Grimm Reality, indicated content, the story of the time the Doctor and his friends found themselves trapped on a planet in which wishes came true, desires were fulfilled and fairy tales were reality.
As his fingers danced across his keyboard, this human being wondered if he would be able to continue to write in the mock quasi-storybook style which he’d chosen to utilise. He cracked his knuckles together and then typed that he’d cracked his knuckles together and asked himself an important question which he wasn’t sure how to render in this writing form. Had he enjoyed the book? He shrugged and took a deep breath then typed that he’d done same. Then he decided that in fact no, this third person was creeping him out, was clouding his ability to have a coherent thought and he’d need to stop at the end of this sentence.
Because frankly if you thought all that was difficult, you should try following Grimm Reality, a real raggletaggle of a book, clever in concept, enchanting to read in some chunks but thanks to its premise entirely impossible to decipher in others. It’s one of those occasions when an idea that has enough energy to power a typical length Doctor Who story, either forty-five minutes on television or a couple of hours on audio finds itself stretched to breaking point when applied to the classic BBC Books model of two hundred and seventy six pages. A decent editor could probably turn this into a hilarious couple of hundred.
The aforementioned premise brings to mind The Scarlett Empress and indeed many of that book’s discussions about grand narratives and shifting realities in relation to the Doctor Who franchise are continued here. Structured in the classic Who format of splitting the TARDIS team up into their own stories, all three find themselves in their own miniature folk tales, the unreality about them forcing them to undertake quests, become what amounts to a Disney princess and undertake more quests all but one of which are bravely constructed for the purposes of the novel, a kind of Proppian melange of princes, princesses, ogres, gnomes, magical horses and wishfulling boxes.
The opening hundred or so pages are a blast, as city girl Anji finds herself in the Cinderella-like aspic of serving not just two but six demanding sisters her life plagued by a magical box which will grant everyone but her with wishes, time and reality bending around her making the job of cleaning and sewing all the more harder. Meanwhile the Doctor and Fitz plunge into the woods (sorry) on their own mini-adventures with various travelling companions exploring the world, narrative strands stretching in a way which recalls Steve Parkhouse’s Sixth Doctor classics for Doctor Who Magazine and latterly Big Finish’s The Doomwood Curse.
Such adventures are cross cut with some broad sci-fi adventures as joint groups of aliens and humans are hoping to plunder the world for much needed resources. Deliberately butting against the rest of the story it’s fairly obvious from the start what their ultimate participation will be (especially if you’ve seen some key filmic texts) (deletes pun which would have been a spoiler) and if anything its these pretty generic bits of shipboard adventure (however important it is that they’re pretty generic bits of shipboard adventure) which drag out a bit too long, despite one faction of the aliens apparently looking like hippos (RTD would love that).
But as the book progresses, everything becomes a bit smushy as the requirements for stretching the concept out to the length of a novel finally work against the ability to read the thing. The dozens of characters and subplots and as the authors work to keep them all in play and resolve them whilst simultaneously poetically conceptualising the walls of reality toppling in on itself, it becomes impracticable in places to remember who everyone is and what their goals are, as there’s little room for recaps, or expositional reminders. The authors are clearly challenging the reader and this reader failed to keep up.
Not since the boldy experimental excesses of Alien Bodies or Bucher-Jones’s own The Taking of Planet 5 has a world been so impossible to imagine as technobabble topples onto technobabble and made-up words and concepts clash together. The idea is clearly to bewilder the reader with cosmic powers, structuralizing surrealism, but in a sense, at least for me, the relentlessness torrent of underformed narrative sunk my ability to understand everything. I like being bewildered, I’m a big fan of Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre. But there were moments when reading this, I had to put the book down, have a rest and go and do something else. I don’t like that.
This is the second book in a row which includes magic as a force and one of the problems with the book is perhaps that unlike The City of the Dead which treated voodoo with a nod and a wink in relation to Clarke's law then moved on, Grimm Reality spends a fair amount its pagination explaining why magic exists within that universe to the point that it probably takes the fun out of it. It's the fine line nuWho increasingly straggles, where part of the fun is waiting for the alien explanation for werewolves, vampires and witches but that rarely becomes the point of the story in the same way as Grimm Reality.
It's only when everything returns to first principles, the Doctor, his companions, the central storyline that everything snaps back into place and the last thirty pages are a joy. There’s a Adamsy moment in the wrap up about the intergalactic consequences which is sublime and short pep talk between the Time Lord and a Shreckalike Ogre with an infatuation for Anji that judges perfectly the romantic side of the Doctor and this Doctor in particular. The epilogue is gut wrenching. All which makes fighting through everything else just about worthwhile. Or was that the point?