(2021) Alex Kingston, BBC Books, £9.99, pbk, xi + 275pp, ISBN 978-1-785-94714-8
As it says on the cover, this is a River Song / Melody Malone Mystery. The author is famous, at least amongst Doctor Who fans, for portraying River Song in the TV series. The question, therefore, is how good a novel has she written about the character she plays? Well, I think it is a good one. Note that the title page credits help from Jacqueline Rayner though no further details are given.
Spoiler, as River would say - despite this being nominally a Doctor Who book, the Doctor appears for only the briefest of moments (and that is just a one line thought in River’s mind). This is entirely about River Song and Melody Malone, though there are brief appearances by Captain Jack Harkness and Amy Pond, as well as mentions made of Rory Williams.
A note for those not familiar with the background to this story: in the Doctor Who TV adventure ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, following brushes with the Weeping Angels, Amy and Rory found themselves trapped in New York in 1938 and with the Doctor unable to rescue them. However, their daughter, River Song, was able to visit them using a Vortex Manipulator. As part of that story, River wrote the book Melody Malone: Private Detective In Old New York Town as a way of sending a ‘we are OK’ message from Amy for the Doctor to eventually read in the future.
This story starts with the decision by River that she can help her parents financially by writing another Melody Malone story, this one being titled The Ruby’s Curse. This requires River to find some peace and quiet, which are not normally a feature of her life, so she decides to get away from it all by breaking back in to her prison cell in Stormcage (an ultra secure prison facility, AD 5147).
River sets her story in New York in 1939 and it starts with Melody Malone being hired to pick up a huge ruby, an Egyptian relic known as the Eye of Horus and believed to have been the property of Cleopatra, from a courier who has just brought it back from London on a passenger ship. It is said that, like so much else robbed from Egyptian tombs, the ruby is cursed and all who come into contact with it will soon die. Sure enough, when Melody enters the courier’s cabin she finds him dead and, of course, the ruby is gone. This starts a whole string of events which involve various shady characters, a lot of double-crossing, and a growing pile of bodies.
As River types away, she befriends Ventrian, a newly arrived prisoner, whose crimes include destroying a planet. Being a fellow archaeologist and knowing River’s reputation, he tells her his story of woe. Ignoring the plague beacons that should have told him to steer well clear, he had descended to a deserted planet and discovered a device that granted him almost unlimited power; the problem was that the more he used it the more it took him over. He was unable to destroy the device but had hidden it where he hoped it would never be found; however, he has heard that the authorities are going in search of it and he knows this could bring about the end of the universe. River has no option - she has to break him out and they need to find the device and destroy it before it falls into the wrong hands, and besides which she enjoys a little adventure from time to time.
With the aid of Vortex Manipulators they travel back to New York in 1939, pursued by other interested parties (of the unfriendly variety). River sends Ventrian back to ancient Egypt (30 BCE), where he figures out a way to finally destroy the device. By the time she too arrives he is dying but just has time to tell her that his plan is in motion - but not the details. The device has many powers and River finds that Ventrian has blurred the lines between reality and her book, that she comes face to face with Melody Malone, the fictional character she had created, and between them they have a universe to save. After that the plot gets complicated with lots of timey-wimey to-ing and fro-ing, meetings with Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, the Silence, treasure hunters, criminals, murderers, and various nasty aliens.
The story is told as a mixture of River’s first person account and text from her novel, as told in the first person by Melody Malone. At first it moves nicely but slowly along but the pace picks up once they leave Stormcage. Despite all the timey-wimey jumping around, the story works well and the plot slowly comes together as the pieces fall into place.
It is nicely written, has an interesting format in the form of two characters telling their overlapping stories, and the further I got into the story the more River-y it became. I enjoyed it and recommend it to any Doctor Who / River Song fan and, indeed, to anyone who enjoys a good yarn with a bit of time travel.
See also Terry's mini-review of Doctor Who: The Ruby's Curse.
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