Vignette No.27 – All Falling Down

All Falling Down

There were places in Thena’s head where she preferred not to look. She had lived a long time; like all immortals, she had accumulated baggage that was best left undisturbed. Of late it had been so routinely rummaged that it wouldn’t fit back into her darkest corners. This had put her in the kind of mood that is toxic for a five mile radius.

In fact, no one was alive for a five mile radius. This was not entirely coincidental.

She sat in the ruins of what must have once been a very nice house, the only one in this street to still possess a functioning washing machine, and used the brief respite to scrub dried blood from the blade of her sabre. Ashes stained her hands black to the elbow, and underneath the grime an ugly pattern of venom burns were still healing. It had been a long day. She was looking forward to a bath, if the taps were working.

It was strange. The world might end tomorrow, and she was worried about the plumbing. Humanity did that to you.

She had warned the others, for all the good that had done. Now she had no choice but to fight alongside them. Where else was there to go? The mountain had fallen and Hades had closed his gates, unable to cope with the numbers being sent downriver. The rejected dead walked in burning streets while the sky tore itself apart overhead. Thena didn’t remember it being like this last time.

They had won last time. They had had millennia to forget how they had done it.

A bird fell in front of her: a sparrow, caught in mid-flight, wings forever frozen in stone on the downward stroke. It had not yet hit the ground when Thena spun, the sabre’s hilt clasped between her hands, slashing out instinctively. Serpents were pouring through the gaping ceiling. Behind the curtain of writhing green, a bloody mouth grinned.

Thena beheaded five snakes at the first blow. More venom splattered onto her wrists and forearms, scalding red weals across the scarred skin. The Gorgon shrieked with pain; Thena backed against the wall to avoid the united strike of its remaining snakes. Before she could do any more than brace herself, sabre raised, a volley of gunshots exploded into the air and the Gorgon slid through the broken roof, landing face-down in a bloody sprawl of misshapen limbs. A pair of slim denim-clad legs followed through the gap, and then a boy landed in a crouch beside the Gorgon’s body. He looked to be about sixteen or seventeen years old with an angelic face framed by windswept blonde hair. A machine gun was cradled in his arms. He looked up with a devilish grin.

“This is fun,” he said.

No wonder his mother had always insisted on arrows only. If the world survived the Titans, how was it going to handle Cupid with a machine gun?

Deep breaths, Thena reminded herself. Take the world one apocalypse at a time.

The taps were working.

© Faith Mudge 2013

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Fairy Tale Tuesday No.64 – Two Terrible Vows

One of the greatest risks you can possibly take in the world of fairy tales is to exaggerate, for there Murphy’s Law is enshrined as a force of nature more powerful than gravity. Are you so desperate for a child that you declare aloud you wouldn’t care if it looked like a hedgehog? So colour co-ordinated you want your daughter to come in white, red and black? Narrative inevitability demands that someone will be there to overhear you, and they will oblige you in twisty, generally unpleasant ways. Parents in particular need beware. For one mistake or misunderstanding you will PAY FOREVER.

Story 1: The Seven Ravens

In this Grimm fairy tale a father sends one of his seven sons to fetch water for their sick sister, but the other six run along all the way to the spring and squabble over who will draw first. In the confusion, all of their pitchers are broken. The boys are too afraid of facing their father to go home, but as time passes he grows angry anyway at their unexplained delay. At last he works himself into such a fury that he wishes aloud that all seven boys be turned to ravens. No sooner has he spoken than a mournful croaking is heard overhead and he sees seven black birds flying away.

Wishes are, as a rule, non-refundable, however unintentional the consequences. The boys are gone; all their parents have left is their youngest child, the sickly daughter, who ironically recovers without any need for the spring water. They tell her nothing of the tragedy, but this is not the sort of secret that can be kept forever. Eventually she hears a dreadful rumour and goes to her parents demanding the truth. Instead of blaming her father for his hasty temper or whatever capricious individual chose to grant a stupid wish, she takes the burden of her brothers’ fate onto her own shoulders and broods. One day she can’t bear it any more and sets off to find them herself.

She travels until she comes to the world’s end. One path leads her to the burning sun, another to the bloodthirsty moon. A third leads her to the stars, who welcome her and gift her with a piece of wood that they promise will unlock the castle where her brothers now live. They direct her to a glass mountain, where the castle stands, but when she gets there she discovers that she has lost the wooden key. In desperation, she cuts off her own little finger to fit in the castle’s lock instead. Fortunately, the extreme measure works.

Inside, she is met by a dwarf, who acts as butler to the ravens. He politely invites her inside while he prepares their dinner. She sneaks a little from each plate and glass, and into the last glass she lets fall a ring that was a gift from her parents. When the raven brothers return, the seventh finds the ring and cries out aloud “Oh, that our little sister would but come! Then we should be free.” Hearing this, she springs from hiding, and the brothers are restored to their human shapes. So the maimed young adventuress and her traumatised brothers return home to…live happily ever…after? I lack confidence in this statement. I do, however, believe that the next time someone in that family says ‘I wish’, that girl will have a gag on them before you can blink.

Story 2: The Girl Who Banished Seven Youths

In this Moroccan story, the mother of seven boys goes into labour for an eighth time. The boys tell their aunt to hang a spindle over the door if the baby is a girl, and they will come home, but a sickle if it is yet another boy, in which case they will head off into the world and be seen no more. It’s a stupid thing to say, and a dreadful opportunity to give. The aunt, who for whatever reason despises her nephews, hangs a sickle over the door despite the child being a girl, and the boys disappear into the desert.

Life being eminently unfair, especially to girls, the daughter is named Wudei’a Who Sent Away Subei’a: The Girl Who Banished Seven. One day in a quarrel with friends she is told her brothers all went away the day she was born, and she runs home for confirmation from her mother. Hearing the whole story (or as much as the mother knows, this not including the evil aunt), Wudei’a decides to go off and fetch her brothers home. Her mother is okay with this. She kits her out with a camel and two servants and sees her off quite confidently.

Unfortunately, she does not know the tale of ‘The Goose Girl’, or she’d have anticipated what happens next: the manservant kicks Wudei’a off her own camel, covers her in tar as a makeshift disguise, and when they reach the castle where the brothers now reside (wow, running away did good things for them) he announces the maid as their long-lost sister. Once convinced they really have a sister, and not a brother as they were led to believe, they allow the three travellers inside and postpone their hunting trip to get to know their unexpected sibling. The eldest brother, mistaking Wudei’a for a slave, calls her over to comb his hair. He is very startled when her tears begin to melt away the tar (which was a TERRIBLE DISGUISE anyway, can I point out) and demands to hear the story behind it. When he realises Wudei’a is his real sister, he grabs a sword and goes off to execute the frauds. So that didn’t work out well.

Wudei’a washes off the rest of the black tar, revealing fair skin like her brothers’, which ironically leads to her becoming their very own Snow White. They insist she lock herself up in the castle while they go hunting, and tell her she is not to eat anything without giving a share to the castle cat. On the first hunting trip, all goes well. When the brothers leave for a second time, however, Wudei’a absent-mindedly eats one bean without sharing and the outraged cat puts out the fire in retaliation.

Wudei’a cannot restart it on her own, so she sets out after a light in the distance. That fire, however, belongs to a ghoul, who demands a strip of skin in repayment for an ember. He also talks in rhyme. It’s scary. Wudei’a, given little choice, accepts the terms, then walks back to the castle with blood dripping a trail behind her and an obliging raven concealing it with earth. She’s not aware of the favour; when the raven swoops up behind her, she scolds it, and pettishly it goes back to uncover the trail of blood so that the ghoul may follow her home.

He makes short work of the gate, but reaching Wudei’a herself proves more difficult. Her bedroom is behind six wooden doors and one of iron, her brothers being the sort of people who think in sevens. Each night the ghoul comes to break down one of the wooden doors, until only the iron one is left. Frantic, Wudei’a sends a message to her brothers with a castle dove, begging them to return home at once, and by that afternoon they are back. They tell her off for not feeding the cat properly, then dig a pit inside her room in preparation for the ghoul’s arrival. When he comes and breaks down the iron door, he falls into the trap and the brothers burn him alive.

They are kind of scary too.

Yet even then Wudei’a is not safe from him. His fingernail remains unnoticed in the room, and later while Wudei’a is cleaning it stabs into her hand. She falls senseless, apparently lifeless, to the floor. Her brothers cannot wake her and so send her body home on the back of her camel. They do not, however, think to accompany her, and when a trio of travellers on the same road see the camel they decide to capture it, chasing after it fruitlessly until one man accidentally uses the same word the brothers do for halting it (this being ‘Shoo’; the man actually says ‘shoe’, but camels cannot be expected to make such fine distinctions).

So, obediently, it stops. The three men are astonished to find a dead girl on the camel’s back, but don’t allow themselves to get bogged down in romanticism or honour; they’re here for the money, and she’s wearing an awfully nice ring. In stealing it off her finger, the ghoul’s fingernail is accidentally dislodged and Wudei’a wakes. “Long life to him who brought me back from death,” she says, and turns the camel towards her brothers’ castle without getting caught up in the romance of the moment either. Win for common sense!

Her brothers are overjoyed to find her alive after all. The shock of almost losing her makes them decide to visit home before another calamity befalls the family, so from their parents’ perspective, that’s eight children coming back from the dead at the same time. The boys finally tell their side of the story, revealing their perfidious aunt’s role in their disappearance, and everyone (except, presumably, the aunt) ends up living happily together after all.

If she has any sense, she will be running for the hills. Those brothers are not people you would want to cross.

The two stories have a great deal in common – in particular, the wrongful assigning of blame to a defenceless young girl who turns out to be better at dealing with adversity than anyone else in the story. The lost brothers in both stories actually appear to benefit from their banishment and there is seemingly nothing to stop their return home apart from their own stubborn perversity; all wrongs done to them are undone by the end of the story, while their sister is left physically scarred. Somehow I have the feeling that next time there’s a family quarrel, someone else is chopping off a finger.

Review No.114 – Iron Kissed

Iron Kissed – Patricia Briggs

Orbit, 2008

Mercy Thompson is already entangled in the dangerous world of werewolves and vampires. The last thing she needs is to be dragged into Gray Lord politics, but a string of murders on a fae reservation brings her old friend Zee to her door in need of an expert nose and she can’t say no. Things go downhill from there. The prime suspect turns up dead, Zee is found at the scene of the crime, and with greater forces aligning the evidence towards an open-and-shut case, Mercy knows she can’t count on help from anyone. There’s someone out there stealing magic and if she can’t catch them, the next one to show up dead might be Zee…or herself.

This is the third in the Mercy Thompson urban fantasy/paranormal romance series, the previous two books of which I’ve read and reviewed. I had mixed feelings about them, as I said at the time, but kept reading because the world is interesting and I like Mercy. After this book, I don’t know if I’ll continue. My main frustrations with this book centre around Mercy’s personal freedom, or the lack thereof. I’ve included spoilery specifics below.

SPOILER: (Trigger warning) Mercy is drugged with magic and raped during this book, which was confronting, but I could have accepted that if it had only been handled better. There was so much that was problematic, though. Firstly, she’s told by a friend not to ‘flirt’ with the man who later attacks her, when all she’s doing is having a spirited debate. She constantly has to modify her behaviour to protect herself from the overheated emotions of various werewolves, as if it is her responsibility to keep them from losing their tempers. That’s classic victim-blaming that never really gets addressed or refuted.

Later, though she manages to kill her attacker, all control is taken out of her hands by well-intentioned men. Neither of her female friends are asked to look after her in the aftermath; she’s left instead with a male werewolf who has always behaved badly towards women and with whom she’s not, at the time, at all friendly. She blames herself for the attack, at least in part because of magical mind control. This warped perspective is explained and refuted by the aforesaid werewolf, but mid-explanation it stops being about her and becomes about his own childhood abuse. Which would be okay if we ever saw Mercy’s own thinking once she’s had time to recover from the drugs, but we don’t. In fact, we never get to hear what Mercy herself feels – only what the male characters think of her experience. Possibly these issues are addressed in book 4, Bone Crossed, but I doubt I’ll be reading it.

Reviewing Who – Forest of the Dead

 

Doctor: David Tennant

Companion: Catherine Tate

Script writer: Steven Moffat

Producer: Phil Collinson

Executive producers: Russel T. Davies and Julie Gardner

Director: Euros Lyn

Originally aired: 7th June 2008

Trapped between the enclosing dark and a swarm in a suit, River shoots another hole through a bookcase (no, River, not the BOOKS!), gets her team through and drags the Doctor out of his shock. In a meta turn of events, the little girl is watching the chase from her sofa. When it gets too scary, she switches channels and a stately country house appears on the screen with an ambulance drawing up outside.

Donna is carried out on a stretcher. She comes to in a rather lovely bedroom that she’s never seen before in her life, and a strange man is walking expecting her to know who he is. “And then,” he tells her brightly, “you remembered.” Of course she remembers! He’s Doctor Moon. And this is her new home.

He suggests they go for a walk. In dazzlingly rapid succession, Donna meets an adorable fellow patient with a crippling stutter, goes fishing with him, and a blink of the eye later, is a married mum of two having tea with Doctor Moon on her own sofa. She couldn’t be happier, but something isn’t right, however much she wants to pretend it is. Doctor Moon stands up, flickers, and then it’s her Doctor standing there instead, looking astonished and thrilled to see her. Doctor Moon quickly reappears. He tells Donna to forget what she just saw, and obediently, she does.

In the Library, dusk is falling. The archaeology team, plus bonus Time Lord, have outrun the swarm for now and set about establishing a safe perimeter of lights. They are exhausted, and suspicious, and at last have a moment to ask the obvious question: who is this Doctor anyway? “I trust that man to the end of the universe,” River snaps, “and actually, we’ve been.”

She goes over to join the Doctor, who’s having increasing difficulty with his sonic. Something is interfering with it. Her help consists of suggesting he use functions it doesn’t even have yet and they end up bickering, angry and bewildered with each other, until River finally realises he’s not going to trust her and she has to give him proof, even if it hurts him to hear it. She whispers one word in his ear that leaves him looking shellshocked. But he believes her now.

After a minute or two, he pulls himself together with a visible effort. “Know what’s interesting about my screwdriver, it’s very hard to interfere with. Practically nothing strong enough. Well – some hairdryers, but I’m working on that. So, there is a very strong signal coming from somewhere and it wasn’t there before. What’s new, what’s changed?” He kind of shouts that last bit, prowling around the room. Looking up, he sees the moon rising, and turns on Lux, who impatiently explains it is a doctor moon – a virus checker that supports and maintains the computer core. Someone in the Library is alive and communicating with the moon. Or, conceivably, alive and drying their hair.

As the Doctor fiddles with his sonic, an image of Donna flickers into existence in front of him, but he has no time to say more than her name before she’s gone again. He’s trying to figure out how get her back when his attention is called to another member of River’s team. Her name is Anita, and she has two shadows.

This time the Doctor tries tinting her visor black, hoping this may fool the Vashta Nerada into thinking she’s one of them. It may be too late for that. There were six people in the room when they arrived, and now there’s seven. The swarm in a suit has caught them up.

The scared little girl on the sofa switches channels again to a happier scene. Donna and her family are getting ready for bed when the thunk of the letterbox announces the unexpected arrival of a note. It is addressed to Donna, and reads “The world is wrong.” She dismisses it as random crazy at the time, but next thing she knows she’s at the play park where the sender told her to meet. A woman veiled in black waits on a bench. Donna goes to her, spiky and suspicious, pretending she isn’t afraid, even as the veiled woman sets about deconstructing her world. She did not receive the note the night before; she received it seconds ago, and having decided to come, she found herself arriving. “That is how time progresses here,” the woman explains, “in the manner of a dream.” The voice is familiar and Donna places it to a face that has no place in her world: the face of Miss Evangelista.

This world, she continues, is a pretense. The two of them are only energy signatures in the data core of the Library. It’s here in the play park that it’s easiest to see the lie: all the children running around are really the same two children repeated over and over again. Donna never married. She never had children. Furious and afraid, seizing at any possibility of a mistake, Donna pulls away Miss Evangelista’s veil and is horrified at the impossibly disorted face underneath. She was only a neural ghost caught in the Library’s network, incorrectly stored. She is proof that Donna can’t deny.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and what’s left of the archaeological team are racing down a closed walkway high above the silent city. The Doctor stops to try once again to reason with their pursuer, another of River’s team staying with him to drag him away if need be. When the swarm catches up, crying out its endless refrain of “Hey, who turned out the lights?” the Doctor holds his ground.

“That’s a man’s soul,” he tells it fiercely, “trapped inside a neural relay, going around and around forever. Now, if you don’t have the decency to let him go, how about this: use him. Talk to me.” He wants to know why they are here, so far from their native forests. A roar like the wind through trees is followed by a hesitant, hollow whisper. They come from here, the swarm tells him – these are their forests. They come from the books.

“We should leave,” the other archaeologist calls out. “Doctor!” It is the third time he has said the exact same words. The Doctor spins around, and realises he’s trapped between two dead men. As they close in on him, he sonics open the floor and falls, snatching at the struts beneath the walkway and heaves himself along with the screwdriver clamped in his teeth. The little girl on the sofa is very impressed.

River, less so. Waiting with the others for him to catch up, she tries to explain to Anita how she can miss someone who’s there. “He came when I called, just as he always does. But not my Doctor. Now, my Doctor – “ She smiles wickedly. “I’ve seen whole armies turn and run away, and he’d just swagger off back to his TARDIS, and open the doors with a snap of his fingers. The Doctor, in the TARDIS. Next stop everywhere – “

“Spoilers.” The Doctor has returned, giving River a wary look. And just for the record, nobody can open a TARDIS with a snap of their fingers. “The Doctor can,” River retorts, and if she wanted him to like her that was not the way to go about it.

She isn’t his priority just now, anyway – that’s Anita, still pursued by an infected second shadow, trying not to fall apart under the weight of imminent death. When the Doctor asks her, a little helplessly, if there’s anything he can do, she asks what word it was River whispered in his ear, the word that made him believe her. “Give a dead girl a break,” she jokes weakly. “Your secrets are safe with me.” The Doctor looks at her, but he’s not listening any more. He suddenly realises what the Library was trying to tell the outside world all along – those people weren’t safe, they were saved, into the computer core, the only place safe from the shadows.

For him, realising this is wonderful news. For Donna, it’s the destruction of her world. She returns home with her children, trying to ignore the apocalyptic red light seeping through the curtains, trying to pretend she can hold it all together. But she can’t. The little girl has gone into a wild panic, switching off the image of her father, switching off the moderating presence of Doctor Moon, curled up sobbing on the floor with her hands over her ears.

Donna’s children disappear before her eyes. Her husband is ripped from her arms. The world dissolves into white light.

Taking a gravity platform down to the data core, the Doctor, River, Anita and Lux hear a little girl’s voice calling out for help and see a node wearing the face of a child. Lux knew she was here all along; she’s the reason the Library was built in the first place. Her name is Charlotte Abigail Lux and she was his grandfather’s youngest daughter, who died young and has been kept in this dreaming half-life ever since. But now there are more than four thousand people inside her mind. She’s confused and scared and lashing out, sending the computer on a countdown to self-destruct. The only way to stop the destruction is by rematerialising the people in her head, and the only way to do that is by procuring more memory space. The Doctor intends to use his brain to make up the shortfall. There is one tiny flaw with this plan – it will kill him. River is furious, but she takes Lux back up into the Library to help prep the systems, which leaves the Doctor alone with Anita.

Or rather, the suit that once held Anita. All that’s left in the suit is bones and shadows. The swarm has grasped the knack of talking now, but it would so much rather hunt, consume, reclaim its forest. Shadows stretch towards the Doctor like hungry hands.

“Don’t play games with me,” he says coldly. “You just killed someone I like, that is not a safe place to stand. I’m the Doctor and you’re in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up.

Slowly, the shadows retreat. They know the power of a story as old as the Doctor. He is granted one day’s reprieve, and River returns in time to see her friend’s empty suit collapse on the floor. She has no time to grieve; someone else is about to die, and she’s made the executive decision that it will not be the Doctor. She brings him down with one hell of a right hook and when he wakes up, he’s handcuffed to a wall while she links herself up to the system. She is very calm; when the Doctor pleads with her to let him take her place, she comforts him. “It’s okay. It’s not over for you, you’ll see me again. You’ve got all that to come. You and me, time and space. You watch us run.”

He has one last question he needs answered. The word she whispered in his ear was his name; his real name. How could she possibly know that? But she only smiles. “Spoilers.” And then she’s gone.

The teleports kick in across the Library, depositing 4023 people back into the real world. Which, all things considered, may not be where they want to be. It’s been a hundred years, after all. Donna searches in vain for the man she met and married there. It’s only as she turns away that he steps from the crowd onto the teleport and catches sight of her. He tries to call her back, but disappears before he can get the word out. Mean, Moffat, that is just MEAN.

So the Doctor is shattered. Donna is shattered. They stand side by side looking down at River’s blue book, brimming over with the Doctor’s secrets. Should they peek?

“Spoilers,” Donna sighs, and the Doctor puts the book down with all the other biographies, River’s screwdriver on top of it. They walk slowly away. Then he’s racing back down like his life depends on it, because someone’s does. His future self, the one River knew, had all those years to think about how to save her and what did he do? He gave her his screwdriver.

And there is a computer around here that’s pretty good at saving people.

River wakes up outside the stately house with Charlotte Abigail Lux and Doctor Moon waiting for her, and her team running across the lawns to join her. Outside the TARDIS, the Doctor pauses, and snaps his fingers.

The TARDIS doors swing open.

“When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it will never end. But however hard you try, you can’t run forever. Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever, for one moment, accepts it.

Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today.

Every now and then, every one in a very long while, every day in a million days when the wind stands fair, and the Doctor comes to call, everybody lives.”

The Verdict: LIBRARY. You had me at LIBRARY. Also, shadows as monsters beat green lions hollow, and I bet you there were fans all over the world who slept with the light on the night after this screened.

David Tennant’s Doctor has a manic energy to rival Tom Baker’s. He dashes about all over the screen like time and space might end any second, which to be fair is usually the case in his life. As far as I’m concerned, he was at his best with Donna – all his other friends ended up trying to change him, make him more human, more manageable, but Donna never did. She didn’t try to build him up as a god or tear him down as a monster, though she saw both of those sides in her very first adventure with him. She was his voice of common sense and occasionally conscience, and what happened to her at the end of the season was criminal. No wonder River looked at her like that. Death would have been a more honest ending.

Talking of which, oh, River! My heart breaks for her every time I watch this story and see what is probably the worst day of her life unfold to its inevitable end. Even then, as the foundations of her world crack and crumble, she is an unstoppable force, living and dying on her own terms. No wonder the Doctor couldn’t bear to let her go. But everybody knows that everybody dies…

Join me next month for a grand finale as I wrap up a year of reviews with the episode that introduced us to the brilliant, the bemused, the football-playing, custard-eating, endearingly absurd Doctor No.11.

Reviewing Who – Silence in the Library

Doctor: David Tennant

Companion: Catherine Tate

Script writer: Steven Moffat

Producer: Phil Collinson

Executive producers: Russel T. Davies and Julie Gardner

Director: Euros Lyn

Originally aired: 31st May 2008

A little girl sits with her worried father and her psychologist Dr Moon. She has a most unusual condition. When her eyes are open, she is in her perfectly ordinary living room. When they are shut, she is in the Library – a fantastical world of books, where she can fly, and explore, and is always, always alone. But today something is wrong. As she floats through one of the Library’s endless rooms, its doors begin to rattle violently. “The Library is in your mind,” Dr Moon says soothingly. “I know it’s in my mind,” she wails, “but something’s got inside.”

The doors fly open. The Doctor and Donna charge through.

This incarnation of the Doctor is tall and thin in a rather fetching way. He wears a long brown ‘hero coat’ that flaps impressively when he walks. His current best friend is Donna Noble, a loud-mouthed London temp who may be the only companion Doc 10 has ever had who doesn’t fancy him. Apparently on a whim, he has brought them to the 51st century and a bibliophile’s paradise: the Library, a planet that is quite literally a whole world of books. They have landed in biographies. Donna picks up a book at random, only to have it snatched from her hands by the Doctor. “Spoilers!” he scolds. “These books are from your future. You read ahead, it’ll spoil all the surprises. Like peeking at the end.” Which does rather raise the question: why did he bring her here in the first place?

The Doctor has a question of his own. Where is everybody? A library is intended to be quiet, certainly, but this place is lifeless. When the Doctor runs a scan for humanoid life on the nearest computer, the result that comes up is two. When he scans for any form of life, however, the computer can’t cope with the numbers. It crashes at a billion billion. The Doctor and Donna look at each other in the deathly silence and jump like they’ve been electrocuted when a voice rings out behind them.

It belongs to a courtesy node, that being a tall white sculpture with a startlingly authentic human face. This, as it turns out, is because that face was donated by a dead person. That’s the 51st century for you. The node welcomes the Doctor and Donna to the Library, then recites a message left behind for all patrons by the head librarian. “Count the shadows. For God’s sake, remember, if you want to live, count the shadows.”

The Doctor looks slowly around. “Donna,” he says, unconvincingly casual, “stay out of the shadows.”

He finally admits that it wasn’t a whim that brought them here; a note appeared on his psychic paper telling him to come here, and he couldn’t resist finding out why. He thinks it could be a cry for help. Donna doubts it. In her experience, cries for help are not usually signed with a kiss.

Behind them, the lights start going out. This is never a good sign.

The Doctor and Donna race down the corridor and Donna kicks open the first door, which the Doctor then jams shut with a book. They find themselves facing a security camera that drops in very un-cameralike shock at the sight of them. When the Doctor tries sonicking it, the little girl falls to the floor with her arms clamped over her ears, and type flashes across the camera’s screen begging him to stop. He backs off at once, surprised and apologetic, but there is something stranger in this room. A shadow has fallen across the floor, with nothing to cast it. A moment later, it’s gone. In her living room, the little girl sits up, blank faced. “Others are coming,” she says aloud. “The Library is breached. Others are coming.”

Another door explodes inward, and a procession of anonymous figures in white spacesuits stride through. One stops directly in front of the Doctor. “Hello sweetie!” she beams. She seems delighted see him; the Doctor, less so. He does his best to convince the new arrivals to leave and never, ever come back. Instead they take off their helmets and get settled in for an argument.

DOCTOR: Oh, you’re not, are you? Tell me you’re not archaeologists.

RIVER: Got a problem with archaeologists?

DOCTOR: I’m a time traveller. I point and laugh at archaeologists.

RIVER: Professor River Song, archaeologist.

The Doctor has another go at scaring everybody away by dragging another of the team over to the way they came and pointing out the obvious: there is no way any more, only blackness that wasn’t there a matter of minutes ago. Confusion has set in for the rest of the team, but Strackman Lux, financier of the expedition, is confident of his priorities. Inexplicable shadows? Pff. He sends over his personal assistant Miss Evangelista with confidentiality contracts for the Doctor and Donna to sign, and in beautiful unison, they rip them up. Mr Lux then stands, glaring and ignored, while all his employers put together a perimeter of lights under the Doctor’s instructions. Well, almost all of his employees. River Song has commandeered the Library shop as her office – calling in the Doctor with one-sided familiarity, she sets about trying to pin him down to meetings he’s never had from her a battered blue diary. His total bemusement shakes her. “Look at you,” she breathes, reaching out instinctively to touch his face. “You’re young…You’re younger than I’ve ever seen you. Doctor, please tell me you know who I am.”

The Doctor looks sideways at the hand on his cheek. “Who are you?”

She has no time to think of an answer, if she even can answer right then. One of her team had tried to call up the Library database, and the only result they have achieved is a repetitive ringing. The Doctor comes over to apply his magic Time Lord touch and somehow appears on the little girl’s TV screen. They stare at each other uncertainly. “You’re in my Library!” she observes. “The Library’s never bee on television before, what have you done?” Good question, little girl, good question. The screen goes blank before he can answer. While he tries to bring her back, the Doctor’s attention is drawn to River’s mysterious blue book. Unable to resist, he reaches for it, but she gets there first. “Spoilers!”

Trying to relocate the Doctor, the little girl uncovers a secret compartment in her television remote. When she starts pressing buttons, books fly off their shelves in the Library and Miss Evangelista freaks out. The only one who has attention to spare is Donna, who goes over to check she’s okay. She’s not, not really. Miss Evangelista is not as clever as the rest of the team and she feels they don’t like her, which isn’t exactly true, but they certainly don’t listen to her. When a side door opens, everyone is too busy talking to notice it and ignore her painfully polite efforts to get their attention, so she goes off to investigate on her own.

The next thing they hear from Miss Evangelista is a scream. By the time they reach her, a matter of minutes later, all that is left is a skeleton picked clean of flesh and a fading impression of her living consciousness trapped in the neural relay of her shredded suit.

In her living room, the little girl sits alone with Doctor Moon. “There is the real world,” he tells her,”and the world of nightmares. That’s right, isn’t it, you know that…What I want you to remember is this, and I know it’s hard. The real world is a lie, and your nightmares are real. The Library is real. There are people trapped in there, people who need to be saved. The shadows are growing again. Those people are depending on you. You can save them. Only you.”

Congratulations, Doctor Moon! You win the Scariest Thing Said to a Child Award for Season 4!

The rest of the team are led back to the central room by the Doctor, who – wielding a torch in one hand and a chicken leg in the other – reveals the monsters of the Library. They are the Vaschta Nerada, swarms of organisms that can sometimes be seen as the motes of dust in sunbeams. “Piranhas of the air,” the Doctor calls them. They come from the dark of forests, but here they have grown powerful and vicious. There’s only one way to survive them: RUN.

While the Doctor sonicks shadows, River and Donna stand to one side watching. River tries to explain how her message was misdirected, arriving too early, in the days before the Doctor knew her. “And he looks at me,” she whispers, “and he looks right through me, and it shouldn’t kill me but it does.” Donna is not sympathetic, especially after she gives her name and River looks at her like she’s a dead woman walking. Time travellers are hell to live with.

Dave, one of River’s team, has worse problems; he has two shadows. The Vashta Nerada have latched onto him. The Doctor launches into action, pulling Donna over to the Library teleports, where he dematerialises her in mid-protest. She appears in the TARDIS, then flickers out of existence with a terrified scream.

The Doctor doesn’t know that. Right now, he’s trying to save Dave. Dialling up the mesh density of his suit and replacing his helmet on his head, the hope is to make him a harder meal to digest, not worth the effort. Then the second shadow disappears, and the visor of Dave’s helmet turns black. “Hey!” he cries. “Who turned out the lights?” His whole body shudders as he is devoured, leaving a skull staring out at them, but the loop of his last words is repeated over and over, an echo in the neural relay. The Doctor, who has an incurable addiction to bad ideas, edges closer, like there’s anything he can do.

The thing in the suit comes to sudden life, seizing his throat. River uses a sonic screwdriver of her own to electrocute the suit, forcing whatever animating force is controlling the hands to let the Doctor go. But the Vashta Nerada don’t die. Shadows stretch from where the suit stands, each one infected with instant death, and the only thing to do is run. When it seems they’ll be cut off by the darkness, River shoots her way through a WALL. Basically, she is being impressive all over the place, and the Doctor still looks right through her, because he’s just realised that Donna never reached the TARDIS; he should have received a message when she did. He accosts the nearest courtesy node for an explanation, and it turns around wearing Donna’s face. “Donna Noble has left the Library,” it intones. “Donna Noble has been saved.”

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.63 – A Bought Dream

This Turkmen story is taken from Folk Tales from the Soviet Union, which was published in 1986 and includes in the end notes some optimistic observations on how much better everybody is without tyrannical fairy tale lords. It’s rather sad, all things considered. This particular story could certainly be read as pro-communist if you wanted, but then that’s the power of fairy tales: every telling will be heard a different way. To me, ‘A Bought Dream’ reads like someone threw half a dozen fairy tale elements into a blender just to see what would happen.

The hero is Sarsembai – a young orphan earning his living as the shepherd for a rich man’s large flock. Come autumn, he is promised a lame sheep in return for his work. Then one day as he’s on his way to pasture the flock, a wolf springs out at him like a bushranger. “Give me a sheep,” the wolf commands. “Just one. If you don’t I’ll kill ten.”

Sarsembai explains that the sheep don’t actually belong to him and the wolf allows him to go off and consult with his master. The owner of the sheep considers the deal a fair one, only he adds a condition of his own: the wolf must be blindfolded first, picking a sheep from the flock at random. The wolf agrees. It’s all so civilised! Unfortunately for Sarsembai, the sheep that gets snatched is the one promised as his payment. When the wolf realises, he’s terribly apologetic and leaves the sheep’s hide so that the boy at least has something to sell.

Less understanding is Sarsembai’s master. When he learns what happened, he laughs at the young shepherd’s misfortune and sacks him on the spot for incompetence, despite agreeing to the arrangement in the first place. Miserably, Sarsembai sets off, his dead sheep’s hide the only reward for his work. It earns him three coins; of those, he donates the first to a beggar. The old man is so grateful he insists the boy pocket a handful of sand as a reward, which Sarsembai politely does. The second coin purchases an uncomfortable night’s lodging at a caravanserai. The last coin is all Sarsembai has left. He blows it on buying a beautiful dream off a fellow traveller, in the hope he’ll find happiness.

He doesn’t. This is a boy who wouldn’t know good luck if he tripped over it. He wanders across the steppes, searching for work, being turned away at every door until one night he is so cold and so hungry he collapses into a snowdrift in despair. The next thing he knows, a wolf is standing over him. It’s a small world; this is the wolf, who recognises Sarsembai just in time and holds back, though he is hungry himself. He urges the boy to climb onto his back and carries him through the snow to the edge of a forest, where a light shines between the trees. This, the wolf explains, is the light of a robbers’ bonfire. The robbers themselves are gone, but the heat remains, and even a few bones from their meal. Thrusting his hands happily into the warm embers, Sarsembai accidentally uncovers a golden casket filled with diamonds.

Has his luck finally changed? Well, not so much changed as done a screeching 360. Sarsembai doubts it, so when he comes across a pretty white yurt in the woods he hides his treasure chest before going to say hello. And a good thing too, because the girl inside is horrified to see him. Doesn’t he know this is the home of the dreadful witch Zhalmawiz-Kempir? Her advice is RUN LIKE HELL, but it comes too late – a thudding and cracking outside herald the witch’s return, so the girl hides Sarsembai under some felts just before the door is flung wide.

The witch is of the cannibalistic persuasion. Her idea of a greeting is to grab the girl by the arm and squeeze, to see if she’s put on enough weight yet to make a good meal. The girl has not and the witch is thoroughly annoyed. “If when I return tomorrow I find you as skinny as you are now,” she threatens, “I’ll fry you alive on this fire here!” With that, she goes off for a nap. Apparently the wicked rest just fine; it’s the innocent who lie awake crying.

In the morning the witch storms out and Sarsembai emerges from hiding. Instead of running away, he stays, asking how the girl’s life went so dreadfully wrong. The story that follows is nasty, breaking the rules of fairy tale security; the girl (whose name is Altyn-kyz) was out playing with friends when an old woman came up asking for a drink of water. Altyn-kyz took her home and, supposedly as a reward, the old woman produced a beautiful comb to brush her hair. Instead, the comb sent the girl to sleep. She woke up in the witch’s yurt, a prisoner and a walking, talking dinner.

She concludes her story by begging Sarsembai to get out while he can. He refuses. His first thought is that they should run away together, but Altyn-kyz points out that the witch will easily overtake them if they do, or if she doesn’t, they’ll die in the snow. So Sarsembai comes up with plan B – stay alive until spring. He observed during the night that the witch’s eyesight is bad, so he convinces the very dubious Altyn-kyz to swap clothes and takes her place that night when the witch returns. Sure enough, she’s taken in, not even suspicious at a rapid weight gain that’s only possible if it’s not the same person.

The deception lasts through the winter. With the arrival of spring, Sarsembai begins phase two of the plan, heading off into the wood to collect meat for their journey. Each day he lets Altyn-kyz know he’s still alive by sending goose feathers floating downstream. On the third day, though, several incidences of weirdness drive the promise from his mind. He rescues a baby deer from a flock of ravens, and is thanked by its father the stag; pulls a lamb from a pit and is thanked by its father the ram; returns a chick to its nest and is thanked by its father the eagle. The animals around here have such wonderful manners!

All this rescuing has taken time Sarsembai could not really afford. At sunset he dashes back to the yurt, and just in time – the witch has worked out what’s going on and is on the point of tearing Altyn-kyz apart with her bare teeth when Sarsembai flies inside and offers a ransom in exchange for the girl’s life. The witch is initially unimpressed, but then Sarsembai returns with the golden casket and scatters the floor with diamonds. While the witch scrambles to collect the jewels, the children run for their lives.

They run to the point of exhaustion, but the witch catches up regardless. In the nick of time the stag appears to repay Sarsembai’s good deed with a lift to the foot of a mountain. The ram takes over, carrying them to the top, and by the time the witch gets there the eagle has shown up to carry the two escapees away to safety. He deposits them in Altyn-kyz’s own village, where her parents are overjoyed to see her. They are so thrilled to have her back safe and sound that they adopt Sarsembai on the spot.

Years later, when he and Altyn-kyz are grown up, they marry and have a son. Lying on the grass one evening with his young family around him, Sarsembai realises that the dream he bought so long ago is now realised. Remembering another incident from his pretty awful childhood, he seeks out his old rags and finds the handful of sand from the beggar at the marketplace. He scatters it on the wind, and wherever the grains fall they turn to living creatures – cows and horses, camels and sheep. It is enough to make Sarsembai the wealthiest of men, but instead he shares his fortune with the village. No little boys will be kicked out into the world on his watch.

Wolves! Witches! Unfortunate orphans, magical beggars, beautiful hostages! Most stories are satisfied with one or two on the list, but this one whacks it all in and the result is weird, but a bit sweet. Sarsembai and Altyn-kyz earn that happy ending. I just wish I’d found out what happened to the wolf.

Review No.113 – Raven Girl

Raven Girl – Audrey Niffenegger

Jonathan Cape, 2013

In a drab and unchanging world, one misplaced letter brings together a postman and a fledgeling raven. The unlikely pair fall in love and conceive a daughter, a human girl with a raven’s soul. Her dream is to become the bird she is inside, but such a transformation is more than even her parents can understand. Is there anyone who can help her fly?

Raven Girl is bewilderingly weird, enchantingly dark and beautifully written, complemented by equally strange, magical illustrations by Niffenegger herself. There are not many authors who could successfully create a true modern fairy tale, but there is no other way to describe this story.