19 December 2018

Review: Bernice Summerfield: The Slender-Fingered Cats of Bubastis by Xanna Eve Chown

Hardcover, 239 pages
Published 2012
Acquired July 2018
Read December 2018
Bernice Summerfield: The Slender-Fingered Cats of Bubastis
by Xanna Eve Chown

One feels a little churlish when one criticizes a book for not being something it never claimed it wanted to be, but The Slender-Fingered Cats of Bubastis is an enormous missed opportunity for Big Finish's Bernice Summerfield range. The third box set, Legion, sees the series bedding into a new status quo, with Benny and Ruth joining Irving Braxiatel, the mysterious Jack (from Epoch), and Benny's son Peter on the frontier planet of Legion. Only the new set-up is kind of sketchy, with the relationships between the characters only vaguely defined.

Given that, a novel seems like an ideal opportunity. During the later part of the range's Braxiatel Collection era, it was the prose works that really made that set-up work. Series five through eight really benefited from running in parallel with books like A Life Worth Living, A Life in Pieces, Parallel Lives, Collected Works, and Nobody's Children that could flesh out the people and places of the Braxiatel Collection. Obviously I liked the audios a lot, but I don't think Bev Tarrant would be half the character she was without the novellas; I don't think I'd have any sense of what the Collection was like as a place to live without the day-to-day stuff that's much better captured in print than on audio.

It's strange, then, that the tie-in novel for the Legion box set (all of which takes place in or near Legion) takes Benny off Legion, on Yet Another Generic Space Archaeology Adventure. Benny's travelling companions aside, this novel could take place during any era of the character. But at this point, I want to know what makes this era tick. It's especially noticeable in the novel's opening scenes: I get why Ruth goes with Benny on her "mission," but why is Jack even there? Benny first met Jack as a mysterious interloper in the Epoch scenarios in Epoch; then he popped up working in Braxiatel's bar when Benny got to Legion. But why is Jack on Legion? And what is he to Benny? Slender-Fingered Cats informs us that Benny "had become so used to being around Jack that she hardly noticed his eyes any more" (13), but from my perspective, they've spent barely any time together. This novel could have showed the beginnings of their relations with one another, but instead it starts with one already existing. Why does Braxiatel's bartender join Benny and Ruth on their archaeological exploits? No explanation is provided in this novel (nor in the Legion audios). He just does.

I feel that what this novel ought to have been is an adventure on Legion itself (like in its tie-in audio set), allowing the range to flesh out that milieu and its characters so that they can serve as the basis for the ongoing series. Then send Benny off-world to do whatever.

It's a shame, because this is actually a decent novel. Not a great book, but an enjoyable one. Chown crams it full of ideas and concepts (sometimes too many; not sure what the library of books from the future really added), and keeps things light without making them insubstantial. There are some good jokes I actually laughed aloud at. Chown's also great at capturing the voices of all three main characters: I could hear Lisa Bowerman, Ayesha Antoine, and David Ames saying these lines. In fact, this is the first Bernice Summerfield story to give Jack a meaningful role, and I found myself warming to him; he provides a new kind of dynamic for Benny to play off. The end of the book kind of wraps things up without much of an actual role for Benny, but otherwise it was enjoyable.

It's just not the book the range needed at this time.

(Also, between this story and "Paradise Frost" in Road Trip, supposed most distant planet in the galaxy is a short cruise from not one, but two popular space resorts.)

((Though, the dust jacket is a matte finish, instead of glossy, which had me inordinately excited. I love matte finish, but Big Finish have never used it before or since.))

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