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Thursday, 7 January 2016

Book Of The Month: The Legends Of Ashildr


The Legends Of Ashildr is a collection of four short stories about the immortal Viking girl, Ashildr, played by Game Of Thrones' Maisie Williams in the recent series of Doctor Who.

All four tales occur between the episodes The Girl Who Died (when the Doctor's actions result in Ashildr's immortality) and The Woman Who Lived (when Ashildr and the 12th Doctor next meet).

Each story is written by a different author and they are quite the mixed bag; two are superb, one is okay and one reads like bad fan-fiction.

The best tales are The Arabian Knightmare, by James Goss, which apes the style of the classic One Thousand And One Nights, and Jenny T Colgan's The Triple Knife, which deals with the loss of Ashildr's children.

James Goss's story unfolds like a fairy story, beginning with a previously unknown voyage of Sin(d)bad The Sailor but grows into Ashildr's own adventure.

This draws on established Whoniverse mythology (as referenced in Pyramids Of Mars, and then later spin-off materials) in beautiful ways to tell a very unique story that blurs the line between fantastical mythology and the hard science of Doctor Who.

Goss adopts a style which sees characters within the story telling their own stories, creating a layered narrative akin to The Saragossa Manuscript, that some might find a bit off-putting.

But it's worth persevering with as this helps capture the oral nature of the story, that is that it is meant to be a story being crafted on the fly and spoken out loud by a skilled storyteller.

The resolution is particularly Whovian in nature, with a foe that just needs to be understood, rather than simply stabbed with swords or blasted with lasers.

The Triple Knife sees Ashildr arriving in London in 1348 with her three young children, just as the city falls into the grip of the bubonic plague, a situation aggravated by the presence of seemingly inhuman 'plague doctors'.

This is a truly heart-breaking story, incredibly written by Jenny Colgan, with a rumination on the nature of death, by Ashildr, that nearly brought me to tears.

The story was so  powerfully written (the alien elements are almost incidental to the human drama) that immediately after I finished it I scuttled off to find out what else Jenny had written for Doctor Who.

Justin Richards' The Ghosts Of Branscombe Wood is the story of Ashildr coming upon a small village in early 17th Century England whose inhabitants are troubled by apparitions haunting the nearby woods.

Despite a spooky build-up, this is ultimately quite a pedestrian tale, decently written but offering us nothing new.

Although it references the other stories in the book, it certainly doesn't help that closing out the volume highlights the fact that all the tales in The Legends of Ashildr, even the well-written ones, follow a certain formula (but some dress it up better than others).

This formula is most obvious in David Llewellyn's The Fortunate Isles, which has Ashildr stowing away on a Spanish ship in 1485, sailing west 'into the unknown', and coming across the titular Fortunate Isles.

What starts out as an okay adventure romp, that appears to be building up to some kind of Lost homage, suddenly takes a preposterous left turn into rather infantile silliness you'd expect to find in comic strips aimed at the under-sevens.

Yes, there are some clever puzzle obstacles that Ashildr has to deal with (that I shall possibly be 'borrowing for a future RPG scenario), but the change in style and content undermines any credibility the story had to begin with.

Bonus points, though, for referencing real world claims by explorers of the time, of dog-headed natives and disappearing islands, but this story felt very cheesy and rather overambitious compared to the rest of the book.

I'd certainly recommend The Legends of Ashildr on the strength of The Triple Knife and The Arabian Knightmare (the latter, particularly, for those of us with a penchant for the Doctor Who spin-off mythology of the Osirans et al), but the differences in quality and writing style between these and the other stories can be quite jarring.

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