Once again I decided to take a break from reading the regular Doc Savage series. My initial thought was to go with Philip José Farmer’s The Mad Goblin, but instead I went with Aaron Allston’s DOC SIDHE (cover by David Mattingly, all rights to current holder). It’s a clever, well-done riff on Doc, though like many books with an awesome premise, I find myself spotting the flaws when I reread it (as I’m no longer stunned by the mere idea of it).
The protagonist, Harris, starts out miserable: he’s a former Olympic kick-boxer who keeps getting his butt kicked in combat, flopped as an actor and his girlfriend Gaby just dumped him (she loves him but she’s fed up with his inability to take charge of his own life). Then Gaby gets kidnapped; trying to rescue her, Harris stumbles into an alternate universe where it’s the 1930s, but with a twist. Most of the world’s population is part-elf and the greatest hero of the United States (or its alt.world analog) is Doc MaqqRee, a pureblood elf. Doc naturally takes an interest in Harris’ case and soon discovers it’s more than it seems: Doc’s arch enemy is plotting to change the magic that ties the two earths together, so that if he brings humans across from our Earth, they’ll be his slaves. An army of slaves.
Allston does a good job on his worldbuilding. The magic isn’t well-defined, but he shows enough and tosses off enough detail (a debt, financial or from a personal favor, is something a mage can use to get his hooks in you) that it works. While there’s a lot to like about the world—environmentally more sensitive than ours (particularly for the 1930s) and a lot more open sexually—it’s not a utopia. There’s discrimination based on skin color, and despite iron being toxic, they’re still building skyscrapers with it because what else is there to use?
Allston’s Doc Savage-pastiching is good too. There’s no attempt to mock the pulp style or Doc Savage’s adventures, and Doc MacRee and his crew (including Alistair the surgeon and Noriko the ace fencer) work perfectly as a team of pulp heroes. There aren’t many specific Doc references, but it definitely has the feel of one of Savage’s adventures. The reference that does leap out at me is that Doc MacRee is in love and sexually involved with a revolutionary in South America, the equivalent of the real series Monja. Where Doc Savage is chaste by choice, Doc MacRee tells Harris the idea of cutting himself off from sexual/romantic pleasure for life is insane.
About the only thing that falls flat are the protagonists from our world. This is a portal fantasy (human pulled into alien world) so I understand Allston wanting POV characters who shared our perspective. But that takes time away from Doc and his gang, who are way more interesting (it’s The Gold Ogre all over again). Harris is a stock zero-to-hero type and he gets far away most of the action. Gaby has almost no personality besides loving Harris and being brave. The characters tell us Harris’s fatal flaw is wanting to bend over and please other people but it never really comes across.
Given how uninteresting they are, focusing on them was a mistake (though one Lester Dent made too). Even so, it’s a fun book to revisit, though it may be a while before I bother with the sequel, Sidhe-Devil.
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