(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 26 February 2003.)
Oh, dear. Oh, dear oh dear oh dear. This is the first full-length novel from Big Finish, and they even went and got Justin Richards -- creator of Irving Braxiatel and one of the major influences on the character of Bernice Summerfield. Richards is known for his tightly-plotted thrillers, and this should have been no exception... so what went wrong? What turned this into the weakest novel Justin Richards has ever written, and a very unimpressive debut for the new Benny line?
What went wrong was the "tightly-plotted" part was missing from the "tightly-plotted thriller" that Richards usually writes. Again, let me say that I hate giving bad reviews to authors I enjoy, especially when said authors are in charge of commissioning books for the BBC Doctor Who line. However, this one has holes in the plot that you can drive a Mack truck through. The first and most fundamental one is the question of how Straklant, the villain of the piece, used Josiah Vanderbilt's identi-disc to get into the Braxiatel Collection when we're told, several times over the course of the novel, that the identi-discs are keyed to a person's individual bio-patterns. (Apparently, he "alters" the identi-discs. Well, if they can be altered so easily and thoroughly that nobody notices the difference between a thirty-something man with a false arm and a two-armed eighty-seven year old, it's not a very good security measure, is it?) Plot problems continue with Straklant, mainly because he's so laughably obvious a villain that it astonished me that Benny and Brax bought his line of patter for even thirty seconds, let alone four-fifths of the novel. He's an agent for a Nazi-esque government called the Fifth Axis, he's impersonating a scientist who can't be reached by any means, he's just killed a man right in front of your eyes, and yet nobody suspects for even a moment that he might be lying when he says it was all in self-defence because the other man was trying to steal an artifact... which wasn't recorded in the collection, and which the other man had no apparent motivation to steal. The story is so fishy that you could serve it with chips, and yet Benny and Brax buy it wholesale.
Add to that the fact that Straklant is so obviously, over the top, ludicrously evil. He kills people he has no reason to kill, and in fact every reason not to. He's traveling with Benny, he's trying to maintain cover, and so what does he do? He doubles back and/or lingers not once but twice to kill someone who's cooperated with them simply because he's that evil. Never once does it apparently occur to him that if Benny wonders what's taking him so long, he's just blown his cover six ways from Sunday. Oh, and when Benny asks about his delays, he gives those "bad guy puns" that always sound like announcements to the effect of "I JUST KILLED THAT MAN!!!!!!" Benny's failure to put two and two together about Straklant utterly sinks this novel.
Which is a shame, because apart from that huge, massive, gaping, grit-your-teeth-every-second-and-wonder-how-your-favorite-character-has-become-a-congenital-idiot plot hole, there's a lot to like in this book. Richards once again nails Benny and Brax perfectly, adding it to a string of great portrayals of the archaeologist. There's some funny bits, some touching bits, and a bizarre, yet cool chase/fight scene involving killer cameras. There are a few continuity holes from The Dead Men Diaries (Benny has Joseph Mark II throughout DMD, but receives him here for the first time), but on the whole, if not for the unbelievability of the villain and the horrible, horrible levels of stupidity required on the part of the heroes to advance the plot, this could have been a wonderful little romp. It's just that the one big plot hole is just too damned big to ignore.