Professor Bernice Summerfield
Parallel Lives

Authors: Rebecca Levene, Stewart Sheargold and Dave Stone
Big Finish
RRP: £14.99
ISBN 1 84435 154 8
Available 11 January 2006

The Braxiatel Collection has lost one of its own, someone who once made a mistake and has never been forgiven for it. Clarissa Jones has been head of administration for many years, enough time to really know her way around the place - its security, its secrets, its weaknesses - knowledge that would be of great value to neighbouring powers. So it's bad news for everyone when she disappears. Brax is quick to dispatch his troops to find Ms Jones and bring her home. Bernice heads for Atwalla 3, where women are rarely seen, let alone heard...

The Serpent's Tooth, the first story in this anthology of three novellas, is written by Rebecca Levene, the former editor of Virgin's New Adventures range, from whence the character of Bernice Summerfield originally sprang. Under Levene's leadership, the Virgin series gave us novels that ranged in style from the whimsical (Paul Cornell's Oh No It Isn't!), via the mystical (Jim Mortimore's The Sword of Forever) to the grim (Where Angels Fear, which she co-wrote with Simon Winstone).

It is appropriate, therefore, that this novella spans the same gamut of tones. It begins with a gloomy description of an oppressive regime, in which women are kept out of sight and treated as inferior beings, then heads into Shakespearean/pantomime gender-swapping territory as Bernice disguises herself as a man. There follows a bit of fairy tale/knightly romance involving a heroic quest, before Benny discovers a biological mystery... and so on.

These constant changes of direction keep the reader guessing right until the end of the tale. In spite of this, Levene's unpretentious writing style makes The Serpent's Tooth the easiest of the three stories to read.

Picking up Ms Jones' trail, Bev Tarrant and Adrian Wall end up uncovering their own darkest secrets...

By contrast, Stewart Sheargold's Hiding Places is more challenging. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is hard work. There are allusions to Virginia Woolf in the stream-of-consciousness-style mental ordeals that Bev and Adrian endure, as well as, on a more tangible level, the presence of a very significant lighthouse and a wolf that Adrian believes he sees with this son Peter. (Remarkably, the author avoids making puns on Peter and the Wolf.) Sadly, I never particularly liked Woolf's writing, so I didn't really enjoy reading this homage to it either.

It's also unfortunate that the Bernice Summerfield range has already visited two similarly mind-bending (though admittedly more light-hearted) realms quite recently, in the audio adventures The Masquerade of Death and The Heart's Desire.

However, there are some interesting and vivid depictions of the inner conflict between certain characters' baser animal instincts and the trappings of intellect and civilisation. One of the richest examples can be found on page 91: "[Henry] was pressed and polished in his best black jacket, white shirt and two-tone brogues. He had loosened his bowtie a little, and this gesture had, oddly, unravelled his sensible appearance into some dishevelment. [...] [Adrian] must admit that he had felt... challenged by Henry, as though one of two alpha males competing for a desired female."

Sheargold also reconciles the darker aspects of Adrian's people, the Killorans, who once committed atrocities such as those witnessed on the planet Világ (as described in the Doctor Who audio drama Arrangements for War).

Jason Kane gets caught up in wild - and frankly ridiculous - antics with pirates and girl bands. It's all true, he swears...

Back in the days when Bernice's exploits were depicted in Virgin's post-Who New Adventures novels, the focus of entire books occasionally fell on protagonists other than Benny herself, such as Jason Kane (in Gary Russell's Deadfall) or Chris Cwej (in Lawrence Miles' Dead Romance). Such diversification isn't really possible these days, because Big Finish's range names the Professor in the series title. However, anthologies such as this and A Life in Pieces at least allow other characters to take centre stage for novellas within such books. As with A Life in Pieces, the focus of the middle story is on Bev and Adrian, whereas the third and final novella in this collection turns the spotlight on Jason.

Dave Stone's Jason and the Bandits, or, O, Jason, Where Art Thou? (which is also, rather confusingly, referred to as Jason and the Pirates on the contents page, jacket blurb and on Big Finish's website) comprises the author's usual blend of verbose word play (why use the term "bad" when "egregious" is so much fancier and might get readers reaching for their dictionaries?), footnotes*, and Douglas Adams imitations (there's even mention of a giant mutant star goat). "The woman was not exactly in the first flush of youth," the author writes, during one of his Adams-esque moments, "in the same way that the planet Jupiter is not exactly small."

Fortunately, this is one of Stone's more accessible and amusing works, despite (or perhaps because of) its reuse of characters and organisations from his Zardox Break story in A Life in Pieces. These characters include Loni, Shawna, Jinx, Poodles and Biz, who together are the girl band the Glitta Bitches.

The author also extracts the Michael from some of Star Trek's clichés, such as the vital functions fulfilled by PECs (Pointlessly Exploding Consoles) and the rather less vital maintenance panels, which seem to exist solely to keep bored crewmembers occupied. The story certainly kept this reader occupied.

Simon Guerrier provides this volume's linking material, which, like the collection itself, is entitled Parallel Lives. It ultimately brings the book to a rather abrupt ending and leads into the next one, the short-story anthology Something Changed.

I'm not sure what the relevance of the title Parallel Lives is, apart from providing one last application of the term "life", which has been traditional for titles in this series (until, of course, that changed with Something Changed). I had been hoping for a set of parallel universe stories, but what we get is, on balance, enjoyable enough.

Richard McGinlay

*Blimey, that sentence was as long and clause-riddled as one of Dave Stone's!