Review: Bernice Summerfield – Tree of Life

Review by Jacob Licklider

Continuing Big Finish’s re-releases of out of print Bernice Summerfield novels on audiobook is The Tree of Life. Originally released in June 2005 as the novel for Series 6 of the audio series and set after The Heart’s Desire, The Tree of Life is a novel which easily fits within the era and marks a definite point where Big Finish Productions had realised that integrating a novel and audio range with important plot advancements occurring in one range affecting the other would be difficult as this was published before ebooks were offered and the books would go out of print faster than the audio releases.  Mark Michalowski pens one of the longest audiobook releases from Big Finish, running over eight hours in comparison to the normal six to seven of a standard Bernice Summerfield novel.  This higher word-count means that there’s a lot more story for this release to work with and Michalowski is an author who doesn’t quite know what to do with it.  The titular ‘tree of life’ doesn’t become important until the last third of the story, instead focusing on an insane businessman who owns several planets named after him and is expanding his own influence.  There are whisperings of darker machinations with Hugo Tollip wanting to gain his own power throughout the story while other creatures are rising from their sleep and attempting to retake their own planet.  Benny is called into Tollip’s World as an archeologist who is known there.  Michalowski includes historical mysteries with a standard zombie story plus some environmental messaging.

The Tree of Life is a book with an incredibly slow start, which is not used as effectively as it could have been.  Instead of developing a supporting cast it becomes a comedy about Benny being unable to integrate into this team, using a pseudonym as advised by the Braxiatel Collection, and really not getting going with the plot.  While her pseudonym eventually has a payoff, it takes until the back half of the book, right near the end of things and Benny is simply portrayed in this very odd way that she cannot keep her story straight.  Michalowski doesn’t seem to understand where Benny is in her life at this point, instead almost portraying her closer to the character seen very early on in her run with the Seventh Doctor, while still putting in scenes on the Braxiatel Collection with Brax, Jason, Adrian, Miss Jones, and Peter.  This gets better as the book goes on, but those early chapters become quite difficult to get through.  Luckily once things get going and the idea of the tree of life is introduced and the mystery takes center stage, The Tree of Life becomes a much more interesting story.  There is commentary here on colonialism and genocide, as well as some more adult content (some of it reminiscent of the less than great Virgin New Adventures), with many of the mysteries coming down to an indigenous population being suppressed for being different than other lifeforms in the universe.

The production of the audiobook from Big Finish Productions, once again is brilliant.  As revealed in the credits and the Q&A included, Lisa Bowerman recorded this entire audiobook in isolation due to the pandemic with Xanna Eve Chown once again being in charge of producing.  Bowerman is the constant professional, bringing a book to life and gladly answering fan questions in lieu of being able to be in the studio.  Listeners should be aware that like the other Bernice Summerfield audiobooks, The Tree of Life does not have music or sound effects so all of the emotion comes straight from the text and Bowerman’s excellent narration.  Overall, The Tree of Life while not too special and definitely not going above and beyond to advance any of the arcs, does provide a good listening experience and because it features Bernice Summerfield it is always a fun ride.  7/10.

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