Description: Rory as a Roman Centurion, potentially in Combat Magicks
One of the three BBC Books novels released alongside S11, Steve Cole’s Combat Magicks takes Team TARDIS into 5th Century Gaul as the Romans and Huns prepare for battle – but why is the night sky glowing, and who are the mysterious Tenctrama aiding all sides?
With Attila the Hun’s world co-opted by alien “magicks”, it’s only a matter of time before the Doctor and Yasmin are recruited as his sorcerers. Of the three books, I chose Combat Magicks because the presence of Yaz on the front cover implied that she would be given a focus that was sadly lacking in Series 11, and in that respect the novel delivers! The story is told largely from the point of view of the companions in turn, finally giving us an insight into Yaz’s internal monologue, and some tidbits about her life. Furthermore, she is given the opportunity to shine as she accompanies the Doctor at the heart of the action.
As for the rest of the team/gang/fam, they find themselves separated for much of the novel, which I’m sure they’ll be used to by now! While the Doctor and Yaz are heralded as witches, Ryan encounters the anachronous Legion of Smoke, and Graham is taken for a healer by the Roman leaders. Throughout Series 11 (and, indeed, the periods of classic Doctor Who with a larger main cast), I often find this separation to be simply a convenient way of removing a character or two so the rest can be fully included in a relatively short timeframe. Here, though, it has the opposite effect; giving each companion their own strands of the story means they all have adequate time to shine. On the other hand, this does mean there are a lot of new characters and plot lines to keep up with, so perhaps reading it in short sections on my daily commute wasn’t the best approach!
That said, once you’ve reminded yourself of what’s going on, each of the novel’s threads are as engaging as each other. The constant presence of the Tenctrama – sometimes in the background, but always there – makes for genuinely creepy villains, going beyond the anticipated witchy tropes to wreak havoc across history. Cole takes full advantage of both the battlefield setting and the freedom from the financial and technological limitations of television to create threats on a massive scale….
Something I particularly appreciated about Combat Magicks is that Ryan’s dyspraxia is part of his character throughout – not clunkily inserted for the sake of it, not always even referred to by name, but the stumbles, loss of control and subsequent frustration is a theme running throughout the novel. There’s a point relatively early on in which Ryan falls while running to escape from the battling empires, changing the course of the entire plot. I found it powerful that his neurodivergence is incorporated seamlessly into this classic chase scenario by the novel, rather than being ignored when inconvenient (as I felt was sometimes the case in Series 11). His later adventures with the Legion of Smoke also provide some brilliant nods to the Doctor’s past meetings with the Romans, notably in The Fires of Pompeii (and the Doctor’s gender change since then, referenced in a way that may have made me laugh out loud on a packed Tube carriage!).
In many ways, Combat Magicks fits some overarching themes in the episodes broadcast alongside it; it’s a historical, at least loosely speaking, and features the Doctor grappling with tragedies that she cannot undo. If, like me, you were a big fan of the recent series, this is definitely worth a read, and even those who were less keen might find the extra space of the novel format helps to make up for the series’ shortcomings. It’s certainly convinced me to pick up the next two!