Novel Review: All-Consuming Fire

We’re back! Almost caught up now. Today we’re looking at the twenty-seventh entry in the New Adventures novel series: Andy Lane’s All-Consuming Fire. Published in June 1994, and featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and Benny, this novel takes a turn even further into fiction with an appearance by none other than Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson! That should be interesting. So, let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead! For a more spoiler-free review, scroll down to the line divider, below.

In 1887, a secret and most interesting library stands in London: the Library of St John the Beheaded, visited only by those in the know. And, despite its most impressive security, it has been robbed. Several rare and important books have been stolen—books which, if properly used, may lead to another world. A case of such import deserves the best; and so, at the behest of none other than the Pope, Sherlock Holmes and his partner, John Watson, take the case.

They are not alone in their efforts. Also at work is a strange and mysterious figure, one who has been associated with the library under various faces: A man calling himself The Doctor. There’s one problem: The Doctor himself was the last to read the books—and thus, he himself is a suspect!

One thing is sure: this case won’t be easy. It will take Holmes, Watson, and the Doctor to places they never expected to go—from a séance in a rundown brothel, to the rugged and hot provinces of central India, to a world called Ry’leh that is populated with monstrosities, to perhaps the strangest place of all: San Francisco (!). Moreover, the case will prove to be personal for Holmes, much more so than even the great detective ever anticipated. The only question remaining is, will any of them survive?

One of the great things about the VNAs is the capacity for experimentation. Typically that means more sex, profanity, and violence than television would allow; but sometimes there’s experimentation with other conventions as well. Here, we have experimentation with the format itself. This novel takes the form of a book within a book. The frame of the story consists of the Doctor, Benny, and Ace discussing their adventure with Holmes and Watson (which are pen names for the real individuals; their real names are not given). The Doctor hands Benny a book by Arthur Conan Doyle, titled The Strange Case of the All-Consuming Fire (or, more fully, “All-Consuming Fire: Being a Reprint From the Reminiscences of Doctor John Watson As Edited by Arthur Conan Doyle”), which is Doyle’s (and by extension, Watson’s) take on their adventures. (Benny isn’t particular impressed; she implies that it took liberties with the real events.) The rest of the book, in the middle, is the text of Doyle’s book; therefore, as with most of Doyle’s works, it is presented in first person from Watson’s perspective (with occasional excerpts from Benny’s diary, as provided by her to Watson).

And now, confession time: I have never read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s one of those things that has perpetually been “on the list”, but I’ve never made it to them yet. I’m familiar with some of them through highly abridged junior versions from my school days, or from various adaptations, but I haven’t read the original works. Therefore, as much as I’d like to, I can’t comment on how convincing the presentation is (given that it purports to be a Doyle book). On the bright side, that left me with no preconceptions about it; and I will say that Lane does a convincing job of making it seem period-appropriate. That’s good enough for me!

Not emphasized is the H.P. Lovecraft influence on this story. Given that the story takes place three years before Lovecraft’s birth, it’s no wonder his name is never referenced—but his work forms the entire foundation of the book. And while I’m not particularly familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories, I am an unabashed Lovecraft fan (well, except for the racism and all—I like his work, not the man himself as much). So there’s reference here to several features of the Cthulhu Mythos, including Cthulhu himself (in a reference back to the events of White Darkness). This story’s ultimate villain, Azathoth, is a Lovecraft reference; it is a being that became a major figure in the mythos after Lovecraft’s death, although he himself died before he could give it more than a passing reference in the short story of the same name. Both Cthulhu and Azathoth—along with Hastur the Unspeakable (aka Fenric), Lloigor (aka the Animus, from the planet Vortis), Dagon, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth (possibly the Great Intelligence, by the Doctor’s implication), and the Gods of Ragnarok—are Great Old Ones, that collective group of beings from the universe prior to our own. The planet Ry’leh is undoubtedly a reference to R’lyeh (slightly different spelling), the island city from The Call of Cthulhu. It’s a bit strange to see all of these references and not have them called out as such; it almost makes them into a part of the background. The Doctor, of course, takes it all in stride, as do Ace and Benny—this is nothing new for them—but even Watson’s reactions are more subdued than I would have expected. Holmes is the only one who is rattled by the entire situation; but Watson explains that that is because, on Ry’leh, all of the familiar conventions that Holmes relies on for his famous deductions, are not present. He’s perhaps more adrift than anyone, simply because on Earth he’s more grounded than most.

As if tracking the Doctor’s course isn’t difficult enough, there’s a short time skip at the end, at least for him. The Doctor, Holmes and Watson, and Ace and Benny, end up stranded in San Francisco in 1906—two decades after the time from which they departed. Watson briefly thinks about whether they’ll get back home; but in the moment, the Doctor excuses himself, and next thing anyone knows, the TARDIS is materializing to take them all back. The Doctor admits that he left them and spent three months traveling back to London to retrieve the TARDIS, then traveled back to the same moment to retrieve them. It’s a fairly minor point (and exactly the kind of thing the series usually avoids, because if the Doctor can do this sort of thing, why doesn’t he always do it?). I mention it, though, because I’ve noticed throughout the VNAs that the Seventh Doctor is very good at piloting the TARDIS where he wants it to go. Previous incarnations were never so good. This is consistent throughout his time, as well (or at least as much of it as I’ve experienced); it’s a minor plot point in television serials as well, for example Delta and the Bannermen, which was during Mel’s time as a companion. I had always assumed this was something that developed during the Time War, and that we didn’t see it until the new series, but apparently not. This matters, though, because some sources imply that the yet-to-be-born Seventh Doctor took control of the Sixth Doctor’s body and flew the TARDIS into the path of the Rani’s weapons in order to bring about the Sixth Doctor’s deaths. (We’ll get to that in a later novel, but it’s worth mentioning now.) The fact that he has this degree of skill would add weight to that theory.

Continuity References: I’ve mentioned several already, but in addition: The Library of St John the Beheaded was mentioned in Theatre of War and will show up again several times. The Gods of Ragnarok are a reference to The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. The Doctor mentions the Raston Warrior Robot (The Five Doctors). The Seventh Doctor’s fob watch is the same one carried by the First Doctor (it’s unclear if it’s also the same as the Tenth Doctor’s watch from Human Nature/The Family of Blood). Holmes and Watson will show up in other stories, most notably in Happy Endings (but then, everyone shows up in Happy Endings…); not all stories will treat them as real people, unfortunately. Ace says her smart missiles—perhaps a little too smart—deserted her on Peladon to form a union with mining machinery (Legacy). Silurians are mentioned (The Silurians, et al.) Benny mentions the planet Terserus (several stories, but probably most famously from The Curse of Fatal Death). The Doctor’s pants are still dirty from Menaxus (Theatre of War; seriously, do your laundry, Doctor). The Third Doctor briefly appears in the Diogenes Club; the Seventh Doctor gets him kicked out. The Doctor leaves the TARDIS with George Litefoot (The Talons of Weng-Chiang, many others). The Doctor reads Adventures Amongst the Abominable Snowmen by Redvers Fenn-Cooper (Ghost Light; completely by coincidence, I happened to rewatch Ghost Light while I was reading this book, so seeing the name pop up again was an unexpected treat). A cult of Shobogans is mentioned (The Deadly Assassin). Shlangii mercenaries appear here; they were first mentioned in The Ribos Operation. Holmes says “sleep is for tortoises”, a line previously said by the Fourth Doctor (The Talons of Weng-Chiang). Not a DW reference, but a Holmes reference: The giant rat of Sumatra is implied to have been from Ry’leh. The library contains a copy of Love’s Labours Wonne (Theatre of WarThe Shakespeare Code) and documents about the Loch Ness Monster (Terror of the Zygons). Sabalom Glitz is mentioned (Dragonfire; it’s implied that Ace may have lost her virginity to Glitz). The Doctor and Benny also make a number of quick, offhand references to various stories, too many to list here (I’ve already gone on too long); for a full list, see the Discontinuity Guide for this story.

Overall: This one is pretty good. Not quite the page-turner that I found the next entry to be, but that’s just personal preference; you will probably enjoy this one too. It’s refreshingly different, and in a good way (we’ll get a bad example of “different” soon).

Next time: We’ll revisit E-Space (and gangland Chicago!) in Terrance Dicks’s Blood Harvest. See you there!

A prelude to All-Consuming Fire can be found here. An audio adaptation by Big Finish Productions may be purchased here.

The New Adventures series is currently out of print, but may be purchased in previously owned form via Ebay and other resellers.



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