Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Bernice Summerfield: Life During Wartime

The Fall
Bernice returns home to the Collection and things aren’t how she expected. In just a few pages Paul Cornell briefs us on the setting and purpose of this collection and just from the very tone of it you can see how different it’s going to be. Both of the previous collections have suffered from a lack of purpose and cohesion, this time, apparently not.

Careless Talk
Here the introduction of Bev Tarrant in the Bellotron Incident starts to pay off. As the hard bitten moral vacuum Bernice could never be, Bev manages to take control of the resistance whereas her contemporary academic is powerless to act, and eventually ostracised for her inaction.
I was a bit surprised by the reappearance of the Oracle of the Lost, but it does demonstrate the importance of the collection AS a collection rather than a place to live. It’s interesting that even in this short story you can see a level of depth of complexity developing behind the scenes; Braxiatel plays a delicate game, conning the Axis whilst remaining her prisoner, whilst Bernice struggles for those small victories that ultimately mean nothing in the end.
It’s a great first story of the collection and a promising sign of things to come.
9 / 10

The Birthday Party
Marshall Mushtaq Anson is introduced here as an important figure in the Axis, depicted as an apparent ‘moderate’ man, the friendly face of fascism, someone Benny can talk to. He’s also introduced alongside a pretty awkward situation where a student has been shot for no reason. Simon Guerrier crafts a sensitive tale, expanding on what seems to become the theme of this novel; difficult choices and making the best of what you have.
7 / 10

Five Dimensional Thinking
Explanations about Braxiatel’s house arrest, and the search for his time equipment, start to fall here. Or rather questions start to emerge. Brax’s predicament underlines the whole collection and the problem presented by Nick Wallace, Brax’s bungled attempt at a solution, is a sign of just how deep that problem is. Now Braxiatel isn’t the Doctor, so the effect of seeing him chance everything with such an act of violence isn’t quite as shocking but it does show something.
8 / 10

Meanwhile, In a Small Room, a Small Boy…
Roping in Robert Shearman to do anything is a triumph as far as I’m concerned and this short story is important. Unlike all of the others it doesn’t affect anything else, or change the world around it, but without this important glimpse into Peter’s mind the story would be deeply lacking. Although he credits Peter with an intelligence completely lacking on audio this is a powerful first look at a smart, problem solving young boy living in difficult times. Who knew what was to come…
10 / 10

Lockdown Conversations 1
Paul Cornell takes control again to remind us about the Axis as a whole and the larger scope of this collection.

The Price of Everything
Gregg Smith’s short piece highlights the reason Bernice hasn’t joined the Resistance and why. As the whole point of the series is a struggle for freedom we get a glimpse of what it might be like here, only at a terrible cost to the Collection as a whole.
9 / 10

HitFrantic, dangerous, scrambled… The fact that this collection is composed of many small segments by different authors and not one solitary vision pays dividends here because it’s the only way you’d get a glimpse of an event like this. Bernice almost becomes a casualty of the Resistance, and we get a scene once again of her siding with the invaders to preserve her moral highground. Short but powerful.
10 / 10

The Garden of Whispers
Ms Jones has never really been fleshed out properly. She appeared quite a few times in the early books but aside from offhand references to how frightening she could be, a few chance encounter with Mr Croften where they wind each other up, and a few chapters spent cooing over Benny’s cat we haven’t seen her the same way we’ve seen Adrian, Brax and Jason.
It’s a shame, therefore, that our first real glimpse into her life is also our first glimpse of Lt. Bernard Moskof, although that doesn’t diminish the impact of what happens here. Collaborator or forlorn lover, we may never know, but the most telling thing is the way Bernice isn’t sure until right at the end whether it was Ms Jones planting the bombs or not. Who can you trust?
9 / 10

Lockdown Conversations 2
One of the few complaints I have with the collection up to now is the lack of Adrian appearances. He makes up a full third of the front cover but never actually gets a chapter to himself. Even a short one, similar to Shearman’s Peter story, would round out an otherwise excellent world. Unfortunately there isn’t one so Paul Cornell takes his chance to remind us about what’s happening here, giving us the lowdown on not just Adrian but Jason as well. Its pretty horrible but given the events of the Green Eyed Monster and the Mirror Effect, and the new situation presented by the Axis Occupation, its all too easy to believe he might have fallen.

The Crystal Flower
Again I’m slightly dumbfounded by a reference to an artefact from a previous Bernice story, and unlike the Oracle of the Lost which become an important event in the early Resistance vs. Axis struggle the handing over of this crystal has no impact later on that I can see at all.
However, the intermittent story of the soldier fighting a war whilst his wife tends her garden, and the tragedy that follows is powerful. Even more powerful is the ending and the revelation of the identity of the soldier. Like Ms Jones, we never quite got to see who or what Mr. Crofton was. If this chapter is all he gets then he’s probably been well served because this is brilliant.
10 / 10

I’m not familiar with the folklore this story springs from but it is an interesting diversion from the main struggle of the axis. Whilst the resistance continues Ian Mond shows that the axis aren’t infallible, there are alien influences using them just as nefariously as they are using the collection.
9 / 10

Fear of Corners
I’m slightly confused by this peace although the ending is definitely an interesting idea, and one with great implications for Braxiatel. It’s already been established that he ‘does’ have something to hide, and his treatment of Jason is confusing. The concept of his ‘watcher’ attempting to force its way through, and settling for Bev’s body as a substitute is quite a good one.
8 / 10

The Traitors
Although we already have the tragic lovestory of Ms Jones and Lt Moskof, we get another small vignette here from Radek and Mesa. Hated on both side, the Resistance kill an innocent civilian and Axis soldier Radek allows himself to be sentenced to death in her absence. Pretty grim, but important to remind us of Benny’s reasons for not joining the resistance; she doesn’t like the axis but she doesn’t, cannot, approve of them.
9 / 10

Paths Not Taken
This unusual piece features a living statue, an unexploded bomb and a version of Bernice from the future. It all makes sense, and more insights into the dark world of Brax’s history are always appreciated, but it’s a little light compared to previous instalments.
7 / 10

Every Picture Tells a Story
Vosta has turned out to be a minor star of this collection and it’s a shame to see him die so early on, however this is an important piece. After so many stories of inaction and dithering its nice to show Bernice’s resolve to fight being strengthened, even if it took the death of a friend to spur her onwards. And Vosta’s final victory is a brilliant image.
9 / 10

Fluid Prejudice
Leif Larsson is one of those larger than life characters who turn up in stories and alter everything. The scripting of the tale, with Joseph attempting to replay a ‘very’ traumatic scene back to Bernice, leads us to a pretty epic confrontation, although the answers when thought about aren’t very satisfying.
In a way its almost a shame to see such a powerful concept as rewriting history wasted on a two bit crook, but then that would be a bit too much of a Deux Ex-Machina for ‘Life During Wartime’ to end. Like ‘Midrash’, this story just shows the Axis once again getting duped by someone else out to take advantage of the situation.
7 / 10

Suffer the Children
Dave Stone writes an incredibly sedate (by his standards) piece here which naturally returns the daring do righteous, noble side of Jason Kane. After so many off hand mentions and second accounts of his new position within the axis though, the best thing about this story is that before the unmasking we get to see him act like a ‘complete’ slob. Comments made as he stuffs his face at parties held in his honour momentarily terrified me into thinking it might be true.
Of course in the end the truth comes out, Jason is a hero again and they escape from the Axis in a short, but sweet burst of action and violence. There’s not much fallout from the revelation though, just the revelation itself…
8 / 10

Drinking With the Enemy
…Which is why this piece is so important. We barely had time to see Jason and Bernice reacquaint themselves before, and now we get to watch them do it under the careful eye of Moskof and Ms Jones.
All of the resentment building up on both sides come out here, although neither side of the argument are able to actually say what they think. Watching Ms Jones, Jason, Moskoff and Benny try to keep civil, calm and rational whilst needling each other is powerful. The ending, with the characters escaping with as little damage to themselves as possible and nothing resolved in the long run is telling.
But it does suggest that, at the end of it, Moskoff and Ms Jones might have a future. He isn’t inherrantly a bad man.
9 / 10

Lockdown Conversation 3

It’s nice to see Peter again, even if he has very little to do here. Jason and Bernice take a moment to agree on their objectives. You can sense the end is coming…

Passing Storms
Peter Anghleids message isn’t spelled out subtly here, but it is told in a wonderfully original fashion. It’s nice to see Brax and Bev working together to undermime the axis, in their own, small, little ways. Like everything else in this collection the spirit of defiance is key.
10 / 10

Speaking Out
Simon Guerrier’s second story, one to bookend each side of the anthology, draws on the ending of the first. Bernice’s previous tough choice, showing deference to Anson to save lives, comes back to haunt her just as she was beginning to believe in the Resistance after all.
8 / 10

The Peter Principle
After a failed attempt to strike out against oppression in the last story it’s a powerful blow here. Whereas before she was willing to sacrifice herself for her words and ideals, here she takes the more personal touch of cold blooded murder. It’s been a long time coming and at least she chose her victim well.
In the run up to this the attempted suicide attempt of Bang Jorik and the alien art collection make a very diverting story, exposing the folly of the whole Axis Ideal in one simple example.
Additionally Mr Crofton returns briefly for the payback he was promised, and Moskoff gets promoted to replace Spang. Again you can sense that the end is nearing… I’m just not sure why the title is relevant?
9 / 10

Lockdown Conversations 4
This isn’t so much an ending as a summation. Paul Cornell clearly wants to excite you in the runup to the following audio play so he pulls out a fantastic cliff-hanger that comes completely out of left field…
We knew it was a time traveller. We knew the Axis knew things about Benny that they shouldn’t. We knew their technology was… wrong. We even knew the Axis Commandant’s name was called Isik or something similar. But there’s no way on earth you could have expected that.

A Bell Ringing in an Empty Sky
Jim Mortimore ends the collection on a very strange note. A trillion years after everyone else has died, when the universe has move on and the collection is just a relic of a bygone age, Bernice Summerfield is still there. There to tell stories until the end of time…
Strange, weird, scary but… compelling.
9 / 10


Life During Wartime is a brilliant example of the Bernice Summerfield range, a real triumph of short story collections with not a single obvious weak point among its number. It fleshes out characters we’d only glimpsed before and gives them life, love and meanings they were lacking. It constantly subverts your expectations and tells a story both highly personal and highly complicated.
My only real complaint would be the lack of any POV from Adrian’s perspective. Although the Killorian slaves are mentioned constantly, there’s never a chance to get a true perspective on their suffering. I wouldn’t complain normally, only Adrian’s on the books cover, almost highlighting this terrible omission…

All in all Big Finish should be rightly proud of this masterpiece. Not only is it composed of some great independent pieces, good communication between authors result in something that adds up to be more than the sum of its parts.
10 / 10

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