A Review of Old Friends – A Benny Summerfield Adventure
I’ve been a bit late with this review, what with life and wedding preparations and such getting in the way. But true to my New Year resolution guns, here’s another wonderful, mind blowing, possibly even world changing review.
Old Friends was the last Benny Summerfield book for 2006, so it’ll be the last Benny book I review for a few months (which will be a relief for you people who don’t give a rats arse about Ms Summerfield’s exploits). Anywho, it comprises three novellas (by Jonathan Clements, Marc Platt and Pete Kempshall) and thematically is a continuation of Ben Aaronovitch’s Genius Loci. Again, this is a book that deals with Benny’s past, but also hints at what her future holds.
In Jonathan Clement’s story, Cheating the Reaper, we learn that an old friend of Benny’s, a demi-lemur named Ivo, has died on the planet Balgoris. While she only dimly remembers her relationship with Ivo, Benny is compelled to go to the funeral. Then there’s the archeological dig on Balgoris that she’s been asked to check out, the same dig Ivo had been working on before he died. So Benny takes Jason with her and once arriving on Balgoris she meets more then one person from her past.
Cheating the Reaper is less a story and more an elegy on remembering the past, on death, and on leaving behind the people who love you. Benny begins to understand that when she left the planet Heaven with the Doctor, she was actually leaving behind a lot more then her camping gear. There were people out there who loved her, people who were expecting her to always be around, people who found it hard to cope when she suddenly disappeared.
Clement’s does a wonderful job at capturing that idea of loss, of time marching forward. With Cheating the Reaper, theme, over story and plot, takes precedence. It’s something you can get away with in a 30,000 word novella – where eliciting an emotion is sometimes more important that plot twists and revelations.
An excellent start to the book.
On the other hand, Marc Platt’s The Ship of Painted Shadows, is probably too thematic and too opaque for it’s own good. The story takes place 22 years in the past where a young Benny meets Ivo, the demi-lemur, for the first time on a cruise ship headed for Earth.
The story focuses on Kabuki, a form of traditional Japanese theatre. According to Wikipedia (because I most certainly didn’t have a clue) Kabuki is all about metamorphosis, where the actor might be asked to take on a number of roles, both male and female. Off shoots of Kabuki also involved puppetry.
And all of this, more or less, appears in Marc Platt’s story. There’s a Kabuki artist onboard the cruise ship, a man whose art, his madness and his use of otherworldly energies are beginning to effect everyone onboard the cruise ship.
In setting up Benny’s relationship with Ivo, Marc Platt’s story is a success. However, the actual plot itself grows more and more confusing as the Kabuki threat emerges. As anyone whose read his work, or for that matter watched his Doctor Who episode Ghost Light, will know, Marc Platt is a complex writer whose often adding layers too his work. More then that, Platt’s not interested in dumping a whole load of exposition on your lap. He expects the reader to do some work and join the dots together. And I’m fine with that, taking the anti-expository approach can be a very good thing.
The problem comes when Platt gets lost in his own ideas, which I think he does in this story. The writing becomes more and more dense, the reveals become more and more complicated and by the end of it all I only had a vague grasp of what was going on.
The writing is great, Platt has a wonderful turn of phrase and a great sense of imagery. But I wonder whether this story needed a tad more clarity just bring all the ideas together.
Finally, we have Pete Kempshall’s climactic story The Soul’s Prism. Whereas Clement’s story is all theme, and Platt’s story is all complexity and mood, Kempshall’s piece is an action packed, murder mystery thriller.
The Soul’s Prism continues directly on from Cheating the Reaper. Benny has just met another old friends (who I won’t spoil) at Ivo’s funeral who informs her that Ivo was in fact murdered at the archeological dig he was working on.
And so the action begins. It’s steady build-up at first, with Benny’s investigation of the murder leading to a lot of unanswered questions. Pete has a good eye for a mystery and he pulls us along, throwing us red herrings and leading me to think I knew who Ivo’s murderer was. I was wrong, of course.
But, putting aside the twists and turns of a murder mystery, what made this story really work was how it tied together the themes brought up by the previous two pieces – especially Cheating the Reapers. Benny confronts, head-on, the long term effect she has on people, and Pete does a great job at milking those scenes for every drop of emotion.
Probably my only grumble about this story – and it is a small, little grumble – is that the frenetic, fast paced conclusion is a little drawn out. Other than that, however, Soul’s Prism is a great story, does a brilliant job at bringing the threads of the previous novellas together, and is probably the strongest piece in the book.
Overall, I was really impressed with this novella. It’s been a really strong year for Benny books and this is the perfect end to the year.
Roll on 2007.