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The Doomsday Machine by Catherine Webb

01/06/2009. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy

Buy The Doomsday Machine in the USA - or Buy The Doomsday Machine in the UK

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pub: Atom/Little Brown. 309 page hardback. Price: 10.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-905654-00-0. 309 page enlarged paperback. Price: 6.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-905654-02-4.

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From the first page of this 'astounding adventure' I was struck by the vivacious prose of Catherine Webb and delighted to come across that rarity, an author who displays a good vocabulary, long rolling sentences and a general delight in language. This old-fashioned style may be tailored for the Victorian setting of the novel but it is pleasing nonetheless.

No one could sustain top form for 300 pages and she doesn't, but there are several patches of entertaining prose throughout the book and nice little experiments like slipping into the present tense as well. All this is especially refreshing in a book presumably aimed at youth of the present generation, whose conversation - consisting mostly of 'I'm like, what? y'know' and grunts - resembles that of a backward American four year-old. Might help to teach the blighters English, what?

I presume it is for teenagers or even children because there's no sex and not much violence. Horatio Lyle is a scientist adventurer chap who indulges in feats of derring-do with two young companions, Tess, a rescued street urchin, and Thomas, son of an English Lord. As reference is made to previous events, I conclude that this is not the first installment of his adventures but it's the first I have read.

The plot: Andrew Berwick, a scientist who was a friend of Horatio's father, is missing and the Tseiquin are looking for him because he is helping to build the machine which can kill them all. The Tseiquin are a green-eyed terrestrial race who don't much like humans. They have the power to influence men's minds and make them obey, even to the extent of jumping off a cliff if so ordered. They love nature, hate iron and are vulnerable to magnetic forces. A good looking and rather jolly female Tseiquin kidnaps Horatio and a reasonable old one tells him of the dread machine being built in underground London and informs him that even though the Tseiquin have issues with humankind he loves 'Mozart and Beethoven and Turner and puppet shows and the buildings you make and your jokes about the Scots.'

The good looking female likes dancing. Horatio has battled the green eyed devils in the past and found them to be ruthless and evil but when he hears that the machine which is being built will kill all of them indiscriminately he faces a moral dilemma, for might there not be one or two good Tseiquin? Would not Jehovah have spared Sodom and Gomorrah if there had been one just person among them? This is balanced by the fact that the man in charge of building the machine to kill them all is Augustus Havelock, not the world's oldest living cyclist (that was Augustus Windsock) but a ruthless genius with many government connections.

Catherine Webb tells a good yarn and though it's a bit science fictional it's not hugely original. Horatio Lyle, with his exuberant young companions, is more than a little like Doctor Who and Augustus Havelock owes a lot to the fiendish Professor Moriarty. Tess is like Eliza Doolittle and relies heavily on the presumption that we all find plucky Cockneys loveable. I don't. The Tsequin mind control powers are hardly unique and, frankly, the scientific theory behind the Doomsday Machine strikes me as decidedly unsound. The plot is basic adventure stuff from time immemorial.

Carp, carp. But I enjoyed it immensely. Some books are profound, interesting, informative or moving and some are just good clean fun. This was fun. The writing is mostly a joy and the story belts along at a good place with enough twists and turns to keep you engaged. It is undemanding fare, thoroughly pleasant and will certainly be good for young readers. Better than dumb soap operas and sit-coms anyway. It might, like, enlarge their verbal skills, y'know, like, what. Innit?

Eamonn Murphy

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