ace is one of the heroes of the show, but to have Ace constantly belittle Watson and yell at him just drives home how horrible she's become. (And what a poor host, to be so disrespectful to a famous guest!) I've read all the New Adventures, some of them many times, and I thought that I was used to "New Ace" and all her unhappy, brittle points, but either I had forgotten how shrill she is in the years since I last read one of these books, or Lane drove her to extreme behavior in this one, or I've become much, much more of fan of Watson without realizing it. Ace doesn't enter the narrative for 200 of the book's 300 pages, meaning I spent a hundred pages waiting for her to get a comeuppance for being so nasty to Watson. If this is the modern world, give me Baker Street.

I know that I had read All-Consuming Fire at least twice before, and I enjoyed the London-set material so much that, during this reread, it was like reacquainting myself with a beloved old friend. I found myself very surprised to have so much more of the book left to read once the disturbingly alien elements appeared, suggesting that I've always found the events on the planet Ry'leh to be disappointing by comparison; I'd remembered the book as having much more happening in England and in India than in space. Maybe that's just the book that I would rather remember, because what happens in space isn't happy and is downright nasty to Holmes and Watson, and what happens on our planet is a blast and very respectful to those characters, firmly one of the best of all the pastiches until things get dark. Recommended for Holmes fans with very strong reservations.

*A second aggravation is that I'm very pleased that Vastra and Jenny are happy together, and, were they residing on contemporary Earth, I'd wish them a long and happy legal marriage. Since they're in 1880-something, however, I think that their public claims of a happy marriage are just this side of completely idiotic. And she's not Holmes, either. The fellow in this book [and the following year's Happy Endings] is Holmes, and Vastra is a Silurian in a veil. Steven Moffat really has done a thorough job in letting us all down.

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