The last best hope

by Melody Clark

A review by Pat Fenech

'The last best hope' is set four years after Gauda Prime, a Gauda Prime which they all survive and overcome to finally defeat the Federation. Blake is now President of a democratic Refederation but his government is in grave difficulties, opposed even from within its own ranks by conservatives who find his liberal policies just too progressive. Not a remarkably novel scenario you might think, read it before, you might think - ah, but you have *not*, not as it is spun from the imagination of Melody Clarke, for within this familiar framework she has set a rare jewel of imaginative story-telling quite unlike any other 'Blakes 7' story I have ever read.

It is a story developed very much from what we saw in the series but even more from what we did not see; from what might have been implied by some of the largely unexplained oddities. It is a story which, as far as I noticed, while never departing from the 'canon' transforms it by admirably applied imaginative ingenuity into something quite wonderfully different, revealed piece by intricate piece, as Blake fights to save all he has achieved from ruin.

It is awfully tempting to enthuse, at length, about how such seemingly unconnected elements of the 'canon' as The System and Vila's observations about Avon being more like a computer than a human being become integral parts of this new telling of the story of 'Blakes 7'; to marvel at the imaginative way they and so much else we saw and heard have been woven into the design, but it is a temptation I will resist for to say anything more would be to spoil the surprises in store for those who read this story. They are surprises which will delight, amaze, charm, entertain and move you but should be savoured one by one as they are revealed to further the story which emerges so interestingly from the reassembling of the elements Melody has chosen as her framework.

Instead I will enthuse about the writing which is *very* special. It is everywhere admirable. One moment it is charming the imagination with the enchanting image of white unicorns flying from the gates of a castle conjured from rainbow light, the next engaging the intellect with a discussion of the effects of certain types of directed education, while weaving both elements integrally into the unfolding pattern of the story. It is writing which creates and recreates characters with such depth and presence that they step off the page and into your mind (well, into mine anyway) vitally real and completely memorable.

The characters from the series are recalled lovingly and intricately, particularly Blake and Avon. Melody's characterisation of them both is clearly based upon close and thoughtful observation and they are both reproduced in all their endearing diversity; Blake's tendency to ease his anxieties with a burst of physical activity; Avon's magnetic eyes; Blake's warmth; Avon's steadfastly unacknowledged but evident protective instincts towards those who are victims of society in some way; Blake's basic optimism; Blake's morality encapsulated in one lovely line of dialogue. 'Far better we try to stop thinking of humans in those terms (that is, grading, categorising them).' and his pain captured in another, 'Blake sagged ... every agony of this world taking turns leaning against his soul.'-both so essentially Blake. And Avon, whose aggravating tendency to always be right is described wonderfully in this aside by Blake, ' ... Avon whose promises were back and cold and ineluctably hopeless, but perpetually reliable.' counterpoised against Blake's reaction to it, 'Why in hell did Avon always have to be right? Why not just once -just once- have it turn out the other way? Blake could go to Avon, with proof of Blake's faith and trust in some situation having been validated and say, "See, I told you it would all work out..." It suggests so much about both of them and their complex relationship in just a few words and I can do nothing but enjoy the insight it provides to them both and sigh in admiration at the literary skills which achieve it so effortlessly. Melody recreates Blake and Avon in all their moods but then takes us beyond to new ones, but ones which flow on naturally and very very believably from the more familiar ones. If you like Blake and Avon you will like them so much more by the time you reluctantly close the final page of 'The last best hope.'

But it is not just to Blake and Avon that imaginative interpretation and expansion beyond their series selves is applied. As the story progresses you meet a very likeable Dayna, subtly more mature but still so very recognisably the impetuous, emotional girl we knew. And there is Soolin. Still somewhat aloof, still her own woman, but with her sardonic nature sharpened interestingly, who has a penchant for amusingly nicknaming all her former crewmates and who, when Avon is hurt reads him Kafka, to 'cheer him up'. -funny, clever and so entertaining an image and comment on the both of them- and who exudes the strains of the boredom a lady of her inclinations would perhaps suffer when finding herself caught up in peacetime. And Tarrant, who I feel Melody has recreated in some depth. I know some Tarrant fans do not like the portrayal at all but it seems to me to make good use of the ambiguous impressions I have of Tarrant, a Tarrant who is by turns charming, loyal, devious, self-serving ... and who mentions the value of the lessons he has learnt from his association with Avon.

Having wonderfully recreated the familiar characters Melody then sets them among a cast of skilfully realised original characters. They are wonderfully complex, every bit as interesting and multi- layered as those from Blakes Seven and as such perfect foils for the cast characters and perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the series which gave us some fascinating supports some of whom we came to like almost as much as the leads. There is Sen Leusip, the idealist, whose real self is described in this wonderful way, 'confined with leg irons of despair in the prison of his private thoughts ... but the other Leusip survived; whole, alive and immutably free.' Stevan Change who had been an idealist in his youth but has become a politician, a practitioner of the possible, the dreams lost to expediency. Such a cleverly constructed character who you want to hate, but cannot quite, for he is too recognisably familiar - the hopeful idealist who bitter experience has taught to be a cynical pragmatist, almost. Sen Faroll, a bit player, but like so many bit players in Blakes Seven one that leaves an indelible impression, for in him Melody has somehow encapsulated the human cost of tyranny such as Federation practised against its citizens. They are lovely characters, ones that remain in your thoughts and affections.

Then the characters are set into a richly detailed thoughtscape. Melody's creation of place is everywhere striking. From the domes of Earth now with parks and open gates and air ducts regularly checked to ensure all traces of the tranquillising drugs are gone, to the quarters of Blake and Dayna with the most imaginative touches of decoration in them, into the offices of the Security forces now run by an old friend in a new role. to hospital corridors and rooms all familiar enough to be recognisably what they are intended to be but also different enough to suggest Refederated Earth. Then as the story unfolds we are taken, as we perhaps should be in Blakes Seven, out into space, to a Mars orbiting satellite, called, so evocatively, Areopagus, to the heart of the mystery Blake and Avon have begun to unravel,to one of the most memorable moments in this story replete with them.

I can also enthuse about the Melody's ingenious use of some of the seemingly unimportant moments in the series which are transformed in her imagination into ones of the greatest importance and illumination to the story. One such is that brief exchange in the teleport bay about Blake and Avon working on the Aquitar project( from 'Cygnus Alpha)':

Avon: Before I decided to put my talents to more profitable use ... I handled the computer analysis for a research project into matter transmission. It was based on a new alloy.

Blake: Aquitar.
Avon: That's right.
Blake: Yes, I worked on that project too.
Avon: Small world.
Blake: Large project.
Jenna: I didn't work on it.

an amusing moment, a nice exchange, but not one of much significance, or so it seemed, and yet as is so characteristic of this story, with an application of Melody's imagination, it becomes one of fundamental significance, a cornerstone to this new telling of the familiar story.

Or I can enthuse about the wonderfully interesting examination of the philosophical differences so much at the heart of Blake and Avon's personal battles. Melody has looked deeply into these characters we knew too briefly and in some senses rather too shallowly, has given the clues that are there careful thought and then proceeded to recreate them both in wonderful depth. She gives Blake's eternal optimism a most endearing underpinning of a set of deeply held beliefs and a convincing exposition and in the process deepens, explains, amplifies his character making him so very likeable. The warmth always so evident in him now radiates naturally from these admirable beliefs and in turn this suggests why those he comes in contact with find it difficult to resist the pull this exerts upon them. But not just Blake's optimism is given a convincing voice, so too is Avon's cynicism and Melody's ideas about the roots of his dark view are the most moving I have ever read.

I know this is repetitive but no matter what aspect I think about I keep thinking of the wonderful writing which sets out that particular aspect. It is writing which engages my emotions powerfully, frequently. It made me smile, laugh, hate, cry often and just as often knotted up my insides with its power and gripped my heart and mind with the story it tells. It is very special.

And another aspect I especially like is that Melody's ideas are so endlessly interesting. They remain after you have read it to mull over often. For throughout the course of the story she touches upon some of the most integral aspects of 'Blakes 7' which though integral are rarely given much thought. Aspects such as the philosophical complexities of the whole idea of rebellion; the cost of rebellion to those who take up its banner intellectually and personally and the choices faced and made in rebellion's name which involve a weighing up between the abstraction of pursuing the greater good and the singular and personal cost this may have on individuals, as well as the question of whether the good of the known individual can ever be more important than the good of the unknown many. It looks so very sympathetically at the mistakes good, well-intentioned idealists make in pressing what they believe is the higher good too single-mindedly and the cost to them when they discover their mistake. It looks at the wonderful nobility of some human spirits and reminds us that the best of humanity is always worthy of notice and admiration. All the way from the abstract to the very particular the writing continues to engage mind and emotion, as in the lovely particular of Avon's striking face, ' ... Those dark eyes, both impervious and bottomless that held his gaze in such fascinated bondage ... now he was far more than simply beautiful: this face contrasted that concept and made beauty a poor cousin to the truth.' a lovely description, but when you read it in context it conveys just as much about the character who thinks it as it does about Avon and such examples can be found in every paragraph.

I cannot say I liked 'The last best hope', like is much too colourless and drab a word to describe my reactions to this wonderful story. I love it; love the wonderfully positive portrayal of Blake and Avon; love the beauty and power of the writing; love the way it engages my heart and my mind and I just love it more each time I have read it since. It is so rich and dense that there are always new delights to discover no matter how many times I do reread it. But nothing will ever be as wonderful as the first time when I eagerly turned page after fascinating page discovering the new story of 'Blakes 7' that Melody Clarke has imagined. It may not be as some would imagine the story but it is as I would have liked to.

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