The Janus Conjunction.

Books  In a bizarre moment of clarity during The Janus Conjunction I realised why some of these novels are taking several weeks (or even months to finish) whilst others can be licked in a few hours.  Font size and line spacing.  Most of these books run to roughly two hundred and seventy pages, but the text within is far denser in some cases than others. It also explains by the epic previous book can be followed by a romp that apparently has the same physical length.

The titular phenomenon this time is a doomsday weapon born from the eclipse of three worlds, Janus Prime, Menda and their sun.  Once again, The Doctor is fighting against big cosmic forces and race histories, and y'know just for a change an evil meglomaniac.  The kind of pioneering colonists from Earth that Russell T Davies talks about all the time in interviews have crash landed and built a life on the planet Menda.  They were guarded by a group of mercenaries who in an apparent fit of boredom  used what appears to be a transmat to go to Janus Prime in an attempt to get back to Earth only to get stuck there, become infected with radiation sickness, inevitably go rogue.  Their leader Zemlar has gone mad and is attempting to kill everyone and everything, partly using the indigenous species - a race of spiders.  The Doctor and Sam drop into the middle of this situation and try and sort everything out whilst being captured and separated and all the things you'd expect.

The opening paragraph in which a soldier is chased through a forest by a giant spider-cyborg thing recalls uncomfortably War of the Daleks and I thought it would be another slog, but in the event this is a straightforward but nonetheless engrossing read.  Baxendale's prose style is simple and mostly functional; this does however seem to be an adopted approach so that when he turns on his descriptive power the effect is all the more shocking or surprising.  There is an excellent moment when the true horror of Zemlar radiation deterioration is revealed, the flesh dripping off his face.  The book is filled with these moments of body horror, with none of the effects of radiation sickness whitewashed.  By the end, Sam's skin is coming off in strips and  I defy anyone to not skip through the yuckier parts.

Zemlar is an enemy from the old school, a real Zaroff of a madman - Baxendale obviously had great fun writing his dialogue.  At one point, when it looks like all is lost he rants: 'I can't, Doctor.  I've already told you - it's too late. […] I make sure the spiderlings were used properly.  The control system is jammed.  Nothing, no one, can stop it now!' I added the exclamation mark.  He doesn't have any great aims - since he can't go back to Earth, he just wants to turn half the galaxy into a black hole.  Of the other guest characters the most vivid is Julya, the Mendan who becomes the Doctor's surrogate companion when Sam isn't around.  She reminded me somewhat of Ida from The Satan Pit, that kind of questioning wisdom and bravery.

Throughout the book the dialogue crackles.  The Doctor and Sam are particularly well drawn, the bluff of the former and the passion of the latter.  They're very content and relaxed and there are some lovely moments when the human chides the timelord when he's being particularly technobabbly (not unlike all the Spock talk from Rose in The Empty Child).  Neither really develops although their mutual devotion does seem to be becoming progressively deeper which is never a good sign.  My favourite Doctor moment is someway into the novel when the Doctor and Julya have found themselves on Zemlar's base and becomes apparent they're going to be locked up.  The Doctor says 'It's about time we were locked up' and you just know that this exactly what he wanted to happen.  Baxendale obviously has great warmth for both of the characters and it is to his credit that when he announces something very rotten about one of them it comes as a complete shock.  I actually shouted out loud 'You can't do that' when I read it but rest assured its all ok in the end.

If there's a tiny criticism, it's that the book doesn't really do much that couldn't be done on a television budget.  Well actually that's not totally fair -- when the giant spiders are attacking the action is cross between Eight Legged Freaks and Starship Troopers -- but very few actual locations are used and considering the number of colonists who are supposed to at risk we only meet a handful of them and they come across as a bit bland.  But some writers have come a cropper in the past with introducing too many characters with irrelevant stories and it's perhaps it's good that Baxendale has streamlined such things as much as possible.

So all in all a very pleasant surprise.  Unlike Kursaal which appeared directly after Alien Bodies and somehow through its sheer dullness managed to undo some of the magic, The Janus Conjunction is exactly what you need after the mind bending frolics of The Scarlett Empress.  It's quite jarring in the arc infested waters of nu-Who for the events of the previous book not to get a mention, but these were still the days when the BBC were trying to attract a wide audience for the books and they needed to be as stand-alone as possible.  I'm already glancing through the next book, Beltempest, and the line spacing is even wider, the text even larger and the pagination even shorter.  See you in a couple of hours ...

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