The Plague Lord

By Paul Doherty

It is always dangerous to be even moderately well-informed about a subject. It can, for instance, seriously distract from one’s enjoyment of a book if one is trained as a sinologist, and the author of a book set in China manages to get almost every Chinese word wrong. This remarkable feat, far beyond the usual mangling, is the achievement of Paul Doherty. Not that there isn’t plenty else to dislike.

  • Author: Paul Doherty
  • Title: The Plague Lord
  • Pages: 280
  • Published: 2002
  • Publisher: Headline
  • ISBN: 0-7472-6953-x

Apart from the mangled Chinese — Wade-Giles transcription — the book is shoddily constructed, the plot is improbable and the premise ridiculous. It is also too short to give any real feel for the characters and their developing relations.

The setting is the Mongol-Chinese capital of Kubilai Khan. Here Marco Polo appears as one of the Khan’s high ministers. Throughout the world, from Europe to China, visionaries have been visited by portentous dreams: the Plague Lord Azrael has been summoned from Hell and will cause a great plague to break out and eradicate the human race.

(That, incidentally, is one of the things I liked about this book. There is no doubt at all that the plague lord is real. There is no doubt that the visions and dreams are real. No attempts to explain away any inconventient clashes with C20/21 natural philosophy. A pity then than Doherty thought it necessary to picture Marco Polo as a sceptic. One can see his reason for that, of course — it gives the author the opportunity for a bit of info-dumping — but it does detract from the book.

The pacing of the book is very peculiar. The prologue is standard fare with Doherty, and one expects them. Only the real prologue is followed by another two chapters of prologue, subsumed under a Partlet I, followed by the rest of the book in Part II. Paul Doherty is very good at writing atmosphere-setting scenes, but those scenes take a disproportionate amount of space compared to the scenes that develop the story; near the end of the book I got the feeling that I was reading an outline for a draft.

The ending is weak: the Francisan monk and the Buddhist nun corner three sorcerers in a temple and have Marco Polo burn the temple down with them in it. Why couldn’t they just have burned the temple? Is it because Doherty wanted a dramatic ending but couldn’t figure out how to make it logical, too?

Paul Doherty is incredibly productive. Apart from his job as headmaster of a large school, he produces lots and lots of novels. Sometimes I get the idea he’s a one-man Studio Vandersteen, the comic studio that produces amongst others the cheap and cheerful comic Bob and Bobette. At one point, Willy Vandersteen decided to start a second series, Robert and Bertrand, because Bob and Bobette was getting too cheap and cheerful, and he wanted some quality again. With Doherty, this novel, the Alexander novels and the Hugh Corbett mysteries firmly fall in the Bob and Bobette range of quality, while the Brother Athelstan novels have far more going for them. Careful plotting and characterisation, for one thing.