Doctor Who Book Review: Engines of War

doctor who book review engines of war george mann war doctor john hurt cinder borusa rassilon daleks time war other doctor renegade warlock moldox skaro

The death of millions is as of nothing to us, Doctor, if it helps defeat the Daleks.

I think the phrase is “poisoned chalice”. I’m not sure where it comes from, it’s probably Hamlet or something similar. Sort of ironic too actually, given how Eight regenerated.

I’m digressing though, heavily. I should backtrack a bit.

Engines of War is The Time War Novel. It’s so important that you capitalise The Time War Novel. It’s the event novel – probably the most important Doctor Who novel since… The Infinity Doctors. No, scratch that. I don’t think there’s a single Doctor Who book which could be said to cover a more important part of the show’s mythos.

The Time War has been the driving force of most of the show since 2005. It’s affected all of the New Who Doctors, and the Eighth Doctor as well. It’s a Very Big Thing. But we’ve never actually seen it. We’ve built up a picture across nearly ten years from the odd line, a few references here or there, occasional glimpses. Mentions of things like “the Nightmare Child”, or “The Could Have Been King and his armies of Meanwhiles and Never-weres”. There’s the “Skaro degradations”, “the Cruciform”, and the “Gates of Elysium”.

All of that evocative imagery coming together to conjure a picture of a horrible, eternal, all-consuming war fought on a thousand fronts, reaching every corner of the cosmos, corrupting and degrading and reducing the Universe. A war that “made the higher beings weep”, and “made the Eternals flee the Universe, never to be seen again”.

Russell T Davies described the Time War as “obscene” once, and that’s always sort of stuck with me since I first read it. Obscene. This dark, endless, hellish war. Obscene.

That is very difficult to put across in a book, or on TV, or in audio. Not impossible mind you, just very difficult. But if you add to the fact that everyone is going to have their own version of the Time War in their heads, it’s more or less inevitable that the book is going to disappoint.

So that’s what I was getting at with poisoned chalice. As a book, it’s in a hell of a difficult place. Technically, it was always destined to fail. How awful is that? Very much a poisoned chalice to have been given.

Obviously going in I knew that, and I tried to keep my expectations low…

But… this book is a letdown. There’s no other way to put it really.

It follows a largely generic plot, opening with a Dalek base we’ve seen hundreds of times before, an infiltration we’ve already seen before, a planet we’ve seen before. Nothing new or unique. (Having said that, I think I’m being a bit disingenuous – I really really like the opening part, Moldox. It’s very well written, and it’s actually quite a nice window into how the War has affected people who aren’t actually involved in it. The thing is, it’s just a little bit underwhelming – especially since it’s firmly set at the latter end of the Time War, when things really should be much, much worse.)

Then we move from there to Gallifrey, and it just devolves into the most ridiculous fanfiction ever. There are so many references and callbacks, and you just need it to slow down. That sort of continuity requires both tact and finesse, and neither was on display – it begins to read like a list of Gallifrey’s Greatest Hits. It’s back to the 80s, even, which is hardly lauded as the show’s best decade. Normally I don’t have much trouble with this sort of thing, but it could get very obtrusive here. It’s more subtle in some places, sure – there’s a reference to The End of Time with Rassilon tapping out a certain rhythm – but then on the other hand, you’ve got Zero Rooms, the cast of The Five Doctors, and even the bloody Mind Probe. In some places, it is far, far too much – quite often, less is more. (There was a pretty subtle reference to Sam Jones, the Eighth Doctor’s companion, which I liked, but probably also says a lot about quite how many continuity references there were.)

I don’t want to come across as though I hated this book, because it was certainly an enjoyable book to read. It’s really well written, with an excellent style of prose. The descriptions are fantastic, from the war-ravaged planet of Moldox to the Panopticon on Gallifrey itself. The main characters are excellent as well – John Hurt’s Doctor is a tired, sarcastic old man, grappling with the weight of worlds. George Mann has him pitch perfect to how he was in The Day of the Doctor.

Cinder, the companion, is also pretty damn great. She’s got a pretty good character arc, if, admittedly, a predictable fate, and provides a pretty good outside perspective on events. She’s also one of the first canonically LGBT companions in quite a long time. And, like all the best companions, she brings out the best in her Doctor…

… but that really leads me onto the biggest fault I had with the book. All throughout, John Hurt’s Doctor is called exactly that. He’s referred to as the Doctor by everyone. By the Time Lords, by Cinder, even in the actual prose itself. There’s no delivery on the idea that he’s “the one that broke the promise” – he might as well just be any other incarnation. I know that won’t bother most people, but it really, really irked me. It’s… I mean, you’ve got the toys, you might as well play with them, you know? Use it, have it mean something. For example, there’s a very nice coda at the end, where the Doctor wonders if anyone will ever call him the Doctor again… after three hundred pages of no one calling him anything else!

When the tagline of the book proclaims “WAR CHANGES EVERYONE – EVEN THE DOCTOR” you need to deliver, and show us a Doctor who’s actually different. Reveal to us, through Cinder, a quiet rising malevolence. Have him not only condone, but suggest, the death of thousands, because it would save the lives of billions. Give us a Doctor who’s scarily close to becoming the Valeyard. Give us a man who would make even the Seventh Doctor run away in horror. Up the ante. Change. The. Doctor. Make. It. Count.

Ultimately, it’s a book of wasted potential. That’s a horrible thing to say, and I don’t want to say that, because I did enjoy the book. There’s some fantastic concepts – George Mann’s explanation of the Skaro Degradations was wonderful, and his Possibility Engine was downright horrific. But that’s the sort of tone that should have been prevalent across the whole novel. I wasn’t reading this for a fun adventure with the Daleks, I wanted to see a glimpse into this reality twisting, obscene war.

Whether I would recommend this… I guess it depends on how you responded to this review. If none of my complaints bothered you, then I honestly would recommend it emphatically – it is, for the most part, fantastic. But if you’re the sort of person who’s ever sat and thought about the Time War… give it a miss. This book will just sweep away your version, and won’t have anything satisfactory to replace them with.

So that’s… that’s a mutable five out of ten and eight out of ten. It’s morphing between them, just like the Probability Engine.

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