Wednesday, August 08, 2007

New Who Review

I did some catching up on my Doctor Who reading over the last week or so, and thus have insights and opinions (well, mostly opinions) on the latest batch or two of Doctor Who novels, as follows:

The Nightmare of Black Island: By this point, just Mike Tucker's name on the spine of a Doctor Who book fills my soul with existential dread, the sort of feeling a comic book fan gets when they see "Art by Rob Liefeld" or a movie fan gets when they see "Directed by Uwe Boll". So it's pretty safe to say that a big chunk of my enjoyment of this book came from plain and simple lowered expectations.

But that said, it's not bad. Freed from a need to be "literary", Tucker can just concentrate on writing an enjoyable action-horror mystery featuring the Doctor and Rose, and include plenty of spooky monsters, evil aliens, and mysterious mansions. It's nothing but an entertaining run-around, but after getting several non-entertaining run-arounds from Tucker, it's a serious step up. (And I did get a chuckle from the "guard duck" bit. But maybe I was just in a goofy mood.)

The Art of Destruction: By this point, Stephen Cole seems to understand exactly what his strengths are as a writer, and plays to them well in this book. He's got a gift for pacing, filling each chapter with plenty of incident and action and keeping the plot moving by continually upping the ante of threats and menaces until you've got erupting volcanoes, two alien factions fighting the last battle of an interstellar war, and human rebels with guns running around on top of all that. With all that going around, minor deficiencies in characterization and's not that they're not noticeable, it's that you're done with the book before you have time to think about them.

Special mention should go to the Wurm, by the way, for managing to be interesting aliens despite their stupid name and one-note "Hi, we're EEEVIL!" characterization. By actually basing them on worm biology, Cole creates interesting details from their ship construction, to their weaponry, right down to the second-in-command getting chopped in half and still surviving for a good long while. (Name's still stupid, though.)

The Price of Paradise: There are things I liked about this book, and nothing I could say I really disliked...but on the whole, it's sort of weak tea. Nothing bad about the flavor you get, but you really wish there was more of it. The characters are sympathetic, but not particularly personable; the monsters are interesting, but not particularly scary; the central twist is clever, but in a fairly predictable way. It's not bad, and I can pretty much guarantee you won't come away disliking it, but at the same time, I just can't see anyone claiming this as their favorite Doctor Who book.

Sting of the Zygons: Ahh, there's nothing quite like a good old-fashioned shapeshifting monster run-around. Only, of course, since this is a Stephen Cole book, it's a good old-fashioned shapeshifting monster run-around with the volume turned up to eleven. You're prevented from spotting the Zygons (the classic parlor game, "Spot The Zygon" is, of course, fun for the whole family) by the sheer number of clues you get; and, of course, they're all true. Pick a random character, any random character, and odds are pretty good that they'll wind up metamorphosizing into an evil orange sucker-face at some point in the book. And yet, that's half its charm. Towards the end, it feels like Cole is practically in on the joke, as the Zygon revelations get bigger, more dramatic, and at times quite clever.

(Although the Zygon plan seems to be from the Ten Little Aliens Memorial School of Ridiculously Overcomplicated Plots, involving clandestinely ordered heavy moving equipment, Frenchmen with guns concealed in their camera cases, Skarasen signalling devices, surreptitious telegraph messages, and the crowned heads of Europe gathering for a state funeral with minimal security present. The Doctor does almost as much to facilitate their evil scheme as he does to thwart it.)

The Last Dodo: I hate to admit it, but Jacqueline Rayner has me thoroughly charmed as an author. I admit that the people who complain about her plotting frequently have a point, and I know that some people don't like her style, but to me, it's like having that friend who can always make you laugh telling you a Doctor Who story. Regardless of the actual story, I'm always laughing by the end. So I can forgive her pretty much anything...

Except, sad to say, that I happen to fall rather firmly on the side of those people who "think they're doing good", as Rayner puts it during the one paragraph that's not unequivocally negative about zoos. I think that a well-run zoo is the best friend an animal can have, the best friend a species can have, indeed the best friend an ecosystem can have, and find it extremely disappointing that Rayner puts the Doctor firmly on the side of "Zoos are just jails for animals." This attitude is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, and I'm highly underwhelmed at the way Rayner wrote it into the mouth of my favorite fictional character.

Other than that, though, fun book.

Wooden Heart: I enjoyed this one, even as I couldn't help but feel like I'd heard some of this before. "A mysterious spaceship with a virtual-reality village inside it whose inhabitants believe themselves to be real" feels like the starting point for every third New Adventure, and it continues to be a well-worn trope of the novels. Still, Martin Day gets bonus points for sincerity--he feels like he means it when he writes about the struggles of the virtual people to deal with the collapse of their world, and that always carries a book even when cleverness fails.

The characterization is good here, as it is in pretty much all the new series novels; Martha in particular is more palatable than she is in the TV series, even if she is a bit less recognizable as Martha Jones. This is because her most irritating trait is also her defining one, as far as the TV series goes; in the books, she spends much less of her time mooning over the Doctor like a lovesick schoolgirl, which makes her a more sympathetic character. (It's more than a little depressing that her defining trait in the TV show is "mooning over the Doctor like a lovesick schoolgirl." What a waste.)

Bonus Coverage!

Made of Steel: Part of me dreaded the idea of encouraging Terrance Dicks to write an even smaller, thinner, less substantial book than he'd been doing for the book line up to now; after the last two or three books, I was worried that a less-substantial Dicks offering would be a pamphlet with "Go Watch The Five Doctors" written on it. But as it turns out, the Quick Reads series is ideally suited to Uncle Terry; he's a master at storytelling economy (a couple hundred Target novelizations will do that for you), and all that he really ditches when he slims down is padding and references to 'The Five Doctors', which he could probably stand to give a rest anyway. A light, fun read, exactly what the series demands.

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