If you’re not a fan of River Song, you’re probably not gonna like The Ruby’s Curse, Alex Kingston’s first Doctor Who book and River’s first solo novel. It’s pure, unadulterated River Song, with all the pros and cons that come with that. The book’s been advertised as a sort of melding of fact and fiction, with River writing a new Melody Malone story only to have elements of that story bleed into her reality. And, honestly, it’s every bit as mind-bending as it sounds—in the best way possible. Doctor Who: The Ruby’s Curse is a love letter to River Song and her time on the show. It’s clever, thrilling, action-packed, and oh-so-meta. Is it perfect? No, but it sure is a lot of fun. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)
Doctor Who: The Ruby’s Curse
by Alex Kingston
1939, New York. Private Eye, Melody Malone, is hired to find a stolen ruby, the Eye of Horus. The ruby might hold the secret to the location of Cleopatra’s tomb – but everyone who comes into contact with it dies. Can Melody escape the ruby’s curse?
1939, New York. River Song, author of the Melody Malone Mysteries, is forced to find a reality-altering weapon, the Eye of Horus – but everyone who comes into contact with it dies. River doesn’t believe in curses – but is she wrong?
From the top-security confines of Stormcage to the barbarism of first-century Egypt, River battles to find the Eye of Horus before its powers are used to transform the universe. To succeed, she must team up with a most unlikely ally – her own fictional alter ego, Melody. And together they must solve another mystery: Is fiction changing into fact – or is fact changing into fiction?
The Ruby’s Curse sees River Song breaking into her prison cell at Stormcage so she can write the next Melody Malone novel in peace. That novel (also titled The Ruby’s Curse for reasons that become apparent by the story’s end) sees Melody Malone hired to find the Eye of Horus, a ruby stolen from Cleopatra’s tomb, and then to investigate the murder of the man who hired her—a pretty typical, though deeply enjoyable, pulp plotline. Of course, nothing about River’s life is peaceful and she soon finds herself embroiled in a real-life mystery that mirrors the one she’s writing for Melody Malone in surprising ways. Eventually, the events of the Melody Malone story begin influencing River’s reality as she breaks Ventrian, a neighboring prisoner, out of Stormcage so they can find a mysterious, reality-altering weapon that kills all who use it before it can fall into the wrong hands and destroy the earth. The novel bounces back and forth between these narratives, weaving a surprisingly-meta story revolving around this mysterious Eye of Horus.
If that sounded too confusing, then maybe The Ruby’s Curse isn’t the book for you. In many ways, reading this novel felt like watching an exceedingly well-executed Steven Moffat episode of the show. There are so many moving pieces—all of them seemingly disparate, at first, but eventually crashing into a wild, timey wimey climax. Honestly, The Ruby’s Curse is difficult to talk about without going into spoilers. It’s the kind of mystery that works best when you know the least about it. Structurally, the Melody Malone storyline takes up the bulk of the first third of the book, with River’s storyline taking up the next third as elements of Melody’s story slowly bleed into River’s. The last third is where things go off the rail, in the best way possible, and to say any more than that would be to spoil a really good time. Let’s just say that it gets very meta, very quickly.
Everything about the plot just works, though. The Ruby’s Curse is a gripping mystery, from its first page to its last. It moves at a quick pace, spending just enough time on every element so that you know enough about what’s going on without spending too much time and letting the suspense simmer out. The fictional Ruby’s Curse is a little bit hard to follow at times, but there’s a narrative reason for that, so it’s not necessarily a complaint, I just loved it so much I wish I could’ve read more of it. As far as both narratives’ mysteries go, it’s probably possible to solve them if you pay close enough attention to the clues. I’ll just say that both solutions felt narratively earned and very satisfying, even if I felt the book’s ultimate climax ended a little too quickly. It’s not an unsatisfying ending, nor is it a cliffhanger; I just wish there’d been a little bit more time spent explaining what was happening in the climax. And the book really could’ve stood more of a denouement instead of its fairly abrupt ending.
But still, The Ruby’s Curse is such a fun read. It’s apparent just how much Kingston enjoys Doctor Who and understands River (a character she’s played off and on for over ten years). Every bit of The Ruby’s Curse reads like a love letter to both the character and the TV series. There are tons of little Doctor Who easter eggs (from a Silent guarding a certain Egyptian tomb, to little mentions of Amy and Rory, to surprise cameos), and a big part of the book’s fun is spotting all of these references Kingston’s littered throughout the story. It’s always nice to see the Doctor Who universe expanded like this, though there are probably a few contradictions here and there. But they’re pretty minor ones and they have no impact on the story whatsoever, so it’s easy to just write them off and enjoy the book for what it is.
It’s wildly impressive how easy it is to follow what’s going on. The whole idea of these two parallel narratives, one of them fictional within the world of the novel, could’ve been a nightmare to follow. But Kingston handles it with such grace, expertly weaving the narratives around each other so that when they finally collide, it feels like the novel’s been building up to it, and it works brilliantly. At first, the two storylines don’t seem connected and it’s not particularly difficult to follow what’s going on, but as the storylines converge and the lines between narrators blur, it’s wonderful just how easy it is to follow the plotline. It helps that Kingston ensures River and Melody have unique voices—they sound similar, but different enough that it’s immediately apparent who is narrating which chapter. River sounds exactly like she does in the show and it’s so easy to read her narration in Kingston’s voice. And Melody Malone’s narration is written in this delightful, tongue-in-cheek pastiche of hardboiled detective prose.
The biggest joy of the book, actually, is how well it develops River’s character. More than ever, River Song feels like a fully fleshed-out person in this book. We get all of her trademark flirtiness and confidence, sure, but we also get to see her vulnerable side. Not just regarding her relationship with the Doctor, but with her relationship with her parents, too. It’s genuinely moving seeing River’s concern for them crop up throughout the book. It’s moving seeing River have to confront bits of the trauma she’s experienced throughout her life—to be clear, this isn’t a book about River’s trauma, but it’s nice to see it handled in a more weighty manner instead of being used as a joke. Kingston even uses the character of Melody Malone as a sort of twisted mirror to River. Melody is almost this exaggerated version of how River views herself, and it’s so much fun seeing that idea play out throughout the book. Like I said, The Ruby’s Curse is a love letter to River Song and it really shows.
All in all, The Ruby’s Curse gave me exactly what I wanted. It’s funny, it’s action-packed, it’s clever, it’s got a good mystery, and it offers a much deeper look at River Song than we’ve previously been given. All of the Doctor Who easter eggs and meta storytelling is honestly icing on the cake. I’d have been happy enough with just the Melody Song plotline, but the way that Kingston tied Melody’s storyline with River’s made for an utterly unique experience. I honestly can’t think of another book quite like this, either within the Doctor Who franchise or outside of it. I mean, I’m sure there are plenty of books about fiction bleeding into reality, but I’m not sure there are any quite like this one. It’s a book you’ll want to read as quickly as possible, and then you’ll probably want to reread it so you can pick up on all of the things you missed in the first reading. If you’re a fan of River Song, this is a must-read.
4.5 out of 5 wands.