A coach full of unidentified tourists crashes, killing everyone on board. Meanwhile in the Welsh village of Llanfairnoch; the local vet thinks he’s found a unicorn, two American students stumble upon a wounded centaur and the Doctor and Ace are drawn to a mysterious stone circle. A mysterious stone circle that just so happens to be the gateway to the mythical kingdom of Nir Na-nOg…
Russell T Davies famously had an idea to write a Christmas special in which the world of JK Rowling’s novels are brought to life. An idea which David Tennant eventually put the kibosh on. (Of the many things to thank Tennant for, this ranks pretty highly)
In Andrew Hunt’s Witchmark we’re presented with a similar premise, replacing wizards and witches with unicorns and centaurs. As daft as it sounds, and as dreary as the fantasy kingdom set opening chapters are, Witchmark plays out much like a 70s era UNIT serial; Strange goings on in a idyllic village, locals with secrets, and a host of memorable characters. One such character is the Fox Mulderesque Detective Stevens who takes up the Doctor’s role of investigator once he’s indisposed in Tir na-nOg.
His investigation into the bus crash and its links to the village and the mysterious Emrys Hughes is what keeps you turning the pages. It’s not often in Doctor Who that you’d much rather spend time with the supporting characters but it’s true here, the strange goings on in Llanfairnoch are far more interesting than the dreary quest the Doctor and Ace are sent on. That’s not to say that the novel completely falls apart whenever the Doctor and Ace are interacting with a stampede of telepathic unicorns or negotiating with an army of centaurs.
Hunt conveys his world well, the dying sun and barren landscape and the addition of the mysterious tyre tracks gives the Doctor and Earth based trail to follow. As they get further towards the “evil sorcerer” they must best, you do buy into the setting much more as it becomes clearer and clearer there’s a perfectly rational explanation for all this. So it’s rather a shame when presented with the scientific explanation that it all seems far goofier and sillier than there being an actual mystical kingdom of unicorns and centaurs.
The being that has condemned the kingdom to its death is actually conducting a sociological experiment and has populated this genetically engineered society with creatures inspired by Earth mythology and the works of Tolkien. I can’t quite decide if that’s better, or worse than “futuristic theme park gone wrong”.
The novel builds to an exciting enough climax, a final battle with the demons (experiments gone wrong) featuring the Doctor on the back of a biomechanic dragon, Tir Na-nOg saved and everyone returning safely back to Earth.
Thankfully, Witchmark was not the goofy hard fantasy story I had been expecting, leaving me pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable it became from the halfway mark.
The only thing left to wrap up is the flimsy arc that’s held the previous three novels together, repairing the TARDIS and reconnecting it to the Eye of Harmony. It’s dealt with in such a matter of fact incomprehensible science fictiony way with “morphologically unstable living organic matter” required for “block transfer computation”. The Cat’s Cradle novels have, for the most part, been engaging and exciting Doctor Who stories bogged down by a loosely hanging arc based on hard science and mathematics. More early 80s than late 80s Doctor Who perhaps.
NEXT TIME: Scary monsters in an English village? A cast of colourful locals? It can only be the work of Mark Gatiss!