Well, since I was still going through a phase of reading spin-off novels, I thought that I’d check out a “Doctor Who” novel from 2018 called “Combat Magicks” by Steve Cole.
This was a hardback novel that I splashed out on last December (and, yes, I prepare these reviews quite far in advance) shortly after series eleven of “Doctor Who” had finished.
Although I didn’t have time to review more than the first episode of this series, it was probably one of the best series of the show that I’ve seen and, well, I wanted more of it (especially since the 2018 “Christmas episode” was postponed to New Year’s Day 2019 and the show apparently won’t return until 2020). Hence getting this book.
I should probably also point out that, although “Combat Magicks” tells a stand-alone “Doctor Who” story and can be read without watching the “Doctor Who” TV show, it’s probably worth watching at least a couple of series eleven episodes before reading this novel in order to get to know the main characters.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “Doctor Who: Combat Magicks”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins with the TARDIS, a time-travelling spaceship shaped like an old police call box, being knocked off-course by a mysterious energy field. Inside the TARDIS, The Doctor and her earthly companions Ryan, Yaz and Graham try to work out what has happened.
When the TARDIS lands, they find themselves in Gaul in 451 AD. The sky is glowing. Something is interfering with Earth’s history and it is up to the Doctor to find out what it is and put everything right.
But, there is just one little problem. In the area around the TARDIS, the forces of Attila The Hun are about to do battle with the Romans who control the area. Being a fixed historical event that is a crucial part of Earth’s timeline, The Doctor can do nothing to stop the war. Still, it doesn’t take her too long to find out that mysterious witch-like creatures called the Tenctrama are involved in this whole mess…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s like an extra episode of “Doctor Who”, but with a slightly more complex storyline, slightly more horror and a much larger special effects budget 🙂
In other words, it’s a brilliant mixture of quirky science fiction, subtle comedy, gruesome horror and thrilling drama 🙂 Yes, it takes a little while for the novel’s story to really become gripping, but it is worth sticking with this novel 🙂
I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements. Every futuristic thing here has a logical explanation and follows a consistent set of rules (which the characters have to try to understand). The nefarious Tenctrama who are threatening Earth also have realistic motivations for their actions and all of the story’s futuristic technology also feels like technology rather than magic.
Of course, thanks to the historical setting, many of the Roman and Hun characters consider alien technology to be magic. This allows the story to include some really cool dark fantasy-style elements, in addition to allowing the story to occasionally explore the difference between knowledge and superstition. Seriously, as sci-fi stories go, this one is well within the “Doctor Who” tradition.
In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re really cool 🙂 In addition to some brilliant scenes of paranormal horror, scientific horror, death-based horror, zombie/monster horror and suspenseful horror, the novel also includes a surprising amount of gruesome horror too 🙂
Yes, this gruesome horror is relatively tame when compared to “proper” horror novels (with the story’s grislier moments being described in a slightly quicker and/or less detailed way), but it still adds a bit of extra atmosphere, grittiness and horror to the story in a way that the TV series probably wouldn’t be allowed to do.
Not only that, the story also includes zombies too 🙂 Yes, they are a little different from typical horror movie zombies, but it’s always really cool to see zombies in “Doctor Who” (like in the series eleven episode “The Witchfinders”).
In a lot of ways, the horror elements of the story reminded me a little of modern historical dark fantasy/horror/zombie novels like Rebecca Levene’s “Anno Mortis” or Toby Venables’ “Viking Dead“, which is never a bad thing 🙂
Of course, all of these horror elements are also balanced out with the series’ trademark sense of humour, consisting of things like pop culture references, amusingly eccentric comments from the Doctor and a few amusing narrative moments. So, this is more of a “feel good” novel than you might initially think.
As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re really good too 🙂 Although the story takes a while to lay out all of it’s plot threads and become really gripping, this is worthwhile. There’s a really good mixture of suspenseful moments, a couple of plot twists, dramatic action sequences, clever plans and large-scale drama.
One of the cool things about the Thirteenth Doctor having three companions (rather than the usual one) is that this allows for more complex stories when they become separated, and this novel takes full advantage of this fact.
In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Not only are the main characters reasonably close to their TV show counterparts, but this story also allows them to be a bit more badass – whilst still staying within the show’s traditional pacifist themes.
Likewise, the fact that this is a novel means that there’s even more room for personality and humour too. In addition to all of this, the novel’s historical background characters are reasonably well-written – with the highlights being Attila The Hun and a Roman version of “Torchwood” called “The Legion Of Smoke” – although they don’t get quite as much characterisation as the four main characters do.
Plus, as mentioned earlier, the novel’s villains (the Tenctrama) also come across as characters with defined motivations who do evil things for a practical reason rather than just for the sake of being evil. Because of this, they are even more chillingly effective villains. Not to mention that their backstory and motivations also help to feed into the novel’s anti-war theme too.
In terms of the writing, this novel is fairly good. The story’s third-person narration has a little bit more of a distinctive “style” than I expected and it’s this brilliant mixture of more informal observations and mildly formal descriptions. It fits in surprisingly well with the tone of the TV show and, although there are a few mildly confusing moments (eg: a third-person segment written from the perspective of one of the Huns early in the story), it means that the story is a very readable and relaxing way to spend a few hours.
As for length and pacing, this novel is also really good. At an efficient 264 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted. The pacing is mostly really good too, although the second half of the story is probably somewhat more gripping than the first half is. Although this is probably because the earlier parts of the story have to spend time setting everything up for the spectacular drama in the later parts of the story.
All in all, this is a really good “Doctor Who” novel 🙂 Yes, it takes a little while to really become compelling, but it’s a brilliant blend of the sci-fi, horror and thriller genres 🙂 So, if you enjoyed series 11 and wonder what it would look like with a higher budget, a bit more horror and more time to tell a story, then this novel is worth reading.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.