30 August 2016

Review: Bernice Summerfield: Genius Loci by Ben Aaronovitch

Last year I wrapped up reading The New Adventures, the Doctor Who spin-off novels starring the Doctor's companion Bernice Summerfield after she left the TARDIS. Now I'm looping back around to read all of The New Doctor Who Adventures, the ongoing range of seventh Doctor novels published by Virgin Publishing. Before I get to the actual NAs, though, I'm reading a couple lead-in books, starting with some of the Bernice Summerfield prequel novels:

Hardcover, 208 pages
Published 2006
Acquired and read August 2015
Bernice Summerfield #8: Genius Loci
by Ben Aaronovitch

I read a lot of tie-in fiction. And most of it is decent. Not great, but it scratches an itch to have more adventures of characters I like and love. But by and large it doesn't hold a candle to the majority of the original fiction I read. But it is possible to do so, and every now and again I read a work of tie-in fiction that's so good it I would recommend it without hesitation to people who don't normally read such things.

Genius Loci is such a novel. As a Bernice Summerfield novel, it's completely standalone, covering her first archaeological expedition as an eager postgrad with forged credentials. As a science fiction novel, it's completely excellent. I haven't read much of Ben Aaronovitch's prose fiction, but his work here is excellent: young Bernice is a real person trying to figure out how to grow up, while uncovering an ancient mystery on an alien planet. Aaronovitch handles character well: Benny and all her friends come to life here. It feels painful in the moments where they turn on each other because we've really gotten to know them prior to that. He handles worldbuilding well: there are some great ideas here, like the two sentient city-building robots who fall in love with each other, and the ecology and history of Jaiwan. He handles plot well: there are some tough surprises in this book that I didn't see coming, but made whole sense once revealed. He handles prose well: like, most tie-in writers are perfunctory at best. Some stuff here is lovely, like the tale of the two robots in love.

He even does archaeology well. Most Bernice novels have a pretty superficial grasp of archaeology, which I guess makes sense for the books' Indiana Jones-derived action-adventure roots. Benny needs to be in a new location with something exciting; that's all you need archaeology for. But here-- I don't know if archaeology field work is really like this, but based on my experience with ecology field work, it feels right. Archaeology is slow and painstaking and halting; you don't just zip in for a week, do a little digging, and zip back out. More than any other Bernice Summerfield book-- and probably more than any other science fiction book I've read-- this book captures the joys and frustrations of being a space archaeologist.

Seriously, this book is great. I read it in like two days at most, and when I finished it, I handed it to my wife, who couldn't care less about Bernice Summerfield, and she enjoyed it too. It's a complete shame that a story this good only exists as #8 in an out-of-print series of expensive tie-in hardbacks. It should be reprinted as a paperback standalone for all those folks who like Aaronovitch's Rivers of London books. Highly recommended.

Next Week: More of the early days of Bernice Summerfield, as we experience her Missing Adventures!

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