26 September 2018

Review: Bernice Summerfield: Secret Histories edited by Mark Clapham

Another review up at Unreality SF: the Fifth First Doctor (I think that's right) returns in The First Doctor Adventures, Volume Two!

Hardcover, 175 pages
Published 2009
Acquired July 2015
Read September 2018
Bernice Summerfield XIII: Secret Histories
edited by Mark Clapham

2009's Bernice Summerfield book is another anthology, with a frame story that fleshes out what Benny was doing between deciding to confront Braxiatel at the end of Secret Origins and being captured by a giant robot in Dead and Buried.  On a dig, Benny discovers a collection of sentient skulls at the site of a war crime, and ends up telling them stories to pass the time. The stories cover a wide range of her life, but there are essentially three or four clusters: a few from her youth, before she had her graduate degree; a couple from the heyday of the Braxiatel Collection, when it was her and Adrian and Jason; a couple from her freelance on-the-run-from-Brax years; and then a number following on from the end of Secret Origins, as Benny and company plan their next move against Braxiatel and in the meantime have some wacky adventures.

I like the diversity on offer here. It's nice to see a young, inexperienced Benny alongside an older, but more carefree Collection-era Benny alongside her present-day status quo. And Mark Clapham's frame story is suitably atmospheric, additionally raising the kind of issues that work well with Benny as a character: dealing with the consequences of history and memory. But though Bernice Summerfield usually thrives in the anthology format (during the Big Finish era, the weaker books have almost always been the novels), Secret Histories isn't among the best of them. It's hard for me to put my finger on it, but I just felt like a lot of the stories here were weirdly plotted, not really coming to climaxes even when they had a solid foundation.

For example, there's a set of stories built around a common incident, where a mysterious machine shunts Benny, Adrian, and Peter back in time: Benny ends up in 1914 England, where she once again encounters Mycroft Holmes and John Watson; Adrian lands in World War I-era France; and Peter ends up in a vaguely Victorian freakshow. Each of the stories is evocatively written, with a great concept. But each one just kind of stops: in Jim Smith's "A Gallery of Pigeons," Mycroft deduces a time-travel mystery but it's more of intellectual interest than dramatic; in Eddie Robson's "The Firing Squad," a pair of alien time travelers (who I think are meant to be pre-existing characters?) tell Adrian what was going on; and in Mark Michalowksi's "The Illuminated Man"... I don't really know what happened at the end. Each story seems quite good until the disappointing endings, though, which is all the more frustrating. Smith is good at the retro-Sherlockiana, Robson does a great job with Adrian's character in an unusual situation, and Michalowski likewise has a good handle on the adolescent Peter.

So it's not like it's a bad book or a waste of time. Benny is a great character, and it's nice to hear from Collection characters like Adrian who have had their roles diminished with season 9's format change, such as in Cody Schell's "You Shouldn't Have," where Adrian and Benny crash-land on a planet where it's the height of masculinity to wear flowers. I also really enjoyed Lance Parkin's "Young Benny" tale, "A Game of Soldiers," a brutal and effective story of Benny reluctantly having to play a role in the Dalek Wars when she's accidentally drafted. And Nick Wallace's "Turn the Light On" is creepy and disorienting.

I did find that the resolution to the frame story followed the same pattern as many of the individual stories, in that it ended disappointingly as well: Benny makes a sort of nonsense technobabble deduction to wrap it all up, which undercuts the emotional potential that had been built up in the until-then effective scenes of her interactions with the skulls. It's not the worst Bernice Summerfield anthology (that's either The Dead Man Diaries or Missing Adventures), but it is underwhelming given the quality this range often provides.

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