Monday, June 6, 2011

In Which Trai Mini-Reviews 'Lyra's Oxford' and 'Doctor Who: Dead Air'

Time for some mini-reviewing! These two works were very short--one was a novella Pullman wrote for His Dark Materials fans; the other was an exclusive-to-audio Doctor Who story narrated by David Tennant. Basically, they both qualify as novellas, not substantial enough to warrant a full review.

Lyra's Oxford, by Philip Pullman: When we last saw Lyra Silvertongue and her daemon Pantalaimon, they were back at Oxford after being separated from the love of Lyra's life, Will Parry, a boy from our world. (It's a long and complicated story involving parallel universes. In short, Lyra's is a steampunk version of ours.) Lyra is at Oxford to learn once more how to read the alethiometer, since she lost the grace that enabled her to read it before, and she is older but still the same impulsive, adventurous girl she was at twelve or so.

Lyra and Pan are on the roof at Oxford when they witness Rani, a witch's bird-formed daemon, being attacked by a flock of starlings. They shoo the starlings off and learn from Rani why he has been sent to find them. His witch is ill and the cure can only be obtained from a local alchemist, and Lyra and Pan must bring him there.

This novella will really only make sense if you've read the His Dark Materials trilogy, but you don't need to remember much about it in order to enjoy the story. I read the books eight years ago (eesh) and I pretty much caught on fine with what I remembered.

There's really not much to say about it, I suppose. It was short and sweet but nothing really substantial. It's got a small adventure for our heroes to go on and it's a nice reassurance that Lyra is getting on fine even after losing Will to the whims of the walls between the worlds. It's a slight story and everything is wrapped up nice and tidy in, say, 25 or so pages. The bonus material is cute (a postcard from the past of The Amber Spyglass' Mary Malone, a time table for a cruise that's supposedly drifted through the walls between universes) and little more. Since there's not much substance, there's not much else to say other than that fans of the trilogy will enjoy it, but do what I did and get it from the library. Unless you're a real completist, I don't really think it's necessary to shell out the cash for this one.


Doctor Who: Dead Air, by James Goss: For my first Doctor Who audiobook, I decided to start small. It's only an hour long, and I figured I'd listen to it to see if I could handle an audiobook (the other times I've listened to them have usually involved me losing focus) and if I'd actually like the feeling of the story being read to me, instead of reading it myself. I can say now that I really enjoyed the experience; David Tennant is a good reader and it just really felt like the Doctor was telling a story.

"Hello, I'm the Doctor, and if you can hear this, then one of us is going to die. If I'm lucky, you're listening to this on the boat ... Of course, if I'm not lucky, you're listening to this somewhere else, perhaps even at home, in which case it's too late. It's already escaped. And it's the end of the world."

The Doctor has landed on the boat Radio Bravo, a pirate radio station in the 1960s. It is staffed by Layla, Jasper, and Tom-O (not sure of the spelling on that last, given the format; I'm assuming it's spelled as it sounds), and they are in deadly danger. The Doctor is tracking the Hush, a weapon implied to have been made by the Time Lords during the Last Great Time War in order to defeat the Daleks. The Hush silences and devours any source of noise, and it just needs the boat's transmitter in order to escape and be beamed all across the world to bring destruction. The Doctor can't stop it alone, and it's up to him and Layla to track and defeat the Hush before it kills them and the rest of the world.

Given the nature of the monster, this story was perfectly suited to audio. The creepiness amps up as the sound distorts at various points in the tale, usually as the Hush has done something dreadful. I kept flinching whenever it happened, so it certainly worked on me! (Keep in mind I was listening to this while walking in broad daylight, so it wasn't like I was listening in the dead of night!) It's a loving ode to pirate radio and good ol' cassette tapes. Think Pirate Radio (aka The Boat That Rocked in the UK) if the Doctor were on board.

The Doctor himself felt perfectly in character, something that was probably helped along by it being narrated in the first person by David Tennant. I particularly loved the instance where Layla and the Doctor have been reunited after the Hush's attempt to mimic the Doctor and manipulate Layla into fixing the transmitter, and Layla observes upon their reunion that she should have known it wasn't him, because the Doctor is so full of himself and the Hush's mimicry wasn't. That's the Doctor I know: conceited, yeah, but sweet and brilliant besides. We really get all of him here. The side of him that's sorry, so sorry when someone dies. The side of him that's a thrill seeker and really finds the hunt for the Hush fun, even when he shouldn't. And then, at the very end, the Oncoming Storm, the very dangerous, threatening side of him that only tends to come out when his companions are threatened. Oh, we do not want to have that.

The other characters were well-done if a bit flat; I excuse most of my normal concerns about this due to the fact that the story was only an hour long. Layla is given the most to do, and she was quite fun--I loved her easy acceptance of the Doctor's reveal that he's an alien, and how it caused the Doctor to reflect that he really should give medals for that sort of thing. I really enjoyed and chuckled through the early banter between her and the Doctor. Jasper and Tom-O were basically there to give us Red Shirts to worry about, but I did get the sense that the crew of Radio Bravo was a family and could see why the Doctor would really care about keeping them safe. Since the story was so short, I liked that it skipped over the expository bits about the TARDIS, the Time War, etc.--the Doctor just handwaves it away by assuming the listener would already know it. The little bits of metafiction made me giggle, although it takes a creepy turn at the end, as the Doctor is sure that no one would listen to the tape all the way through to the end (thus ruining his plans) after his warnings, and if they did, they're just stupid, aren't they? Well, mark me down as happily Too Dumb to Live!

It was a little story, but I enjoyed how it slotted into the Whoniverse. It takes place in Ten's final year, when he's traveling alone after the events of "Journey's End", but the previous companions weren't ignored; there were some sweet remembrances of Donna and another (presumably classic series) companion whose name I didn't quite catch. The implication that the Hush was a weapon in the Time War gave me chills and really lent credence to the fact that yeah, the other Time Lords aren't exactly good guys when it comes to winning the war. I really recommend this one to Who fans who just want a little more of the Tenth Doctor, or who want a deliciously creepy listen. It's fun but still scary: what more could you want?

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