Engines of War does the nearly-impossible. It takes readers directly into the heart of the Time War.
On television, the Time War has been spoken about in hushed tones and angry outbursts; the conflict that drove Eight to despair, gave Nine a mammoth case of survivor’s guilt, and denied throughout Ten and Eleven’s existence. The Daleks and Time Lords waged war over all of time and space, ambushing and ambushing ambushes, meddling in timelines and alternate realities, changing history, doing anything and everything to gain the smallest advantage over the other. The entire universe was caught in the crossfire. Whole species were wiped out without notice, entire galaxies thrown off their axis, and planets where the entire population became casualties were considered nothing more than skirmishes by the combatants. By the War’s end, when abominations such as the Horde of Travesties and the Could-Have-Been-King were commonplace, very few people could tell the difference between Time Lord and Dalek. Such a proclamation is what drove the Eighth Doctor to renounce his very name, becoming “Doctor no more” as he picked up a bandolier and joined the Time War. This War Doctor is an incarnation that the other Doctors choose not to remember, as he did the unspeakable in their eyes, using his intellect and skills to fight in a war instead of saving lives.
Engines of War is a story told of the War Doctor near the end of his life, after countless years of fighting against the Daleks. High above the Dalek-occupied planet of Moldox, located in the heart of the Tantalus Spiral star cluster , the Doctor leads a series of Battle TARDIS’s into an ambush against the Daleks. On the planet below, Cinder waits to ambush a passing Dalek patrol. For fifteen years, ever since the Daleks crashed through her living room wall and exterminated the rest of her family, Cinder has been fighting, hiding, and running from the Daleks. When the Doctor’s TARDIS crashes onto Moldox’s surface, Cinder shares a dark truth with the Doctor – that the Daleks are no longer exterminating humans on sight, but rather taking them captive…
The Doctor soon discovers the truth. The Daleks have assembled a massive fleet in the Tantalus Spiral and are using human prisoners as test subjects for a variety of ghastly experiments, including the building and implementation of a temporal weapon whose sole purpose is to wipe Gallifrey’s very existence from history! Bringing this news to the Time Lords and their President, Rassilon, the Doctor is horrified as Rassilon’s response; to use the Tear of Isha to collapse a temporal tear inside the Tantalus Spiral and wipe the Dalek fleet from the universe. The fact that twelve planets and their inhabitants will be destroyed means nothing to Rassilon or the High Council. The Doctor soon realizes that in order to save the citizens of the Tantalus Spiral, he will have to someone stop the Daleks from utilizing their temporal weapon as well as betray his own species and prevent them from committing genocide…
George Mann has several science fictions novels and numerous short stories, including the Eleventh Doctor novel Paradox Lost. Mann’s style is descriptive, but not pondorous. I read Engines of War, a 300 page novel, in about 90 minutes. Mann does a superb job with Engines of War, creating a solid, riveting story. Russell T Davies has stated that the ideal depiction of the Time War would be “impossible to put on screen.” Mann gets around this by utilizing the written word and not getting bogged down in the details of the Time War. The war is front and center, as seen by the destruction and ongoing subjugation of Moldox, the numerous soldiers and weapons the Daleks bring to play, and even the efforts of the Time Lords to tuck the war away in the farthest corners of the Citadel, with the War Room far away from the high galleries. But the only direct description of any Time War concept from the television show comes from the opening to the story, as Cinder hides from a patrol of Daleks with several Skaro Degradations in tow. The Skaro Degradations, as described by Mann, are experiments by the Daleks on their own kind to “retro-evolve” their own genomes. A mix of radiation and temporal tampering give rises to abominations such as Gliders, limbless torsos in a glass case with twin Dalek cannons on either side. It’s a simple description, and Mann doesn’t spend much time on the explanation beyond the initial description, but the thought of Daleks, who value “purity,” going to far as to screw with their own “pure genome” to gain an edge over the Time Lords shows just how dedicated to victory and exterminations they are. On the other side of the coin, the Time Lords are desperate and Mann shows it by how much the Time Lords don’t show it. They follow Rassilon’s orders without hestitation, with little debate and total acquiescence. If Rassilon says that destroying twelve planets is a small price to pay to save Gallifrey, then the Time Lords will support it. Even in their desperation, the Doctor proclaims, the Time Lords get their hands dirty by pretending to be above it all, even if Rassilon has performed some temporal genetic engineering to create things such as the “possibility engine” and Interstatials.
Mann also avoids one of the major pitfalls of trying to write the Doctor, and that’s by NOT trying to get inside his head. The Doctor has always been clever, but it’s a non-ecludian type of clever. A doesn’t lead to B, which doesn’t lead to C. Instead, A leads to Q which leads to Delta which leads to fnord which leads to the solution, skids right past it, and does a bootlegger turn to finally solve the problem. Nearly the entirety of the Doctor’s actions and thoughts are told through his companion for the novel Cinder. Readers will recognize the Doctor and some of his mannerisms, such as his wide eyed grin when diving into danger and his mix of disdain and affection for those he takes under his wing, as well as the eternal optimism and hope hidden under an exterior beaten down by his decisions during the Time War, and the anger that comes through when confronting the War Council about there being another way. But instead of the hot bursts of anger that Ten and Eleven would show, the War Doctor gives a weary anger, as if all this has happened before and will happen again.
At the same time, seeing the Doctor eagerly lead a Time Lord ambush to destroy a fleet of Daleks, or storming across a table to choke a fellow Time Lord, is shocking. Mann doesn’t go down the rabbit hole of describing all the horrible things the War Doctor has done, but instead gives the readers of Engines of War a Doctor who is familiar, but still different enough to raise a few eyebrows. Mann also gets around the concept of “Doctor no more” by telling Cinder he used to be called the Doctor, hence the constant use of his name by his companion.
And what of Cinder? Hints of Ace easily shine through with Mann’s creation; a tough young woman who’s the product of her circumstances. She’s known nothing but a war against the Daleks for the past fifteen years, but as soon as the Doctor hints at the opportunity of doing more than taking a potshot at a passing patrol, she leaps at the chance. It’s through Cinder’s eyes that the story of Engines of War unfolds as she sees the brutality of the Daleks and the callousness of the Time Lords, all as she reaches and grasps for something bigger beyond her home planet. Cinder doesn’t just serve as the mouthpiece, however. Mann gives her vital roles throughout the story, both to kick the Doctor into high gear when he feels there’s no more he can do as well as simply kicking butt when need be. Her final fate should come as no surprise to anyone, but for the purposes of this story, Cinder is a vital, vibrant, and unique part that readers will remember after they put the novel down. The supporting cast does what it needs to. We have the Time Lord with a conscious in the Castellan, the Time Lord lackey of Rassilon in Karlax, and the Timothy Dalton-esque Rassilon himself, who chews so much scenery that I swear some spittle flew off the page.
The plot itself has all the trappings of a Doctor Who story. There’s lots of running around, lots of action, lots of moments of tension, a scene where the Doctor and his companion are thrown in jail, a couple of “this shouldn’t work/that can’t work/there’s no way that worked” moments, a fitting death for one of the villains (Karlax’s death is incredibly satisfying), and moments of drama that lead to a big decision on the Doctor’s part. Overall, Mann puts the pieces together into a very well done story that does something very, very difficult; telling a Time War story without going over the top and bogging down with description and exposition. If I had one complaint about this tale, it’s that way too often, “The Doctor smiled,” or “The Doctor laughed.” The War Doctor is still the Doctor, but he’s a little too happy at times for my tastes.
Engines of War doesn’t directly lead into the Doctor seeking out the Moment in an effort to end the Time War, but you can definitely see the farmhouse from the closing paragraph. Gregory Mann tells the story of a pivotal moment in the existence of the War Doctor, where he begins to realizes just how far things are gone and that, maybe, he will have to be the one to stop not just the Time War, but his own people. It’s definitely a recommend read for fans of Doctor Who.
Note – there’s an audio book of Engines of War as well, voiced by, who else, Nicholas Briggs, who apparently does an excellent John Hurt.