Doctor Who

Author: Peter Darvill-Evans
BBC Books
5.99, US $6.95, Cdn $8.99
ISBN 0 563 53833 3
Available now

Attempting to track a temporal anomaly, the Fourth Doctor encounters Nyssa of Traken, a travelling companion he is not yet supposed to have met. Nyssa had been studying the works of 13th-century scholar Roger Bacon when she was affected by the same anomaly. The TARDIS heads back to Oxford of 1278, by which time Bacon has retired to a Franciscan friary - a friary that has just suffered the mysterious loss of one of its friars...

The sci-fi elements of this story are as book-ends to what is primarily a historically-based novel, which takes its inspiration from Umberto Eco's monastic murder mystery, The Name of the Rose. Just as Eco provided exhaustively intricate descriptions of architecture in his novel, so Darvill-Evans devotes many a long paragraph to depicting the 13th-century town's key buildings, overall layout and natural surroundings. The result is a sense of authenticity, but somewhat at the expense of the pace of the plot.

Unlike Eco's Sherlockian detective, the Doctor shares his investigative role with one of the friars, brother Alfric. In fact, both the Doctor and his asynchronous travelling companion have less prominent roles than usual. Each is absent for sizeable chunks of the narrative, especially in the case of Nyssa, although they are seldom far from the thoughts and actions of the supporting characters. Having gone to some considerable effort setting up a situation in which a post-Terminus Nyssa could travel alongside a pre-Keeper of Traken Doctor, Darvill-Evans then gives the Trakenite a particularly inactive role. However, Nyssa's search for a quieter life does provide some charming scenes, as a besotted knight clumsily attempts to express his feelings for her, as well as some nail-bitingly tense moments towards the novel's conclusion.

The dialect of certain characters strikes one as odd at first, littered as it is with such modern colloquialisms as "cushy" and "tosser". However, it soon becomes clear that the various social ranks of medieval England would actually have spoken in French, Latin or Middle English, and so the author astutely avoids any pretence at emulating these languages. Instead, he conveys each character's social standing by their use or otherwise of slang terms and their construction of sentences.

This is a rather short novel, at just 220 pages, but it is complimented by an intriguing essay that discusses the ultimately impossible quest for historical accuracy. An unusual book, then, but Asylum is definitely worth seeking.

Richard McGinlay