Bernice Summerfield
Genius Loci

Author: Ben Aaronovitch
Big Finish
RRP: 14.99
ISBN 1 84435 239 0
Available 18 June 2006

Bernice Summerfield is 21 years old and living hand to mouth and drink to drink. Offered a job beyond her qualifications, she is lured to the backwater world of Jaiwan where nothing has ever happened - ever. There she joins a disparate team of archaeologists who have just discovered that the planet might be a tad more interesting than people thought. This could be Benny's big break and her ticket to a proper career in archaeology. That's if archaeology doesn't kill her first...

We've had Young Sherlock Holmes, Young Indiana Jones and even Young Bond. Now Big Finish brings us a younger version of Bernice Summerfield. This book is set nine years before Benny's first meeting with the Doctor in 2570 in the Doctor Who: The New Adventures novel Love and War.

It's certainly a neat way to avoid all the baggage that the character has accumulated over the years, both emotionally and in terms of series continuity. There's no Jason Kane or Braxiatel Collection here. Having said that, Ben Aaronovitch, in his first full-length novel for ten years, throws in plenty of passing references to things that fans of Benny and the Doctor will recognise, such as Martians (i.e. the Ice Warriors), the Dragon War (Earth's conflict with the Draconians) and the planet Heaven (the setting of Love and War).

During the course of the narrative, we see how young Benny is gradually developing into the older character that we know so well. She inherits a diary from a professor who is a mentor figure to her (in fact, I kept thinking "the Professor" was Bernice, forgetting that she hasn't yet adopted that title). Benny's respect for Martian customs and her love of 21st-century Earth culture are both already evident, though there are noticeable gaps in her historical knowledge. For example, she doesn't know who Machiavelli or Yoda were, nor the origin of the verb "to google".

Certain characters' incorrect assumptions about the etymology of such terms also tie in with one of the book's themes: that historical and archaeological studies can paint a misleading or incomplete picture of the past.

With the planet Jaiwan, Aaronovitch has created a convincingly alien world, but one that it's still possible to relate to, thanks to the human colonists giving the local flora and fauna familiar-sounding names, like kwumtree, potfish and potfish spider. The potfish is an aquatic creature that grows up in dens attached kwumtree roots, while the potfish spider is a terrifying predator (as depicted on the cover) that lives in abandoned potfish dens.

The first third of the book is rich with zoological and archaeological detail, not to mention characterisation, but is rather slow in the plot and suspense departments - so much so that I almost felt like giving up. There are also rather a lot of spelling and grammatical errors, such as "its" instead of "it's", "ally" when the author means "alley", "an" before a word beginning with a consonant, and "who" instead of "which" or "that". It's worth sticking with it, though, because after that the pace and intrigue improve enormously. The middle section is particularly riveting.

Worth locating.

Richard McGinlay

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