I received and ARC of this book from netgalley, in exchange for an honest review. This in no way influences my opinions as stated below.
Most Doctor Who novels are fairly lightweight, intended to fill in gaps between episodes and entertain without interfering with the overall "canon” as established in the continuity of the television show. Engines of War, however, is a little different. It still operates as a standalone adventure, but it has to carry more weight than many previous books, as it takes place during one of the most significant events in the entire Whoniverse: the Time War. Not only this, but it also focuses on an incarnation of the Doctor that has received very little screen time, and thus has little in the way of established characterization to work with.
Mann does an admirable job balancing so little previous character development and so much expectation. The War Doctor is the most hardened and merciless incarnation, so it makes sense that this story is somewhat more disturbing and dark than previous adventures I have encountered in the New Series; there are some graphic descriptions of abuses perpetrated by both the Daleks and the Time Lords that would feel out of place in many other entries. While these things may set it apart, the story itself does follow the traditional pattern of Who novels: the Doctor arrives accidentally on a planet, acquires a companion (if he doesn’t already have one along for the ride), discovers a dastardly plot, and works with his companion to attempt to foil said plot.
In this instance, the Doctor lands on the planet Moldox, part of a system of colonized worlds that orbit an anomaly known as the Tantalus Eye. He meets a young rebel fighter named Cinder, and with her help, discovers key information about the next phase of the Dalek war strategy. But since this is the great Time War, rather than using his newly discovered intel to defeat the enemy himself, the Doctor spirits Cinder away with him to Gallifrey, and that is where things get really interesting.
Perhaps one of the defining features of the reboot series Doctor Who is that it takes place following the Time War. This has not only profoundly shaped the character in every new permutation, but the shape of the universe in which he resides; the Time Lords have weighed on the Doctor’s conscience and shaped his choices, and by extension those whom he helps (or doesn’t). But in Engines of War we get a glimpse into the Gallifreyan side of the war, and it alters ones perspective on the conflict. The brief appearance of Rassilon during the Master’s return to the TV series hinted at what Mann fleshes out more fully- the Time War was never a black-and-white conflict of good and evil. It may have begun with less moral ambiguity, but the Time Lords prove themselves to be equally capable of disdain for otherness and blatant disregard for “inferior” life. It is no spoiler to acknowledge that the Doctor triumphs, especially as this novel leads directly into the events of the 50th anniversary special, but there was a heavier cost involved than your average Who novelized adventure.
That being said, I generally have a system for rating Who novels. And here it is:
*Overall: highly recommended, especially to fans craving more Time War lore
*Characterization of the Doctor: pretty well done with limited resources. His physicality is limited, but his personality fits pretty well with the overall conception of the War Doctor.
*Plot: follows a traditional pattern, but with some added menace and real consequences.
*Companion: Cinder was memorable and believable and she proved herself very worthy of the title of Doctor’s Companion.
*Enemy/alien threat: Daleks. TIME WAR DALEKS. So yeah, pretty effective. And the Time Lords were equally menacing, and probably even more infuriating.
Summary blurb: Engines of War is a thrilling entry in the New Series, and it answers questions that I believe many longtime fans have been contemplating. Though the books may not be canonical in the grand sense, this one is a gift for those longtime fans that want to experience the previously untapped potential of the War Doctor as a true regeneration, and not just as a “guest star.”