So, I finally managed to finish a Doctor Who book that didn’t involve the War Doctor. And I enjoyed the heck out of it! Doctor Who: The Shining Man is one of the three most recent Doctor Who novels published by the BBC recently. It is written by Cavan Scott and involves the Doctor and Bill investigating strange events that have been happening in a small British town.
The Shining Men are everywhere. You spot them out of the corner of your eye. Abnormally tall, with long lank hair, blank faces, and blazing eyes. If they catch you, they’ll drag you away to who knows where. No one is safe. They’re on every street corner. Waiting. Watching. Shining bright. Of course, it’s a hoax. It has to be, right? It started as a joke, a prank for Halloween. Then it went viral. Idiots dressing up as monsters. Giving folk a scare. Silly masks and fright wigs. No one gets hurt. Because bogeymen aren’t real. Until people start going missing and lights burn in the darkness. Burning like eyes. But help is on its way, in the form of a strange man called the Doctor and his friend, Bill. The Doctor will keep us safe. The Doctor will stop the monsters. Unless the monsters stop the Doctor first… (Courtesy of the BBC summary)
I went into this book with low expectations. I’ve only read and enjoyed one Doctor Who book prior to this, and that was George Mann’s Engines of War, but I was honestly blown out of the water with this. The Shadow Man feels like an episode of Doctor Who from the very first chapter and manages to retain that feeling all the way through the final chapter. This is largely due to how well the characters are written. Naturally, you’d hope the Doctor and Bill would be written well – and they were; I’ll touch on that in a bit -, but even the side characters are well written and have things to do. You’ve got the children who are looking for their lost mother (the event that sets the mystery in motion), Maisie and Noah; you’ve got their stern, no-nonsense grandmother, Hilary; you’ve got a police constable who’s exasperated with the case and struggling to follow the Doctor’s logic, PC Jane Schofield; and you’ve got a paranormal vlogger (think online ghost hunter), Charlotte, who really wants to uncover the mystery behind this viral urban legend (and have her vlogs go viral in the process). All of these characters go on their own journeys throughout the story, each of them growing and changing and possessing their own urgency which moves the plot forward. Even though it’s a mystery novel, it’s very character driven. This isn’t a book where characters passively have things happen to then, it’s a book where characters have urgency in what they’re doing and experiencing as weird things happen to them and they react accordingly, with even more urgency. They’re all compelling and different and it strengthens the book a lot.
Continuity-wise, the book takes place at some point after the third episode of this season, Thin Ice, as there are references to the events that happened in those first three episodes. But, really, it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen them. It’s one line references that make literally no difference in the actual story of the novel; it just helps keep the characterization of Bill and the Doctor consistent. Speaking of consistency in characterization, I think that’s one of the things I really liked about this book. Even though when these books were published, Bill had only been in one episode – and when I read this book, she’d only been in four -, her characterization feels consistent with what’s been set up in the main show, which impresses me a lot. Oftentimes with these spin-off novels, the characterization is off. Either something happened on the main show (either during or after the writing of the novel) that changed the character or the author just doesn’t get the voice of the characters right. But that’s not the case with The Shining Man. You can tell that Cavan Scott put a lot of time and effort into making sure that Bill and the Doctor felt like Bill and the Doctor. I’m sure the editorial team helped, but ultimately had Cavan Scott been super off base with his characterization, the book would’ve been doomed. That’s not the case.
The other really great thing about the novel is the plot itself. It sets up a really interesting mystery with really compelling and varied characters. I always enjoy when Doctor Who touches on earth’s Urban Legends, and this book definitely does that, but in various ways. Obviously, from the summary, you can tell that Scott is going for the kind of Slenderman urban legend feel, but that’s not the only kind of earth folklore he tackles. There’s an interesting twist that happens that fans of a certain first season episode of Torchwood might enjoy. It’s not exactly the same kind of folklore that episode dealt with, but it’s very much in a similar vein, while also massively different and a lot denser. But the familiarity will strike people who have seen the episode. It struck me, and I found the connection rather enjoyable. (Side note, there’s lots of little references to other things; there’s a particularly great reference to actor Humphrey Bogart that ends up becoming a pretty funny Harry Potter reference. It’s rad.)
The pacing of the novel is another really strong point. The book plays out like a mystery novel, as most good Doctor Who stories do. The thing happens at the beginning that starts the mystery, the Doctor arrives in the midst of things, investigates, has slow progress for a bit, finds lots of clues, chases a red herring, ends up solving it by the end. And, like most good mysteries, once the mystery starts unraveling, it becomes very hard to put down the book. I had no intention of reading it in one sitting, but that’s what happened. I picked it up after dinner, and the next thing I knew, it was 11 at night and I had just finished the book. That’s a testament to the quality of this book – I have a bad attention span. If something isn’t very engaging, I cannot sit there and read it for hours at a time. This book is engaging from the moment you start it.
The atmosphere of the book is perfect spooky horror. Imagine an episode of Supernatural mashed with an episode of Doctor Who. It has that spooky, horror feeling from Supernatural – plus the elements of earth-based supernatural activity – and the investigation and twists and characters of a Doctor Who episode. That’s a really winning combination. Urban legends and Doctor Who are a match made in heaven, and that’s the case with The Shining Man.
Overall, The Shining Man really surprised me. I expected a typical, mediocre tie-in novel, and ended up getting an engaging, entertaining, captivating mystery with dynamic characters who instantly drew me into their stories and lives. The book had me on the edge of my seat, desperately wanting to know what would happen next. Cavan Scott should feel proud of what he accomplished with the book. It’s as good as some of the best stand-alone episodes of Doctor Who are.
I give The Shining Man five out of five wands.
Doctor Who: The Shining Man is available now from BBC books in hardcover and e-book formats.