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Eater of Wasps (Doctor Who) Mass Market Paperback – June, 2001
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That spectacularly awful cover (and I wonder if it was envisioned to be something entirely different than what they got but there wasn't any time to change it) actually hides a surprisingly decent Doctor Who novel. I wasn't a huge fan of his last Who novel ("Coldheart") but the difference between that novel and this one is so dramatic that either the author spent the time in between really brushing up on his feel for the characters or he just has a better feel for this particular TARDIS crew. Or he just had a better idea entirely. It's really striking.
Thus: in an English village that practically screams "sleepy English village hiding great dangers" a strange object lands in a shed of the local dentist. Said local dentist goes to investigate and finds that he has stirred up a nest of wasps. Really angry wasps. Really angry wasps that then proceed to drive the rest of the book's unpleasantness. Soon thereafter the dentist is acting very strangely, wasps are everywhere and people are starting to drop from mysteriously aggressive insect attacks. Into this stumbles our plucky TARDIS crew with their usual good timing and immediately the Doctor sets about irritating the locals/trying to solve the case. Except he may not be the only one.
What made this novel interesting for me is that the Doctor figures out who the problem is right away and then has to spend the rest of the book dealing with wrinkles related to it, trying to put all the small fires that are being caused. And while this did lead to some small degree of vamping (especially in the middle portions where it seems like everyone is just driving from one location to another in different configurations, only to drive somewhere else) he managed to keep it entertaining enough so that while I was aware certain scenes seemed to be occurring just to fill up the page count, I didn't really care enough to be concerned by it.
It doesn't hurt that a sense of style can make a world of difference. Given a situation that can be undeniably horrific, the author goes the full mile with it and milks the gruesomeness of the premise for everything he can. Which means we get every possible instance of insect-related body horror that we can. Fans of the show know from stuff like "The Ark in Space" that bugs skeeve just about everyone except those people on the Discovery Channel who eat weird food out and this is just more proof. Scene after scene of crazed wasps crawling in and out of places where wasps just shouldn't go manages to never fail to be unsettling and adds a certain layer of flair to the proceedings, to the point where just the appearance of some bugs can add to the foreboding.
The dialogue zings, too. Given a decent amount of characters to juggle, he manages to not let anyone get buried. He also makes the case for this being the best modern TARDIS crew, continuing the trend started in the last novel. The Doctor acts as moral center while Fitz becomes the true believer and Anji the willing skeptic. Stripped of the current show's need to make every companion the center of the known universe lets Fitz and Anji be normal people caught in very bizarre situations, and reacting accordingly, with poor Anji torn between excitement at the prospect of adventure and wondering when everyone went mad. This leads to some nice teamwork and interplay with the trio (including an absolutely hilarious moment at the train station) and while I still have some minor quibbles (I understand Fitz can't show the Doctor up but the guy's practically a veteran at this now, be somewhat effective, man . . . and the bits with Anji doubting the Doctor comes a little out of left field, though I see where they're going with it and we do need some conflict) this is currently the crew I want to read about for the longest time (while I liked how Compassion constantly upset the equilibrium of things, she wasn't a character meant to be experienced for the long term). I actually like these people, which is something.
Nicely, this is one of the books where the Doctor takes center stage and rises to the occasion. While some past books have spotlit the crew more and had the Doctor show up just to administer the finale, the Doctor gets a lot of facetime here and uses it to the best of his ability. His personality appears to have settled in and he remains distant, but undoubtedly moral, comical in his quirks (while some of it seems to be taken from the Fourth Doctor, the running bit with the candy was funny here) and at the same time infected with a coldness in his approach that we haven't really seen before. His interactions with the future team tasked with taking care of the device causing the trouble by any means necessary are where a lot of the book shines, contrasting their approaches and giving us a glimpse of what a world without Time Lords might look like, without going all lonely and mopey and sad. It adds a further layer to all the going-ons. This Doctor doesn't take the easy way out. Not easily.
I come down hard on these books a lot (including the last book this author wrote) so I have to be as equally effusive when it goes right. And there's rarely a foot set wrong here, from setting to execution to atmosphere, while it might mine familiar territory and tweak old elements, it does so in a way that is never less than interesting. This is the first Who book in a while that could potentially count as a page turner and it's saying something that I kept turning pages because I was honestly engrossed as opposed to just plowing through with mild curiosity as to how it was all going to end up. He's not on the permanent list of Who authors to watch out for, but he's certainly much closer to making it.
The plot flows along fairly nicely here. There are some interesting twists that pop up and manage to raise some genuine surprise in the reader. But the greatest advantage that this story has over Baxendale's previous two is that he has finally managed to do the horror aspect correctly. The previous two stories attempted to frighten by describing numerous scenes of pure disgusting material: flesh dissolving, skin falling off and mucus, mucus, mucus as far as the eye can see. These elements were all far more gross than frightening, but the importance is that weren't really memorable; they didn't stick in the reader's mind for more than a page. However, in EATER OF WASPS, Baxendale got it right. Tiny bugs and insects aren't terribly frightening by themselves, but the various descriptions of wasps are legitimately unsettling and are quite good at crawling under the reader's skin (no pun intended). While the fear factor doesn't completely manage to sustain itself throughout the entire book, the sections at the beginning and middle are excellent. However, at some point you just become immune to the wasp eater sequences, creepy though they may be.
The prose is workmanlike. There are no real fancy turns of phrase here, and there is very little that you'll be quoting to your friends (provided you're a secure enough person who would ordinarily go around quoting from Doctor Who). This makes the book quite readable, though there are a few spots here and there where the reader may wish that Baxendale was slightly better at turning out a sentence. Character motivations are often spelt out in painstaking detail, making the book seem far less polished than it could have been.
The companions, Fitz and Anji, are given almost nothing important to do here other than to carry objects around from place to place. The secondary characters are the ones who receive most of the attention, and they do come across quite well. While most of them don't escape from the stereotypes that we expect from a Doctor Who story set in a 1930s sleepy English village (nosy old lady; dithering, uncertain old priest; no-nonsense police officer; etc.), there are occasionally moments scattered here and there where they do come alive, if only for a brief paragraph.
Overall, this is an enjoyable tale. It's not the best thing ever written in the line, but it makes for an entertaining read on a quiet weekend afternoon. The story is solid, (for the most part) fast-moving, and straightforward without being overly simplistic. Trevor Baxendale's novels have been steadily improving since his dubious debut. If his next novel continues this trend, then it should definitely be a wonderful book.
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I have not been a fan of Baxendale's previous works.Read more