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The Great Virgin New Adventures Review: The Left Handed Hummingbird & Conundrum

It’s been a while since I had a chance to read through some of the Virgin New Adventures, I’ve had quite a bit on my plate recently and not much time for reading or writing, however, we’re back now with the next instalment of our look back of The Virgin New Adventures’ books, which filled much of the gap caused by The Wilderness Years and, while these books might not fit into the established continuity of the television show anymore, it’s still an interesting look at how the show may have gone had it survived into the 2000s.

The Left-Handed Hummingbird

Written: Kate Orman

The Left-Handed Hummingbird is the first book where I wondered if Stephen Moffatt had taken a few notes. The plot, from Kate Orman, can be best described as ‘Timey-Wimey’ with The Doctor, Ace and Bernice meeting characters, they’ll soon meet and the plot kind of works it’s way backwards and forwards with people meeting out of order for almost its entirety.

It’s an ambitious book and Kate Orman is a writer I’ve heard plenty about before I started reading through the Virgin books so I was pleased to discover that much of the hype was to be believed. While the book gets gradually darker and darker, like all of the good New Adventures books, but it begins and remains a very thoughtful read and the prose reflects this nicely, especially in the opening passages of the book.

However, despite the thoughtful prose and the fact that I did manage to finish it in a few days, the story didn’t really feel very cohesive. And it felt like I was reading through a number of different plots, rather than a series of plot threads that were gradually being woven together. That led me to not really enjoying The Left-Handed Hummingbird as much as other people seemed to, despite all the elements promising an epic tale for the TARDIS team.

Cover art for The Left-Handed Hummingbird
Cover art for The Left-Handed Hummingbird

Adding a complicated timeline into the story, something which us Doctor Who should be familiar with now, was something that impressed the readers back in the 1990s and knowing that the TARDIS gang must-visit points A-C before the story can wind down does get a little boring after a while, if Orman’s story does anything its stop us from getting boring, even giving us more Aztec-action, though a much darker and more realistic take on their culture than the Hartnell story dared to do. In all fairness though, no way would have they have gotten away with some of the Aztec-antics on offer this time.

Something else which stopped me from really getting into the book was the constant shifting of the locations. This is something that should come with the disjointed time-line the book is told with but just as I got comfortable with one location and one set of characters, I was catapulted away from the time of the Aztecs, to the sad, despite the story not being about it, sinking of the Titanic as the Doctor tries to stop the mad god, Huitzilin, who loves to play with fears and death. There was though, a successful sense that this time, the Doctor might loose and the rest of the ongoing arc, would continue without the Doctor as Huitzilin’s plans come close to absorbing the Doctor.

With an ongoing plot about someone from the Doctor’s past coming back to haunt him, we’ve learnt that time is changing, something that started in Blood Heat when the Doctor, Ace and Bernice found themselves in an alternate universe, the threat of Huitzilin is a little dumbed down as a result. But he does join the Virgin New Adventures best villains, easily standing with the likes of Ishtar and the Timewyrm. Orman also handles the character of Christian really well, as the Doctor, Ace and Bernice continue to meet him out of order throughout the piece. It’s a shame that the rest of the characters don’t really get the same kind of treatment, given that a few of them including paranormal investigator, Macbeth, don’t really get much development.

The finished result is that The Left-Handed Hummingbird was written in a flurry of excitement. And while it doesn’t feel like a few of these books have done, like they are still in their first drafts when they were published, it doesn’t hold together in a way that it should. It’s a story that has a little too much in it and yet, not enough to keep things going.

It’s fair to say that Kate Orman is an author to be reckoned with and you can understand the hype surrounding her contributions to the Doctor Who books. But like a few other authors who have contributed to the range, she delivers a story which takes form and who can see where it is trying to go and what it’s trying to do, but it somehow falls short, despite the fact she wasn’t afraid to tell a different kind of story. But The Left-Handed Hummingbird doesn’t fall too short and stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the best from this range so far, even if it didn’t hit quite the right spots for me.

Conundrum

Written By: Steve Lyons

Over the course of these books, there have been very few that have changed up the storytelling style, I can only think of Birthright which told almost two separate stories before bringing them together before I got to The Left-Handed Hummingbird which told the story out of linear order. Conundrum continues this trend and does something completely different giving us the story through the narration of the villain. But not only does it successfully do that, it removes the fourth wall completely and deconstructs what it means to be a Doctor Who story or even a book and author, Steve Lyons manages to make it effortlessly.

I’m more familiar with Lyons’ work from Big Finish with some of them, especially Son of the Dragon, being among my absolute favourite Doctor Who stories ever to be told. Colditz is another stone-cold-classic but I hadn’t really experienced anything he’d written in book form. So I was very pleased to find that Conundrum was not only a great book, but one of my favourites from the range that I’ve read so far.

As the book was written in the 1990s, I’m not going to be spoiling it when I say it works as a sequel to The Mind Robber, one of my favourite Patrick Troughton stories, but Lyons manages to avoid the trap of repetition that many other authors would have fallen into. This isn’t about the Doctor,  Ace and Bernice arriving in the Land of Fiction, getting stuck in a fantasy realm and having to pass a number of tests and tribulations to get out. Sure there are plenty of tests, trials and tribulations to be had, but they don’t play a massive part in the overall plot. And as great as The Mind Robber is, Conundrum doesn’t follow the same A-B plot that story does and it doesn’t confine the Doctor and his companions to one location or time, which allows the book to give us many pokes and prods at the nature of Doctor Who-story-telling.

Cover art for Conundrum
Cover art for Conundrum

The Doctor and his companions find themselves in Arundale, a small English village which isn’t too dissimilar from locations like Devil’s End in The Daemons, or the locales in books like Witch Mark and Nightshade and I’m sure, with the amount of care and details that Lyons fills the book with, isn’t merely a coincidence. The Doctor, Ace and Bernice find the Arundale citizens to be full of murderers, cultists, superheroes and supervillains, witches, paranormal and private investigators, even a group of children who felt a lot like the Famous Five, minus Timmy the Dog. Each character feels like they could’ve lead their own series, with the Famous Five-esc kids could have easily proved popular in modern culture, lets just look over the fact that they all die at the end in a horrible way!

Lyons makes sure to also give the Doctor, Ace and Bernice plenty to do, while they rarely share much of the prose in each others company. He makes sure that we see each one through the eyes of the Master of the Land of Fiction. We don’t hear much of the Doctor’s inner monologue because he can shield his thoughts but Lyons’ take on Ace inner thoughts is hilarious, one line questions her anger issues and bad language, “…And in a book deemed suitable for consumption of minors,” had me in hysterics. When she finally discovers what’s going on the Master of the Land of Fiction shows her a few books that cover her life, most notably we see her read Dragonfire, Love and War and Deceit, which stand out as particular landmarks for the character. One does wonder if the book had come out later down the line what he would have made of Loving the Alien, a book which kills off the proper Ace and replaces her with a different one from another timeline?!

It’s interesting that Bernice is seriously considering a life away from the Doctor now, which feels very similar to Ace’s questioning of giving up her travels in Nightshade. Though for Bernice, quiet life in a quaint English village feels a lot more suitable than it did for Ace who would have eventually gotten bored. It’s fun to hear this yearning of Bernice’s woven into the plot, with the Master giving her a number of reasons to stay behind. Of course, the village of Arundale isn’t real so she can’t stay behind and resumes her travels. But it was an interesting take and look at Bernice, as Lyons seems to slightly dig at the previous books which haven’t really done much with her character.

The Doctor really comes into his own when he finally faces down opposite the Master of the Land of Fiction and we see the return of the characters, John and Gillian his other ‘grandchildren’ from the old 1960s Doctor Who annuals. For long-time fans, this must have been a great nod to the past when the book came out and for people who know whose those characters are, its still a great inclusion and nod to some of the stranger Doctor Who stories. And the Doctor’s scenes were played with a real sense of ‘nudge-nudge-wink-wink,’ with the Doctor being referred to as ‘The Real McCoy’. Of course, this might not be everyone’s taste. But it was a book that felt so different from anything that had come before I couldn’t help but love it!

And it actually advances the ongoing plot of someone changing the Doctor’s past, with the Master narrating the story to the big-bad. It works much better than a similar thing did in The Dimension Riders, mainly due to the fact that isn’t tacked on like it was there. It forms as much of the plot as the Doctor, Ace and Bernice do. It’s an essential part of the story.

Like the overall arc, the characters also feel like they are going places with the three of them trying to find the time to talk and get the frustrations of the previous adventures out into the open. Of course, the Doctor doesn’t have too much time to do that, as he is the same brooding Seventh Doctor as he was in stories like Ghost Light but Bernice and Ace come to blows and while it seems like Ace is just going to around in angry circles now, there is a sense in this book that the Virgin New Adventures is one big universe and I’m going to be intrigued to see where and who the big-bad is going to be in the next one. I think it’s a safe bet to say that Conundrum is a success in every way.

Next Time: No Future & Tragedy Day…

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