Review No.108 – Doll Bones

Doll Bones – Holly Black

Doubleday, 2013

Zach has been friends with Poppy and Alice for almost as long as he can remember. Together they follow the adventures of William the Blade and the thief Lady Jayne with their action figures and dolls in an imaginary kingdom ruled over by the Queen – an ancient porcelain doll locked away behind glass in Poppy’s house. Then Zach is forced to stop playing. He can’t even bring himself to see the girls any more. But ending the game isn’t as simple as he thought. Poppy has a new story about the Queen and as the lines between imagination and reality become alarmingly blurred, there’s only one thing to do: go on a quest to a cemetery and bury a bone china ghost.

Doll Bones is aimed at a younger audience than Black’s Curse Workers trilogy and the Modern Faerie Tales, with its three main characters all around the age of twelve, but it’s tinged with a very creepy note of horror that’s supported superbly by Eliza Wheeler’s cover and illustrations. Quests, ghosts, telling stories and defying everybody’s expectations of what growing up ought to look like – what’s not to love?

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.59 – A Dethroning of Dogs

Remember ‘The Tinderbox’? The Andersen fairy tale in which a soldier murders a witch, abducts a princess, and corrupts three perfectly innocent dogs to help him overthrow someone else’s city? Well, in each of these two stories, the hero finds himself likewise the unexpected recipient of canine superpowers, but things turn out rather differently for everybody concerned.

Story 1: The Three Dogs

This German story is from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Dragons. Upon the death of their father, a shepherd’s two children are left to divide his few possessions between them, those being his house and his three sheep. There is nothing to stop the siblings sticking together and pooling their resources, but the brother, whose name is Mario, tells his sister to choose what she wants most and when she picks the house, he takes the sheep and sets off into the world with them. Before long he comes across a man travelling with three black dogs. The man proposes an exchange. Mario refuses, pointing out that his sheep are cheaper and lower maintenance, but the stranger is determined to have them and explains how really he’s doing Mario a tremendous favour.

The first dog is called Salt; if Mario gets hungry, she will bring him food. The second is Pepper. Should Mario ever be threatened, he’ll tear his enemies to pieces. The last dog is Mustard, and he can bite through steel. “If what you tell me is true, I should be foolish not to take them,” Mario admits. “But why should you wish to exchange three such valuable animals for three ordinary sheep?” “That is my own affair,” the stranger says loftily, and disappears, taking the sheep with him.

The question that has to be asked at this point is: were they ordinary sheep at all?

But Mario is more interested in his side of the bargain. He tells Salt that he is hungry and immediately she disappears, returning the next moment with a basket of wonderful food. It’s so loaded up with tasty things that there is enough for Mario to share with all the dogs, which he wisely does. The basket then vanishes and the quartet go happily on their way.

The next travellers they meet on the road are a girl in a coach, dressed all in black and sobbing her heart out, and her similarly attired driver. Mario jumps up to intercept them and find out what’s wrong. The coachman is not inclined to tell him, but the girl leans out of the carriage and explains. “You see that high mountain in front of us? That is the mountain of death. And it is there that I must go to meet my fate. It is there that I am to be devoured by a fiery dragon.” It turns out that the dragon has, in the traditional fashion, been demanding an annual sacrifice and this year it is the turn of the king’s daughter. She tells Mario to turn back before it’s too late, but he doesn’t. He follows the coach all the way to the foot of the mountain, and then up the mountain, all while she pleads with him to go away and let her die alone.

Halfway up the mountainside, the dragon notices them. It comes swooping down through a haze of flames and the princess faints, but Mario has time to shout for Pepper and the dog flies at the dragon. He gets its by the throat and while the dragon roars and flames and smacks its wings, he refuses to let go. At last the dragon falls dead, and Pepper eats it. Mustard joins in, crunching up the giant bones.

Luckily for everyone, dogs do not generally demand sacrifices.

Salt, being the polite member of the family, tends to the princess instead, gently licking her awake. The girl starts crying again out of sheer relief. She tries to persuade Mario to return with her to her father’s palace, where he will doubtless be rewarded, but Mario set out to travel and he’s only about a day from home. He promises to return in three years time, once he’s seen something of the world. Pocketing two of the dragon’s teeth as keepsakes, he calls to his dogs and climbs casually down the other side of the mountain to continue his adventuring.

The princess is a bit smitten. She didn’t mention marriage as part of the reward, but she’s secretly hoping it will be. Unfortunately for her, the coachman has other plans. He witnessed the entire battle from a safe distance and when he sees the princess walking back towards him on her own, what he sees is an opportunity. He doesn’t act on it immediately – he waits, letting her get in the coach and driving towards home, only to stop halfway across a bridge.

“A fine champion you found, who left you without so much as a word or a sigh!” he sneers. “Now I have a heart which beats for you alone. It would be worth your while to make a fellow happy. So when I tell the king, your father, that it was I who killed the dragon, you’d better not contradict me. It’s no good your scowling at me, my beauty! If you don’t promise to agree that it was I who killed that dragon, I shall throw you into the river and drown you, and drive back alone. No one will be the wiser. Everyone will think you’ve been eaten by the dragon.”

Where are those dogs when you need them? The princess knows he’s right, he could murder her and get away scot free. Forced to agree with his story, she returns miserably to the palace, where her father joyously pledges her hand to her ‘rescuer’. There are, however, conditions. “As the princess is so very young, I think we must put off the wedding for a year,” he says firmly, and has the coachman start training to be a prince. This gives the princess a chance. At the end of the first year, she convinces her father that she’s still too young to marry, and wins another year’s reprieve after that. But when the three years promised by her real rescuer are up and there’s no sign of him, she doesn’t know what to do. So she cries, but she does as she’s told, because a princess always does her duty. A grand betrothal feast is held, with everyone in the king’s city feasting at his expense, and the only one left miserable is the bride to be.

Well, not quite. Mario has kept his word; he arrives in the midst of the party and is not at all pleased to hear of the coachman’s lies. In fact, he’s quite loud about it, and gets himself thrown in jail. Lying bruised and furious on the floor of his cell, he hears a whine at the door and realises his dogs have found him. A tip to security: do not mess with magic dogs. Mustard makes short work of the door and Mario jumps out into the courtyard; then Salt swipes him supper from the king’s own table. The princess feels a gentle lick on her hand and she, too, realises she has been found. She jumps up joyfully and tells her father everything. He promptly sends for Mario and has the cell mended so that they can toss the coachman in there instead. Mario offers the dragon’s teeth as proof but the king has already accepted his daughter’s word, and her wishes. The princess and her dragon slayer get married on the spot. Why waste a good wedding?

Then Mario remembers his sister, left living alone in their father’s ramshackle old hut. He tells the princess, who immediately sends out a carriage to collect her new sister-in-law. The shepherd’s daughter is adopted into the royal family and it’s made official when the king’s nephew proposes to her. Weddings all round!

On the morning after the marriage, the dogs come to Mario to say goodbye. To literally say it – they can apparently talk when they have a mind to, which shouldn’t really be surprising after the dragon killing and the chomping of iron doors. They wanted to make sure he didn’t forget his sister; now that they know she’s taken care of, they can be on their way. With that, the three black dogs turn into three white birds and fly away.

Story 2: The Little Tailor and the Three Dogs

This is another German story from another Ruth Manning-Sanders collection, A Book of Ogres and Trolls. The hero of this one is a tailor who falls on hard times and is forced onto the road to go seek work in larger towns. On his way, he has to pass through a large forest. In the gloomy dark he is accosted by an enormous dog, who advises he take it into his employment. The tailor is happy for company, however unexpected its appearance. When a second dog appears, then a third, he lets them tag along too. Why not?

Then they come to the end of the forest, and a tavern, and reality brings him down with a thud. They are all hungry, and he has no money. That’s boring thinking, though, and the dogs are having none of it. They order him inside and he demands dinner with such vehemence that the tavern keeper dashes about getting him the best of everything. Once the table is laid, the dogs come flying in, each leaping onto a chair and helping themselves to the food with superb table manners.

After they have all finished eating, the dogs instruct the tailor to make himself scarce, leaving his things behind so it looks like he’ll be back any minute. Then, as soon as the tavern keeper leaves the room, the dogs catch up the tailor’s possessions and dash off after him.

The tailor is a teeny bit guilty about all this. On the other hand, he’s feeling guilty on a full stomach, so he doesn’t worry about it for long. The dogs lead him back into the forest, to a clearing where a castle stands tall. “Have you any courage, my master?” inquires the first dog. “A deal more courage than cash,” the tailor replies, which is not much of an answer, but the dog proceeds with its instructions anyway and has the tailor tie the three of them together. The castle, he is told, is full of ogres. The tailor must walk in and offer the dogs for sale. The ogres will receive him, but they are not to be trusted under any circumstances, so each dog gives the tailor a gift: an ointment that will glue anything down, a stick that will lengthen as needed and kill anyone it strikes, and a horn that will bring the dogs to his side when he needs them most. He tests it and the resulting note is so clamorous that the castle door flies open of its own accord.

The tailor walks in with his leashed dogs. They cross a grand hall, climb a staircase and enter a vast dining room where twenty four ogres are busy getting drunk. The tailor exerts his acting skills again, offering his handsome trio for a gold piece each. The ogres are seemingly agreeable; they all leave the room and take the dogs with them, promising to fetch the money. Not trusting that promise for a second, the tailor quickly coats each chair with his magic ointment. That turns out to be a good idea. The ogres have chained the dogs in the stable and are consulting how best to kill the tailor. When they all tramp back into the dining room, their story is that the tailor has defrauded them; the dogs are not worth the money that they have not actually paid him yet and he is thereby condemned to death.

It doesn’t really matter if their argument makes sense or not, and they know it. The tailor, though, tells them he is owed a trial and they find the idea funny, so they gather around the table to hear his defence. Once they are all stuck fast to their chairs, the tailor flips the situation, condemning them all with his magical stick. Each ogre falls dead the instant it touches them.

One ogre remains, however. The king, in fact, who has just returned from hunting to find the tailor surrounded by bodies. The tailor tries to hit him with the stick too, but the ogre king catches it and snaps it, then seizes the tailor himself between finger and thumb. He carries him out into the garden to hang him from the tallest tree. But the tailor has an ace up his sleeve – specifically, a horn. He blows it with everything he’s got and the dogs come flying to his rescue, leaping onto the ogre king and tearing him apart.

The tailor climbs down from the tree. To his surprise, the dogs are no longer there. Instead, there are three furry skins and three human beings, two women and a man, all crowned in gold. “You are our deliverer,” pronounces the man. “The ogre king cast a spell on us and turned us into dogs, because we would not give him our daughter in marriage. But now the enchantment is broken.” It certainly is; the forest is turning into a city, the birds into humans. The crowned girl kisses the tailor, and they decide on the spot to get married. Directly after the wedding, though, the tailor returns to the tavern and pays its owner four times what he owed. Guilt has no place in a happy ending.

If I were the tavern keeper, I’d prefer an explanation for the whacking great city that has appeared from nowhere, but it’s a sweet gesture just the same.

My headcanon is that the dogs are the same in both stories; that they have been travelling around the world collecting enough magic to save themselves from the ogres, with Mario’s unknowing assistance. This would make Pepper a girl (a queen, no less), but who knows who that stranger was anyway, and whether he could be trusted to get genders right?

I have no explanation for the sheep.

Reviewing Who – Rose

Doctor: Christopher Eccleston

Companion: Billie Piper

Script writer: Russel T. Davies

Producer: Phil Collinson

Executive producers: Russel T. Davies, Julie Gardner and Mal Young

Director: Keith Boak

Originally aired: 26th March 2005

Meet Rose Tyler. She’s a nineteen year old Londoner who lives with her mum on a housing estate and does not have the qualifications to do anything even remotely exciting. Existing in a repeat cycle of chips and tea and entrenched boredom, the most remarkable thing about her life is that she is allowed to wear a hoodie and jeans to work in an inner city department store.

Then one night she stays late, venturing into the cavernous basement to deliver an envelope of lottery money. Rose is a little annoyed, but not scared. Not until the doors slam inexplicably shut and a roomful of abandoned shop dummies come to life. At first Rose is angry, assuming this is someone’s idea of a prank, but the dummies don’t stop. They don’t laugh. They advance inexorably, backing Rose up against a wall, a plastic arm raised to strike –

And someone seizes her hand. Someone with a black leather jacket, a sonic screwdriver and a bundle of explosives. GUESS WHO. “Run,” he tells her, and they run like hell.

They head for the lift. When one of the dummies reaches for them through the closing doors, Rose’s rescuer wrestles wildly with it and to her shock, its arm breaks off entirely. The doors shut. With determined bravado, Rose demands to know what’s going on. Is this a student thing?

DOCTOR: Why students?

ROSE: To get that many people dressed up and being silly, they got to be students.

DOCTOR: That makes sense. Well done.

DOCTOR: They’re not students.

They are, in fact, creatures of living plastic, controlled by a relay on the roof, and the Doctor is here to blow it up. “And I might well die in the process,” he informs Rose casually as he bundles her out the door, “but don’t worry about me, no. You go on. Go on, go have your lovely beans on toast.”

Mr Charm, Doctor No.9 is not.

Rose is left alone on the street with snide advice and a broken plastic arm, but not for long. The door is yanked open again just as she turns to walk away. “I’m the Doctor, by the way, what’s your name?” “Rose.” The Doctor beams. “Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life!”

And Rose runs, back into the real world of buses and shoppers, nearly getting herself run down by a passing cab. On the other side of the street she stops to look over her shoulder and before her eyes the top of the department store explodes, glass shattering, flame billowing outward. The Doctor has made good on his word.

In an alley behind Rose, a blue box stands waiting in the shadows.

She returns home in a state of shock, to be alternately coddled and scolded by her mother Jackie, who is more interested in fielding melodramatic phone calls about the explosion than asking questions about what caused it. Her boyfriend Mickey is equally preoccupied. His cure for shock is a few drinks down at the pub and maybe the end of a match…Rose, relaxing despite herself, doesn’t want to go anywhere, but she does want that plastic arm gone. Mickey claps it to his throat, miming strangulation, then tosses it carelessly into a bin on the street. What could be scary about a broken hand?

As Sarah Jane Smith could tell you: A LOT.

The next morning Rose wakes up unemployed. She wanders into the kitchen, where she hears a rattle at the door. Something is trying to open the catflap. Which used to be hammered down, only all the nails seem to have spontaneously fallen out. Rose kneels down and defiantly pushes it up, to find the Doctor kneeling on the other side with his sonic. “What’re you doing here?” he asks, indignantly. “I live here,” Rose retorts. She drags him inside. It’s time to get some answers.

As he passes her mother’s door, the Doctor is propositioned by Jackie. It’s a cringey moment, its sole purpose being to redefine the Doctor’s romantic potential, i.e. that he has any. We’re not on Gallifrey any more, K-9.

Rose, meanwhile, is making coffee and plans in the kitchen. She wants to go to the police, but they need to get their stories straight, especially as she hasn’t got the faintest idea what’s going on. The Doctor roams around her cramped, cluttered living room, not really listening, poking at things and tossing them around like the first word in bad news. A rustle behind the sofa suddenly catches his attention. He goes over to investigate, and the disembodied arm comes flying straight for his throat.

This is the point when Rose comes in with the coffee cups. She sees the Doctor struggling with the plastic hand but just rolls her eyes, assuming this is more arm humour. Abruptly, it lets go of him and flings itself at her face instead. Rose stumbles back, suffocating beneath its hold. The Doctor quickly sonicks it and the hand falls off, abruptly inanimate.

Next minute, the Doctor is out of the flat and down the stairs, Rose once again running to catch up. After nearly dying twice, she feels she is owed some sort of explanation. He feels otherwise. The arm wasn’t even after her, he explains disdainfully, she simply blundered into the wrong place at the wrong time and was mistaken for a bigger player. The plastic is being controlled by the Nestene consciousness; they want to overthrow and destroy the human race. The Doctor is trying to stop them. The best thing Rose can do, as far as he’s concerned, is go back to her ordinary life and pretend this hasn’t happened at all.

Rose is having none of that. She follows him down the street, grabbing whatever bizarre scraps of explanation she can. They end up on one side of a parking lot, where a blue box stands incongruous and alone. The Doctor starts off towards it. “Who are you?” Rose calls, a little desperately, not really expecting an answer. But he stops, and turns around.

“Do you know like we were saying about the Earth revolving?” he asks, walking slowly back to her. “It’s like when you’re a kid. The first time they tell you that the world is turning and you just can’t quite believe it, because everything looks like it’s standing still. I can feel it.” His fingers wrap around hers, as if at that moment she can feel it too. “The turning of the Earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour, and the entire planet is hurtling around the sun at sixty seven thousand miles an hour. We’re falling through space, you and me. Clinging to the skin of this tiny little world and if we let go – “

He releases her hand. “That’s who I am. Now forget me, Rose Tyler. Go home.” This time he walks away without looking back, and Rose is doing the same when a wind rises from nowhere and a strange wheezing makes her run back – but the Doctor is gone, and so is the blue box.

Rose is a 21st century girl. She knows how to deal with weirdness. Heading straight over to Mickey’s place, she ransacks the internet for clues, and though her first searches come up empty the words ‘Doctor Blue Box’ bring a website up on her screen. Its homepage is a picture of the man who saved her life twice, the man who says he can feel the Earth turning underneath his feet.

It is run by someone called Clive. The next day Rose goes to see him, Mickey very reluctantly providing a lift. He waits in the car (which is a delightful Bessie-esque yellow) as a rear guard while Rose goes into the house. Clive turns out to be a passionate conspiracy theorist with a shed full of research into the impossible phenomenon that is the Doctor. He shows Rose pictures of the same man dating back more than a hundred years. “The Doctor is a legend woven throughout history,” he explains. “When disaster comes, he’s there. He brings the storm in his wake, and he has one constant companion: death.”

Which is exactly what you want to hear when you’ve just met the man and he’s smashed your coffee table while prising a murderous disembodied hand off your face!

In the car, Mickey is getting bored with playing sentinel. When a rubbish bin comes rolling down the street towards him, he gets out and goes to throw it open, thinking it’s a joke. To his surprise, it’s empty. Then he tries to pull away, and finds that the plastic doesn’t intend to let him go.

Rose is still trying to unriddle the Doctor. She has accepted there is something strange about him, but Clive’s theory – that it is the same man, that he is immortal, that he isn’t even human – is too much for her. She retreats to the car, dismissing the encounter as internet crazy. Her boyfriend is still waiting for her…or something that looks like her boyfriend, anyway. Blank-eyed and alarmingly shiny, he drives her to a pizza restaurant and pumps her for information on the Doctor with an excess of endearments that finally makes her realise something weird is going on.

A bottle of champagne appears at her elbow. They have not ordered champagne, but the waiter is terribly persistent, and also wears black leather. She looks up to see the Doctor firing a cork into her boyfriend’s forehead. The plastic swallows it whole. A second later, the fake Mickey spits the cork onto the table, throwing away all pretense at humanity. It and the Doctor  lunge at each other, and to Rose’s horror the Doctor triumphantly tears off its head. Not that that stops an Auton. Its hands transforming into axes, it proceeds to destroy the restaurant. Rose hits the fire alarm, evacuating her horrified fellow patrons, and races with the Doctor into the courtyard outside. The blue box stands there, as unlikely as ever. While Rose shouts for him to get the chained gate open, the Doctor strolls casually inside.

As far as she can see, he’s just taken refuge inside a wooden box while the Auton smashes down a metal door. On the other hand, any hiding place, even a stupid one, is better than being cornered in the open, so she follows, and finds herself in a vast console room that throbs and glows with an almost organic life. Utterly freaked out, she backs away, only to dash back inside away from the pounding of the Auton.

The Doctor is hooking the plastic head up to various wires, intending to follow it back to the source of its signal. That done, he turns his attention on Rose, who’s gone in one side of shock and out the other. She’s in a box that makes a mockery of the laws of physics? Okay. With an alien in a leather jacket? Sure. It’s the sight of Mickey’s head melting on the console that breaks her down, and the Doctor’s none too happy either – not because he gives a damn about her boyfriend, but because that means they’re losing the signal. The TARDIS hastily dematerialises, reappearing on a bridge across from the London Eye. From there, they are on their own. 

Wrapped up in his own problems, the Doctor largely ignores Rose’s amazement, her grief and her anger, though he brightens up when called upon to explain the appearance of his TARDIS. “It’s a disguise,” he beams, patting a door fondly. He assumes the Nestene consciousness is similarly hidden. How else could a huge round metal transmitter be concealed in central London?

Rose looks over his shoulder pointedly. You thought infiltrating Madame Tussaud’s was bad? Hah! The aliens have taken over the London Eye.

The Doctor whirls on her, grinning infectiously. Together they run down the street, hand in hand, a temporary team. Rose finds a manhole for the Doctor to sonic open and they jump down into a hellish underground lair, the light coloured red from a vast roiling vat – quite a downgrade from the nice purpose-built tank of the 70s. The Doctor has a plan, this time rather better than a bundle of wires cobbled together overnight; he has brought a vial of anti-plastic that is like poison to the creature in the vat, but first he has to give it a chance at surrender.

“I seek audience with the Nestene consciousness under peaceful contract,” he calls, “according to convention 15 of the Shadow Proclamation.” When did the Doctor learn diplomacy?

Rose, at least, isn’t listening: she’s found Mickey, alive and well, if terrified out of his mind. She is with him when a pair of Autons emerge to seize hold of the Doctor. Searching him, they discover the vial and the Nestene consciousness flares with outrage, making the Doctor recoil at an accusation only he can hear. “I fought in the war, it wasn’t my fault!” he cries out, almost pleadingly. “I couldn’t save your world, I couldn’t save any of them!”

The Nestene consciousness is scared. Technologically, it is outclassed, but it has captured the TARDIS and the Doctor and now it sends out the signal for a full scale invasion. The Doctor shouts to Rose, telling her to run. She doesn’t. She grabs her mobile and calls her mother instead, who is naturally out for a spot of late night shopping and doesn’t catch a word of Rose’s warning. She’s not the only one; Clive and his family are in the same centre when the dummies jerk into life, smashing through shop windows and stepping down to face the shocked crowd. In that moment Clive finally has confirmation – he was right, he was right all along – and the next he is dead, the first victim of an Auton’s gun. His family run screaming. Jackie, arriving to a scene of terrifying chaos, does the same.

The streets of London are overrun with living plastic and the Doctor is pinioned between Auton guards, unable to do anything about it. For a moment, his frantic eyes meet Rose’s. She is the girl who fell across him by accident, who wasn’t even meant to be here – but she is here, and she’s not going down without a fight. Seizing an axe, she hacks a chain from the wall and uses it to swing feet-first into one of the Autons that are holding the Doctor. He uses the distraction to hurl the other into the vat, and the anti-plastic with it, then catches Rose as she swings back. “Now we’re in trouble!” he tells her gleefully, and they dash for the TARDIS, dematerialising just as explosions rip the place apart. On the street, the Autons collapse, falling apart with the failure of the signal. All plastic, only plastic.

When the TARDIS materialises in a quiet street, Mickey hurtles out and throws himself on the ground as far away from it as he can get. Rose, already an old hand, follows with her mobile to her ear, ringing her mum again. Confirming that Jackie is alive (actual conversation can wait) she turns to the Doctor, who is smiling smugly at their success. “You were useless in there,” she points out. “You’d be dead if it wasn’t for me.”

The Doctor acknowledges this, with something of an effort. “Right then,” he adds, awkwardly. “I’ll be off! Unless, I don’t know…you could come with me.” Mickey is definitely not included in the invitation, nor does he want to be. He throws his arms around Rose’s waist, practically catatonic, and her answer is a reluctant no, Mickey being the evidence of her real world and its commitments. Visibly disappointed, the Doctor disappears into the TARDIS, the wind of its departure whipping back Rose’s hair and leaving behind a hole, an unexpected emptiness where adventure could have been. Quietly, she gets Mickey up. They are halfway down the street when the sound of the TARDIS reappearing makes her whirl around.

“By the way,” the Doctor calls, “did I mention, it also travels in time?”

Rose just looks at him for a second. Then she kisses Mickey lightly on the cheek and runs, leaping aboard the TARDIS, leaving her old life far, far behind.

The Verdict: The return of Doctor Who in 2005 was heralded, by me and my friends at least, with a sort of hopeful trepidation. Would they get it right? Would they get it spectacularly, appallingly, just-like-the-promos wrong? If they were looking for the perfect monster to get me on board from the word go, though, someone was psychic, because there are few antagonists in this show that I love more than the Autons. Also, how many TV programmes kick off with a  teenage girl saving the world?

Look, I had my issues with New Who and still do; I can never quite forgive Russel T. Davies for killing off the Time Lords, which in a single blow transformed the Doctor from a rabble-rousing Gallifreyan rebel into the Lonely God, Oncoming Storm and all sorts of other ominous sounding legends. But he brought back the show. He gave it a bright, beating, manically energetic heart and I will always be grateful to him for that, as I will always be grateful to Eccleston for being the first Doctor of a new age. He will never be my Doctor, but I like him better with every rewatch. He’s a bookend to William Hartnell: arrogant, insulting and unhelpful, impatient with the stupidity of humans but delighted with them at the same time, broken from too many tragedies but still chasing marvels in a great big universe of crazy that’s just waiting to be explored.

Join me in November for the penultimate post of my 50th anniversary rewatch, when Eccleston’s successor David Tennant lands in the greatest library ever made, meets a time-travelling archaeologist, and discovers that running won’t save you when what you’re trying to escape from is darkness itself…

Review No.107 – Blood Bound

Blood Bound – Patricia Briggs

Ace Books, 2007

Mercy Thompson would like a less complicated life. Instead she has two alpha werewolves vying for her attention, a vampire in trouble, and a demon sorcerer on the loose in her city. As the body count begins to climb, she knows she has to do something to protect the people she loves. But how can she fight something that has even the worst monsters running scared?

This is the sequel to the first Mercy Thompson novel, Moon Called, returning to a world where some creatures of the paranormal are slowly revealing themselves and others are fighting tooth and nail to remain hidden. There’s plenty to enjoy, although Mercy’s love life has become ridiculously complex and I don’t much like her options. It’s a fast, engaging urban fantasy that continues with Iron Kissed.

Review No.106 – The Book of Atrix Wolf

The Book of Atrix Wolfe – Patricia A. McKillip

Atom, 2003

War and winter had the king of Pelucir under siege, but he was killed by magic – slaughtered on Hunter’s Field by a nameless power. His orphaned son Talis was sent to learn sorcery and returns with a book in which every word is a trick and a lie. He retreats to the highest room of the haunted keep to immerse himself in its dangerous magic, while in the woods beyond a queen hunts the maker of sorrow, and in the kitchens below a wordless foundling dreams of black-horned death.

This book was first published in 1995 and my library’s Atom paperback is shelved in YA, but it is, like everything else McKillip has written, timeless and ageless. The richness of her language is incomparable and the story has a more definitive resolution than is usual with her. I don’t entirely agree with all the narrative’s conclusions (SPOILER: I lay most of the blame squarely on Riven of Kardeth’s head and wanted such bad things to happen to him) but I was, as ever, bewitched.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.58 – The Seven Leavenings

 This Palestinian story is taken from Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales and begins with an old woman who, wisely as it turns out, has never married. She lives alone, looking after herself. One day while she’s making bread she leaves her loaf to rise and goes for a walk down to the sea, where a boat is filling up with travellers. Upon her enquiry, the captain explains that they are going to Beirut. The old woman asks if she can come along and is flatly denied. “Fine,” she retorts. “Go. But if you don’t take me with you, may your boat get stuck and sink!” Sure enough, the boat has not gone far before it starts to sink and they have to turn back to take the old woman aboard.

Once she arrives in Beirut, she sits on a wall waiting to see what will happen next. As night falls a man passes by and invites her home with him. He sounds like a nice person, right? No. Resoundingly, NO. Straight after dinner, he collects a bundle of sticks and starts beating up his wife. When the old woman tries to intervene, he tells her “You don’t know what her sin is. Better stay out of the way!” and continues beating his wife until every stick is broken.

The old woman goes to her afterwards and asks her what sin could possibly justify such mistreatment. “By Allah,” the wife replies, “I’ve done nothing, and it hadn’t even occurred to me. He says it’s because I can’t get pregnant and have children.”

What. The. Hell?

The old woman has a solution: tell him you’re pregnant. Given the other options, the wife takes this advice and the husband does a spectacular 360, giving her whatever she wants as soon as she wants it. Which is all very well, but if he was that abusive when she was childless, how is he going to react when he realises her ‘pregnancy’ is all trickery?

Oh, and just to up the stakes? This is the point when we find out Mr Psycho is the SULTAN.

The two women have a plan, though. The wife commissions a baker to make her a pastry replica of a baby boy, and with the old woman’s help, fakes both labour and birth. No one else is allowed to see the ‘baby’ for seven days. On the seventh day, the women go to the baths and leave the bread doll with an oblivious servant. While they are inside, a dog comes by and grabs the doll, bounding away with the horrified servant in hot pursuit. They pass the house of a man who is famously depressed. He clearly has a black sense of humour because he takes one look at the scene and starts to laugh. Instead of letting the servant return to her mistress empty-handed, the man calls upon an extraordinarily obliging sister who has recently given birth to twin boys, asking her to donate a kid to the worthy cause. The sister’s response is essentially ‘why not?’, and so the sultan’s wife goes home with a real child and a shield against her husband’s brutality.

Her work done, the old woman goes home to see to her bread. Which still hasn’t risen. Possibly she is a better strategist than baker, but she’s also terribly persistent, so she leaves the dough for the second time and returns to the seashore. This time she finds a boat going to Aleppo and bullies the captain into letting her aboard. When she gets there, another man passing by takes her home for dinner. Nice guy? IN NO WAY, SHAPE OR FORM. This man is a wife-beater too. Her crime? Admiring the effect of black grapes on a white platter, which he automatically assumed meant she was having an affair with a black-skinned slave. Sanity is evidently not his strong point.

The old woman’s solution is simple. She has the wife serve black grapes on the same white platter and uses the exact same words as admiration for the result. The husband exclaims aloud in surprise that someone else could share the opinion, proving his wife to be guiltless. “Don’t tell me you’ve been beating her just for that!” the old woman cries. Tell it, lady. “What! Have you lost your mind? Look here! Don’t you see how beautiful are these black grapes on this white plate?” The husband acknowledges it is a pleasing aesthetic, and the old woman stays with the couple for another few months, until she remembers her bread and insists on going home. This time, it has risen. She takes it to be baked, and that is…that.

Nothing in this story makes sense to me. I don’t know what the title means. I don’t know how men who worry about an old lady alone on the street at night could think it’s totally okay to brutally abuse their wives, and why the old woman couldn’t help the aforesaid wives to escape before their respective nutcase husbands found some other aspect of the universe to blame them for. The story does not end with a happy ever after, and nor should it; there is no evidence to suggest that anyone but the old woman will remain happy for any duration of time. And what is with her freaky bread?

Review No.105 – The Borrower

The Borrower – Rebecca Makkai

William Heinemann, 2011

The restless daughter of Russian immigrants, raised on tales of rebellion and escape, Lucy Hull is a revolution waiting to happen disguised as a small-town children’s librarian. When her favourite patron, ten-year-old bookworm Ian Drake, runs away from his homophobic parents with the intent of living in the library, her anger at an unfair world reaches boiling point. Instead of taking him home, she runs away with him. Following his impromptu directions, spinning increasingly elaborate lies to hide their trail, the pair of modern-day American rebels head out in search of their own yellow brick road.

I think I chose to read this book just to see how that premise could possibly be resolved, though the mentions of a library and rebellion helped. It is a strange, dream-like piece of fiction that starts off well but keeps meandering off track with plot twists that don’t really go anywhere, and ends up bogged down in existentialist ennui. Lucy is an inconsistent narrator so riddled with self doubt it’s quite surprising when she actually does anything, which leaves most of the decision making to her far more believable, and likeable, travelling companion. The characters I most liked, her theatrical landlords, deserved twice as much time in the narrative as they received. To be honest, I would have preferred a book about them.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.57 – Filo D’Oro

This week’s is an Italian fairy tale from the 1982 Ruth Manning-Sanders collection A Book of Heroes and Heroines and begins with a shoemaker’s daughter called Lionella who is one day sent out to buy cabbages for soup. That doesn’t sound much like the beginning of romance and adventure, but the wonderful thing about fairy tales is that you never know.

The market gardener is not home when she arrives, so she pulls up a cabbage and lays down several coins in its place for the gardener to find when he gets back. No sooner have the coins touched the earth, however, than they vanish, and a little window appears instead. Lionella kneels to look through it, and sees an absurdly handsome young man looking back at her, arms outstretched. “Come to me, lovely maiden,” he implores. “Every night I have dreamed of you, every day I have held the image of you in my mind. Come to me now!” And the window opens, revealing a luxuriously furnished underground room.

Lionella, jumping down, is given no chance to look around; the prince grabs her, kisses her a few dozen times, then tells her, “Go home now, my darling, but come again tomorrow. Come every tomorrow. You will always find a cabbage growing in the place where you pulled one up today. And every day you must pull up that cabbage again, and then every day you will find under it the window that will open and bring you into my arms.”

So obviously he is weird. But terribly handsome! Lionella goes home and tells her parents everything, only to have the whole incident dismissed as a silly girl’s dream. They are wrong; the young man is real all right. His name is Filo D’Oro and he was born a prince, but was stolen as an infant by an ogress (trolls and ogres are notoriously inept at understanding how adoption works) who now plans to marry him off to her niece and thereby keep him in the family forever. Filo D’Oro does not conform to these plans and the ogress doesn’t take his resistance well; basically she locks him up underground and tells him he’ll never meet another woman, so he’ll have no choice but to marry who he’s told. It might even have worked if not for a good-natured fairy who happens past and decides to dabble in a little match-making. Hence the dreams, and the secret door concealed by a cabbage. Witches tend to use fruit in their magic; fairies, it seems, favour vegetables.

The prince and the shoemaker’s daughter meet every day in the underground room, with the ogress none the wiser. One night she comes to visit her adopted son and dangle the promise of freedom under his nose, but there is a stick involved – if between this night and his wedding day he should look upon the face of any woman other than his intended bride, he will fall into a sleep from which no one but that chosen bride will be capable of waking him. Unwisely, she doesn’t specify who the bride has to be. Filo D’Oro knows exactly who he intends to marry, and it isn’t the ogress’s niece. Lionella is the only woman apart from the ogress who knows where to find him. How could anything go wrong?

Well, not quite the only woman. Lionella, being the soul of honesty, has made no secret of the fact she goes every day to meet her boyfriend the kidnapped prince in a magic room under the market garden, and her mother is not entirely happy with the arrangement. By now convinced of his existence, she wants to meet this mysterious young man, and when her daughter won’t allow that, she follows Lionella in secret to watch how the magic is done. Unaware she is being observed, Lionella pulls up the cabbage as usual and descends. When she emerges and leaves the garden, her mother pulls up the inexhaustible cabbage too, finds the window and knocks. It doesn’t open. She tugs at the frame. It still won’t open. Eventually, exasperated, she throws a nut through the glass, finally attracting the attention of the prince below. He looks up and for one instant sees Lionella’s mother, while she sees him. Then the window vanishes, leaving her staring at a cabbage instead.

Still, she’s seen her daughter’s boyfriend now, and goes home to congratulate Lionella on a good catch. Lionella is appalled. She runs back to the garden to find Filo D’Oro and explain she had no part in her mother’s prying, but when she pulls up the cabbage, no window appears and no prince either. The magic is broken.

So where is he? Well, the ogress has been busy all this time arranging her niece’s wedding, and at last she’s ready to collect the groom. When she comes for him, however, she finds him slumped across the floor of his prison in an enchanted sleep. It’s inconvenient, but the ogress knows the counter-curse, so she has him taken to a carriage and driven to the palace where her niece is waiting. “I cannot waken him,” she explains, “that is for you to do. Come, give him a shake, give him a slap!” The niece willingly obliges. When her first attempts fail she tries pinching and punching, but she’s not his chosen bride, so it’s no use. At last the ogress has him laid out on a bed and sits beside him through the night, crying. She does love him, in her own strange way. Still, she’d rather he sleep forever than marry anyone other than her niece.

Which is unlucky, because the girl he did intend to marry isn’t giving up. Every day she returns to the garden in case the magic somehow returns, and when that fails, she sets out into the world to find her lost prince for herself. She asks everyone that she meets if they have heard of Filo D’Oro, and a startling number of them have, but no one knows where she can look to find him and so she trudges on – until one day, while she is drowsing under a tree, a conversation in the branches above catches her ear. Doves are gossips, as everyone knows, and these two are picking over the tale of Prince Filo D’Oro in detail. It turns out that four of their feathers, burned to ashes and scattered over the prince’s head, would be enough to wake him up – and when Lionella leaps up to ask the birds if they will donate those feathers to the worthy cause, they are very obliging. In fact, they even offer to show her to her prince’s side. Following their soft calls, she runs through the darkening forest, coming at last to a small cottage and an elderly woman.

Not just any elderly woman, either! This is a fairy, most likely the fairy, who has been expecting Lionella’s arrival and is ready with a shovel and a hot fire. For the feathers, just the feathers! When they have been burnt to ashes, she makes Lionella dinner, tucks her into bed and in the morning gives her breakfast and instructions at the same time. This includes directions to the ogress’s palace.

It doesn’t take a genius to guess what has brought a pretty young girl all that way alone. The ogress tries to hide her fury, graciously inviting Lionella inside. “No,” Lionella tells her. “I will not come up, because you will eat me.” The ogress puts on her best shocked face, but it doesn’t work, and neither do any of her other assurances. Eventually she is forced to swear on the soul of her beloved son, an oath she has to keep, that Lionella will come to no harm inside her house. Her enchantment being what it is, she hasn’t much choice if she wants Filo D’Oro to ever wake up. “You shall not kiss him!” the ogress shrieks, recognising fairy magic when she sees it, but Lionella does not intend to kiss him. She scatters him with the ashes instead and he wakes up at once, jumping out of bed and throwing his arms around her. The two crazy kids get married that same day.

Which leaves the ogress in a difficult position. She doesn’t want her son marrying some human hussy, but if she kills Lionella outright he’ll never forgive her. Then she hears that Lionella is about to give birth, and a horrible spell comes to her. “So long as my hands are clasped,” she swears, “no power on earth, no power in the regions under the earth, no angels, no fairy folk, no devils, no one, no one shall enable Lionella to bring her baby into the world!”

Trapped in unending labour, Lionella is in terrible pain and Filo D’Oro can do nothing for her – but if something isn’t done soon, both mother and child will die. At this point, while everyone else despairs, a young page comes up with a plan of his own. He has Filo D’Oro toll the church bells, as if Lionella has died, and the ogress is so delighted that she jumps up and unclasps her hands, breaking her own spell. At last Lionella’s baby is born. The bells ring out an altogether happier sound and the clever page comes running up the road to break the news to the ogress, who just can’t believe her bad luck. She literally bursts with rage, and all that’s left of her are a scatter of flint stones blown away by the wind.

I was feeling quite sorry for the ogress, in spite of her pig-headedness, right up until that very nasty bit of magic at the end. Actually, Filo D’Oro’s insta-love makes much more sense when you think about how many spells have shaped his life. I suppose that in a world of ogres and fairies, when you get your shot at happiness you seize it with both hands and just hope for the best. Although we never saw what happened at the baby’s christening…Filo D’Oro and Lionella are acquainted with a fairy, after all. They may not be quite done with magic yet.

Review No.104 – The Queen is Dead

The Queen is Dead – Kate Locke

Orbit, 2012

Xandra Vardan used to think she was normal – just a half human, half vampire fighter dedicated to protecting her undead queen, which is about as normal as it gets in her world. Now she knows that pretty much everything she was ever told about herself is a lie. She has goblins demanding a coronation, her werewolf boyfriend’s pack pushing for a formal alliance, vampires trying to convict her for murder, and humans freaking out over the fact she exists at all. Not to mention that unusual halvies like her have been disappearing and her brother Val has vanished while investigating it. This is Xandra’s new normal and she is so not amused.

This the second Immortal Empire novel and doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first, God Save the Queen. The plot has less punch, a slower pace and a less distinct storyline. The writing is also clunky and rather repetitive. Xandra has lost some of her confidence and built up the inevitable heroine’s guilt complex, which disappointed me, but she was still fun company and there are some interesting follow-ups to the reveals of book one. The third book of the series, Long Live the Queen, is due for release in November.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.56 – The Goose Girl

This week’s fairy tale is a Grimm brothers classic, not quite up there with the big names of ‘Snow White’ and ‘Cinderella’ but likely to ring a few bells with your average reader all the same. It begins when a widowed queen betrothes her only daughter the prince of a distant land, whom the princess has never met, for inexplicable but apparently very important reasons. The bride-to-be is provided with a lavish trousseau but no guards; her only travelling companions are an unarmed maid and a talking horse named Falada. The queen’s idea of security is to cut off a bit of her hair and give it to her daughter as a charm. I’m sure the brigands will run screaming.

Only it isn’t brigands the princess needs to worry about. On the journey she passes a brook and asks her maid to fetch a cup of water. The maid tells her to get it herself. That’s when the princess realises that one person has the power in this new arrangement, and it isn’t her. She gets off her horse and kneels beside the brook, bending over to drink. “Alas!” the lock of hair sighs. “Alas! If thy mother knew it, sadly, sadly, her heart would rue it.” Which is not helpful in any way, really.

Exactly the same thing happens when they reach the river. This time, as the princess leans out over the water, the lock of hair falls and is carried away by the current. And that’s a greater loss than you might think, because it was a charm, keeping the queen’s daughter safe. Now she’s truly on her own. Instead of letting her remount Falada, the maid insists they swap clothes and horses. Again, the princess doesn’t argue or fight back in any way. She’s scared and bewildered. No one has treated her this way before.

Of course, when they reach the court of the promised prince, he goes straight to the beautifully dressed maid, believing her to be his bride. It’s his father who notices the real princess and wants to know who she is. The maid dismisses her existence, ordering that she be absorbed into the work of the castle. She knows the terrified girl won’t say a word against her. So the princess becomes a goose girl, under the command of a boy called Curdken.

But there’s another who knows the story. The maid’s next order is for the horse Falada to be beheaded before she can tell anyone the truth. If I were the prince, I would at this point be rethinking my marriage, but he sends the horse off to be slaughtered without protest. When the princess hears of it, she is distraught, and pleads so hard that the butcher hangs the horse’s head above a city gate so that she can see it every day as she goes back and forth. Did I mention the severed head can still talk? It offers much the same speech as the lock of hair, and is exactly as useful.

The princess’s new duties are simple. She accompanies Curdken every day, driving the geese out of the city into a meadow where they can feed. That, for whatever reason, is when she likes to do up her hair. Curdken is an annoying little creep who is fascinated by its pure silver colour and would pull some out by the roots if he could, but the princess has one form of defence against an unkind world: she’s charming. She calls on the help of the wind, and every morning it steals away Curdken’s hat so that she can brush and braid her hair in peace. This makes him terribly sulky. Eventually he goes to the actual king, who gives him an actual audience, and tells him he can’t work with this girl any more. She talks to a severed head every morning and persuades the wind to do her favours. She’s freaky, basically, and that’s admittedly a bit hard to deny.

Intrigued, the king follows them, and witnesses all the freakiness for himself. That night he pulls his goose girl aside and questions her until she breaks down in tears and tells him everything. After all he’s seen, he believes her. The situation is explained to the prince, who was maybe disturbed by the whole ‘murder my horse for me, darling’ thing after all, because he’s thrilled to know he doesn’t have to marry the other girl after all. These are two men who do not like to be lied to. They come up with a plan to trap the imposter, and set it in motion at the bridal feast. The maid sits at one end of the table – the princess, unrecognisable in full regalia, is seated at the other. When everyone is a bit drunk and the conversation’s gone a little odd anyway, the king tells the goose girl’s tale, and asks the maid what she would do to the villain of the story.

“Nothing better,” she tells him, “than that she should be thrown into a cask stuck around with sharp nails, and that two white horses should be put to it, and should drag it from street to street till she is dead.” No sooner has she finished speaking than the king sentences her to her own gruesome execution, leaving the prince free to marry the girl who was too frightened to cope with a maid who only threatened murder. Somehow I don’t think she’s going to feel awfully safe in that castle.

There are a few glaring discrepancies in this story, chief of which is that the maid would have to be reeling drunk not to notice that the king was recounting her own past. Why would anyone, given the opportunity to seal their own fate, come up with the most macabre form of execution they could imagine? Was she hoping they would be too merciful to carry it out, or that the princess would speak in her defence? But, no. This is a Grimm brothers story – the name says it all, folks.