When, at long last, I finally managed to get my hands on a copy of Paul Darrow's infamous novel, Avon: A Terrible Aspect, I wasn't sure if I was pleased. Well that's not true in fact, I most certainly was pleased seeing how long I'd waited to get a copy of it. It wasn't until my sister went on holiday to New York a couple of years ago and somehow found a copy of it for me that I could finally get to read it.
What I wasn't sure about was, should I have been pleased? Wasn't that dangerous? Wasn't I setting myself up for a tragic disappointment? And in the end, wasn't disappointment the very thing I was to expect? Hadn't every review of the book I had ever read been completely scathing? Hadn't they accused Paul Darrow of clearly lacking even a fraction of the literary talent necessary to write professionally? Hadn't the overwhelming majority opinion been a ferocious declaration of dislike, disgust and hatred for all things Paul Darrow? Hadn't there been a total banishment of Paul Darrow from the hearts and minds of all people, and an outraged quest to have him strung up, gutted and dismembered with a blunt pair of scissors for daring to inflict such unholy dross on the devoted audience he was so heinously betraying?
Er... well no, the book hadn't been that badly received. But the general view of it from those who'd expressed an opinion, be they Blake's 7 fans or otherwise, had been distinctly negative. So I was a little wary upon opening it, dreading the inevitable offence to my sensibilities that was surely to follow.
So, doubtless I'm going to be accused of mental instability and perhaps then I'll be strung up, gutted and dismembered with a blunt pair of scissors for daring to say this;-
I quite enjoyed Avon: A Terrible Aspect.
I'll just pause there to allow everyone the ten seconds they need to vomit up the traditional seventy five bags of sick in response to me daring to make such a suggestion in their presence...
Better? Good. To continue...
While there are undoubtedly shortcomings to the novel, I really can't understand what all the outrage is about. No it isn't a stand-out classic, but I challenge anyone to name me a Blake's 7 book that ever was. The three novelizations by Trevor Hoyle are hurried, have a lazy feel, and fail to use most of the countless opportunities to flesh out the characters, the Programme Guide by Tony Attwood is riddled with sloppy errors, and the less said about his novel Afterlife the better. Against that backdrop of dross, I happen to think that Paul Darrow's first contribution with the pen is actually fairly good.
The storyline starts on Phax, one of the moons of Uranus, about twenty eight years before the events of The Way Back. The Sol system has been torn apart by a civil war between the Federation and a large alliance of dissident groups. Although the Federation has won (doesn't it always?) the clean-up operations in the settlements on the outer edge of the system have become a messy, brutal business, and one of the Federation's enforcers, assigned to kill off any dissidents he can find, deserts when he can stomach no more of the bloodshed, and tries to escape. He flees across the surface of the moon for several days until, in the desert, he finds somewhere he can lie low, the home of a woman called Mara and her teenage daughter, Rowena.
The man, Rogue Avon, spends a night with Rowena, who conceives his child. Avon then retreats to Earth to settle a score with his half-brother, Axel Reiss, a man who sits on the High Council no less. Avon is killed in confrontation with him near the north polar cap. When she learns of this some months later, Rowena swears that she or her newborn son, Kerguelen - meaning "Desolation" - will take revenge.
Several years later, Rowena and her family retreat from Phax to Saturn Major, where, shortly after arrival, Mara dies from an allergic reaction to the slightly different air of the moon. The surgeon who tends to her as she is dying is a very rich Alpha Grade called Pi Grant, who falls in love with Rowena at first sight. They soon marry and she and Kerguelen become members of the Grant household. The boy is renamed "Kerr", as the other members of the household find the translation of "Kerguelen" a bit too macabre for their liking. Grant has two children of his own - Del and Anna.
For the next few years, Kerr, Del and Anna are brought up in extreme privilege and luxury in the higher grade society of Saturn Major. But Kerr is also being brought up by Rowena to seek revenge on Axel Reiss. He proves to be a student of astonishing gifts, especially in languages and mathematics, and of ruthless cunning in combat training. He is seen as a real prospect for the highest echelons of the military, perhaps even the legendary Iron Guard.
At fifteen he is sent to Earth to attend the Iron School itself, where Del has already been studying for some years. But while they are there, Axel Reiss has discovered Rowena's plan and heads to the moons of Saturn, where he and his troops murder her and Pi Grant. He takes Anna captive and returns her to Earth, where he starts training her as a security agent and plans to use her against Avon should the time come for a showdown.
Years later, Avon is drafted into the military for a mission on Nereid, the moon of Neptune, where there has been a fresh revolt. There Avon learns from one of the rebels the truth about his mother's murder, and the threat he faces from the High Council, in the form of Axel Reiss.
Avon returns to Earth where he is offered a place in one of the nine Aristocratic Houses of the High Council itself. This family is the very Cartel that runs the Federation Banking System. He accepts and, with the help of one of the ambassadors for the Cartel called Maco, and a colleague named Tynus, Avon attempts to lift five hundred million credits from the System. With this money, he and Anna plan to escape from Earth and hide in the "Children" worlds, a scattering of neutral moons orbiting Jupiter that are ignored by the Federation because of their lack of mineral wealth.
First though, Avon must rid himself of Axel Reiss, just as he had sworn to his mother that he would, to clear the path for their escape. They battle on the icy wastes of the same polar region in which Reiss had killed Rogue Avon over a quarter of a century before. Although he is wounded in the battle, Kerr, with further help from Tynus, is eventually able to gun down his aging uncle.
When Avon returns to (comparative) civilisation to look for Anna, he instead finds Maco who has procured the exit visas needed to get them off the planet. Suddenly though he draws a gun on Avon and tells him that Anna is dead. He further explains that all the stolen money has instead gone to his, Maco's, account, giving him the means to escape from the High Council's oppressive scrutiny.
Intending to cover his own tracks, Maco then tries to kill Avon, but the bullet only wounds him. Avon manages to strangle the life out of Maco before another shot can be fired. As Avon tries to escape, Federation troops arrive and arrest him.
Several months later, having been found guilty of fraud Avon is deported to the penal colony of Cygnus Alpha.
Well to be honest the book really isn't that bad at all. Maybe I just think it's pretty good because it so exceeded my expectations after all the bad reviews I'd read, but even so, I can't find a great deal to fault in it. Sure, there are some careless continuity flubs between this and the TV episodes Killer, Countdown and , but they're really nothing major. If you've got a previously established continuity to fit a story into you might as well try and get it right, but sometimes I think that fans can take that side of things too seriously. As far as I'm concerned, as long as a story isn't overflowing with them, and as long as they aren't really big, the odd blooper here and there is simply part of the fun.
Still, the flubs are there, and they can be irritating depending on your point of view. From my own, I think they're just errors in the details, whereas the broader plot gets things pretty well spot on. Here are the ones I've noticed though...
The implication in Rumours Of Death appeared to be that Anna never met the man who was providing the exit visas, or at least claimed that she hadn't, and yet here it's established before the scheme is even hatched that she has known Maco for some time, and even meets him in Avon's presence. Maco was also supposed to demand a huge price for the visas, yet this never happens in the indicated scene, and instead he just wants to kill Avon, end of story. The bit where Avon, having passed out through blood loss, is hidden from Federation Security by some unnamed do-gooders never happens, and he even learns of Anna's "death" straight away, instead of after a week has elapsed. His arrest is immediately after killing Maco whereas it was supposed to be after he had recovered from his injury. There is also no sign of Del Grant warning Avon that he'd kill him if they ever met again, not or Avon learning about Anna being tortured to death by Shrinker.
But as I say, these are all just details that affect only the mechanics of Avon's capture instead of contradicting the story as a whole. The essential stuff is all in there, so they really aren't anything but a few petty niggles that can, and should, be ignored.
Another minor flub is the description of Cygnus Alpha as a "new aquisition" of the Federation. A bizarre suggestion considering Vargas indicated that it was a Federation penal colony before the time of his great-grandfather. But again it's only a background detail, and therefore it doesn't really matter.
I'm not too sure about the portrayal of the High Council in this. It seems a little too informal and casual in its nature, more like a decadent Royal court than the arch authority of an efficient, militarised, over-wheening, fascist regime. We never saw the Council in session before of course, but somehow I just can't see the likes of Joban, Rontane and Bercol working in the offbeat political atmosphere shown here. I'd have expected something a little more like the House of Commons, where no matter how heated things get, there is always a stringent formality of the starched tie variety.
There are some very nicely built background details, setting up such future developments as the Intergalactic War, with various hints pointing to the possibility of an oncoming war with the Andromedans.
On the other hand, Axel Reiss is not the most imaginative villain that we're ever likely to see. He may be clever and brave, but essentially he's just another madman. I mean who'd notice another madman in the Federation? The fact that he's prepared to waste enormous resources and even many lives in the pursuit of a personal vendetta is made to sound a lot more shocking and remarkable than it actually is. Does the name Travis ring any bells?
Some of the details surrounding the death of Avon's father in the early stages of the book have the feel of being overlong and padded out, probably just an excuse to include a number of unnecessary sex scenes, but again you'll find a lot worse in the script of any Hollywood blockbuster.
One of the things I was curious to see was what Paul Darrow's portrayal of Avon himself would be. Now a lot of people take issue with Darrow's supposedly unsympathetic view of Avon, and I had my suspicions that this might be what was at the core of many of the criticisms aimed at the book. The general gist is that Darrow doesn't understand him at all, and that his view of Avon as a self-serving bastard therefore fails to do justice to the complexity of the character.
Personally, I'm not entirely sure what they mean, as I find that his view is largely in accord with the general one - he describes the negative aspects of Avon's personality in much cruder terms than, say, Chris Boucher does, but I find that when you break it down, the meaning is usually the same. And in the end, self-interest is Avon's god. In the crudest terms, he is a self-serving bastard, it's just that it's not the be-all and end-all of his character, not by a long way. I was sure before reading the book that Darrow is well aware of that.
I'm glad to say after reading it that my impression was correct. While it was a pity that Avon didn't get more of those deadpan one-liners of his that we all relish, for the most part I found that this was very much the man we know, and that Darrow does understand the character very well indeed - he should do, seeing how he helped to create him, to say nothing of how long he played the part. Kerr Avon is cold and untrusting, and he has his ruthless tendancies, but, as with the calm, rational Avon we know from the series, they are ones that he only practices when he has no realistic alternative. And before anyone says otherwise, the killings of Sabbath, Reiss and Maco were entirely in keeping with this - in all of these cases he couldn't possibly let them live or they would have killed him.
We also glimpse Avon's better, more vulnerable, side. As a boy, he was in tears at the death of his grandmother, not as much as other children of his age would be perhaps, but still it truly affected him. More importantly, it is made very clear that he does genuinely love Anna, and the shock he feels on hearing of her "death" I found convincing and even quite moving.
The real downside to the portrayal of Avon is not one of personality so much as of time. He is made out to be in his mid-to-late twenties when he is deported, which sounds very dubious. Darrow explains it away very simply, by describing him on numerous occasions as "looking a lot older than he is". It's not just in his physical appearance that I have my doubts though. He appears in this to have led a sheltered life before attempting the bank fraud, and yet during his time on the Scorpio, you get the powerful impression of a man who has seen absolutely everything that the world can show you, a man of great experience as well as knowledge, and therefore no little cynicism. For him to have been in his late twenties and hardly been anywhere outside his childhood home, bar the Academy, is borderline implausible.
Taking the plot as a whole, it's a mix of the usual "I-will-avenge-my-family" stuff that ceased to be fresh around the time that Michael Caine made Get Carter. But what sets Aspect apart from many others of its type, and even makes it a little poignant for me, is that the one who takes that vengeance is not actually the one who wanted it. Avon, always rational, and who never met his father in any case, is a reluctant avenger, while the one who has that unquenchable thirst, his mother, dies a horrible, slow death at the hands of a crew of mutoids long before her plans can bear fruit. Indeed it even drove something of a wedge between her and her son, as he clearly couldn't see the point of her quest, and even resented her a little for foisting it on him. He predicted before he went to study at the Iron School that he would never see her again, so sure was he of her own self-destructiveness. As usual he was right. His sobs after finally fulfilling his vow are probably a reflection of how futile Rowena's feud with Axel Reiss had been.
It would be a maudlin lie to suggest that the book is brilliantly well written, because in truth it's hit-and-miss. While it does have a tendancy to suddenly let several years flood past without warning, for the most part it has a fairly even pace. However Darrow makes the same mistake as so many inexperienced writers by using far too many adverbs - I can't deny I've got that particular bad habit myself when I write fanfics. By the same measure, many of the descriptive passages were a bit brief, a sign that Darrow was perhaps in too much of a hurry to get on with the dialogue, another bad habit of inexperienced writers (one that I'm proud to say I trained out of myself before I even left school).
But once again we have to be careful not to overstate these problems - just because it's not brilliantly written, we shouldn't make the mistake of insisting that therefore it must be badly written, because it isn't that either. Overall, I'd say that it's certainly a better job than Trevor Hoyle did of the novelisations (yes, I know it wasn't really Hoyle's fault, the deadlines he was given to write them in were much too strict, but that doesn't change the fact that they were third-rate), and it hammers Afterlife right out of sight.
None of that is anywhere near enough to make it a great book of course, but I don't think we should really be expecting one. is still a decent book, and even that's better than the long-suffering fans of Blake's 7 are used to. So if you're one such fan who hasn't read it before, I cautiously recommend you ignore all the feeble old puns about Avon: A Terrible Novel or and give it a try. You may find it a bit of a departure in style from what you're used to, you may even find it hard to accept it as canonical, but it's still entertaining enough in its own right. And in the end, that's the most important judgement you can make of any story.
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