(I received and ARC of this title from the publisher via Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.)
On sale September 8, 2015 (coordinated with the premiere of season 9)
Published by Broadway Books
The Twelfth Doctor and Clara arrive in the kingdom of Varuz, on an unnamed planet, ostensibly on a whim during one of their day trips so Clara can see a “proper castle.” They do indeed get to see a castle, but one very past its prime. Varuz is in decline, the castle cracking and crumbling around its few inhabitants, with only the remnants of the power it once commanded still visible in electric lights and laser-based weaponry that no one really understands. Clara and the Doctor are initially mistaken for ambassadors, as is a third stranger who arrives closely on their heels. Varuz once ruled a vast empire, but reached too far and is now dreading the inevitable invasion from a stronger force across the mountains. The Duke of Varuz refuses to surrender, but a plot to broker peace with the enemy behind his back is brewing within the court, and Clara is pulled into its machinations, resulting in exile with the other mysterious “ambassador.” Things get even more complicated when Lancelot and his knights turn up looking for the Holy Grail…
Una McCormack is a well-respected author of multiple Star Trek tie-in novels, as well as a previous Doctor Who adventure, The King’s Dragon--which is actually one of my favorite Who novels. Royal Blood retreads some similar elements, with both novels set in a medieval-like world, and both relying on complex political intrigue tangled up with extraterrestrial interlopers (other than the Doctor). Both novels also focus more on the issues of the native world than the alien threat, which is refreshing in contrast to a lot of other Who stories.
But there are differences that also set Blood apart. The narrative is split between the first and third person, and the story is divided between multiple plotlines, especially once the Doctor and Clara are separated early on. In fact, the Doctor is mostly secondary to the overall story, providing guidance and observation, but actually not participating directly very often and leaving most of the action up to Clara and the people of Varuz (Varuzians?). I can’t speak for all of them, but generally Who novels tend to stick to one type of perspective (first or third) and lean on the Doctor’s knowledge a little too much, so this was a nice change of pace. Despite standing a little out of the spotlight, the Doctor in his twelfth incarnation was characterized well, with his “big eyebrows” and knack for being alternately rude and wise. Clara was her usual spunky self, and there were a couple of well-done Veruz characters as well.
There were a couple of weak points, mostly due to a key character being overlooked by the Doctor (highly unlikely, in the context) and a somewhat perfunctory ending. The alternating narratives were one of the strengths of the book, building suspense and interest with the contrast, so it was unfortunate that much of the suspense was undermined by a lackluster “reveal” in the last act.
Royal Blood appears to be the beginning of a new direction—or perhaps just an experiment—for Who novels, as it is part of a short run series called The Glamour Chronicles. It looks like the Chronicles will be a trilogy, rounded out by Deep Time by Trevor Baxendale and Big Bang Generation by Gary Russell. The novels featuring the Twelfth Doctor have thus far been released in batches of three, so it makes sense to release three interrelated novels at once; how strong their ties are to each other or what the effects will be on future Who novels will remain to be seen. There has also been some speculation as to whether they will connect to the technology of The Glamour Chase (also by Gary Russell, 2010) and Ghosts of India (Mark Morris, 2008), but so far I can’t say, as I haven’t read them. Yet.
Overall: 5 Who stars
- The Doctor and Clara are both characterized well
- The plot is strong, if a little scattered, and the structure makes it more interesting
- The threat comes more from internal than external sources, so the “aliens” are a bit tangential and the “Grail” story is less a part of the story and more a set-up for the other two books in the series
- Most of the (named) secondary characters were well done and gave the story the necessary depth to make us care about the fate of Varuz
(Cross-posted at Goodreads: Doctor Who: Royal Blood review)