It’s fairly common for a novel to have a strong opening and climax whilst losing steam halfway through, but here we have the opposite. The prospect of another alternate timeline romp is not a pleasant one – Fitz speaks for us all when he says “are we going to spend the rest of our lives going from place to place, “restoring” the right version of history?” For once the actual ‘point of divergence’ is rather intriguing – an alien engine that has accelerated time in 1831, with the resulting thinning of the population leading to a medieval type existence by 2003. I was less enamoured of this alternate 2003, as it seems a rather clichéd post apocalypse setting, but the novel rattles along at a good pace and for the most part is highly enjoyable.
Until the end, that is. We always expected Brunel to put in an appearance, but notwithstanding the Doctors usual desire to hobnob with famous figures in world history there seems little rationale given for his boarding the TARDIS for the novels climax. And unfortunately the climax is where it all falls to pieces. The usual problem of alternate timelines lacking drama due to the sure knowledge of their being wiped out by the end of the story looks set to be broken with a new slant, but its just a red herring. The finale is incredibly busy, with characters racing here, there and everywhere, but this misdirection cannot hide the fact that ultimately the novels plot is wrapped up with the most shockingly contrived deux et machina since the McGann TV Movie: the TARDIS ‘turns back time’ so none of the events in the novel happened. Oh please. As far as I’m concerned this is only one step beyond ‘and then he awoke to find that it had all been a dream’.
It’s a real shame about the ending, as for the most part this is a decent novel, but it could have been so much better...
I'll let you in to a little secret. I am not a big Nick Walters fan, his books represent the mediocre side of Doctor Who fiction. Even though Dominion and The Fall of Yquatine were both entertaining novels they were hampered by a clunky prose style and some fatal character mistakes. Even worse was Superior Beings, a mish-mash of trad and rad that used Peri in a most irritating fashion. No to say I was expecting little of Reckless Engineering would be an understatement. Unfortunately to start repeating myself ad nauseum here in the spanking new EDA universe under Justin Richards Mr Walters has leaped forward in quality and delivered something truly special. Shockingly this is my favourite EDA since Camera Obscura and it easily surpassing any PDA in a good while (despite the charms of last months Blue Box).
Why is it so good? Well I must say the brilliant cover wore my cynicisym down before I had even read a single line. Its such a striking image I was immediately eager to read out how Brunel with a skull face and a whole bunch of chains would fit into the plot. The last EDA, the much underated Domino Effect left the range on a dizzying cliff-hanger and this book leaps in from there. With its intruiging opening chapter I was ready to be impressed.
And impressed I was by the instant horror of the setting was opened out for me. Ive never been to Bristol but I have a fair idea of what it must look like now, if it had been through a time slip and decayed to death that is. Its a wonderful, vivid setting that throws untold horrors at the characters. Immediately introduced to the horrific cannibal children that live in the wild this is clearly a very dangerous place to visit.
The EDA's have made a very smart move. By creating the diverging dimensions in Time Zero each story since has had a chance to be strikingly original and dangerous reading. With the concept of the constantly shifting to a new version of the earth the stories are almost self perpetuating. All you need is a good imagination and some intelligence. Fortunately Nick Walters is more than up to the task and creates a nightmarish spin on our world. I know a lot of people will say "well its not our earth so who cares" but the very idea that this could be "our earth" before the story is out gives each tale an extremely threatening feel.
The middle of the book is full of exposition and explainations and it is good thing they come quite early because it allows for a lot of fun to be had in the last third as the Doctor attempts to make sure this history never, ever takes place. The book is very well crafted in that the setting is first revealed, then explained and then leaves room for some fun narrative tricks in the conclusion. It helps that the reasons this Earth came to be is so compelling, Malahyde's tale is extremely interesting and plays out in the last third with some delightfully quirky twists.
That's not to say its all talk, there are some intimately well drawn characters here and some so-good-you-can-see-it action sequences. I especially liked the touching love story between Robin and Aboetta, this sort of unrequited love story is the sort that really tugs at the heartstrings and its conclusion in particular is wrenching. Gottlieb is another very engaging character, to be honest with you I was never very sure of his motives so it kept the story flowing with a nice sense of ambiguity. Who the hell can the TARDIS crew trust in this fucked up world?
Not even each other it seems as things go from bad to worse for the once inseperable team. Two months ago it was Anji's turn to get rebellious and this time its Fitz's. It is more shocking when it comes from Fitz, the Doctor's rock in this troubled times and the amnesiac Time Lord is as mortified as I was when Fitz's frustrations start spilling out. I'm not at all surprised at this, Fitz has had it rough for many a book now and this kind of development was long overdue. It is expertly woven into the story so that both sides have a good argument (What right do you have to wipe out a whole reality? is on the back cover) and this sort of tension keeps things fresh and interesting. I was shocked to discover this writer proof team have already had 22 stories together and instead of running out of steam they just seem to be driving the stories in new and unpredictable ways. Mind you the series itself has had such a postivie creative upswing in recent years it was bound to rub on the regulars. And who would have ever thought Fitz thought that way about ANji? Things could get very interesting now...
Brunel is a historical character I had little or no knowledge about so it was fun to learn more about him. His involvement was in turns dramatic and hysterical as he is confronted by so many incredible sights. Indeed the last few chapters with characters from all over time meeting it really does capture that wonderful sense of screwball imagination the series was so famed for. The stakes are high but that doesn't stop Brunel pointing out the utter absurdities of the situation, Benny style! Needless to say he is a great character, bold, brave and in your face. Very entertaining.
I loved the violence too, a story needs to feel dangerous to work and scenes of cannabilistic children attacking in hordes were the stuff of nightmares, brilliantly written. Anji's underwater adventures is page turning stuff and the escape from the green sea cave scene was breathtaking, a return of the that viscous Doctor who was close to fading away. He's still got the edge folks...
Nick Walters has truly polished up his writing style because this had none of the chatty attitude of his previous works, oh there was some hysterical point of view stuff but it felt much more controlled and stylish, more a talented storyteller provoking his audience rather than the "ooh shall I tell you a story" style of Superior Beings. As I said his opening chapters are especially strong with some forceful imagery and graphic scenes that will linger in the memory.
The ending will be hugely controversial depending on your view of the TV Movie. I thought it worked well but seemed a bit easy after all the fireworks earlier on but some people will loathe it. I just know it. Lets put it this way, it doesn't harm a cracking novel and provides a good sense of closure. And a downbeat result leaves your heart broken.
Plus there is the after effects on Fitz which judging by that painfully emotional last sequence will linger for some time. Could be some real heart break round the corner folks. With only one book to go before Timeless I feel things might be heading for some serious fireworks...
I can't wait...
Despite my initial reseverations Reckless Engineering was a superb feast of a novel, gorgeously written, dramatic and involving. I should learn not to be so judgemental in the future.
I've decided I don't like alt-universe stories in Doctor Who. I always opposed them in theory as weakening the drama of an ongoing time-travel series, but despite enjoying some Batman Elseworlds I've decided that I don't seem to like them in practice either. They're dull. Sit back and think... how many *interesting* parallel universes can you name? There are two main kinds: (a) fascists rule the world, (b) post-apocalypse setting where the humans carry spears and have the intellectual level of a barbecued hedgehog. There's the odd exception, e.g. Final Genesis (DWM 203-206), but generally we've seen it all before and it wasn't that great the first time.
Reckless Engineering is by Nick Walters, an author who despite being a Cole-era newbie is clearly not without talent. It could have been great, but unfortunately its alternate universe drags it down. It has a clever plot. (No ending whatsoever, which is a problem, but plenty of convoluted stuff en route.) It has Isambard Kingdom Brunel. But unfortunately it's lumbered itself with that dreary old Post-Apocalypse Setting, from which an interesting character has never yet sprung. Gottlieb comes nearest. I kinda liked him. But the others... Father Cluny, Aboetta, Robin, Malahyde and the rest were just bleah.
Mind you, at least it's better than The Domino Effect. There's timehopping, mystery and strange causal links. You want to learn what's going on, instead of merely wanting it all to end. What happens to Fitz is imaginative, while I liked the way in which everything looks as if it's being explained at the halfway mark before things spin off in a completely different direction. The Doctor's priorities are interesting and slightly scary too.
The book's tone is odd. It's generally as humourless as Nick Walters' previous BBC Books, but every so often a funny bit would spring up from nowh ere and make me laugh. My favourite joke was to do with Fitz's bedroom, but there were a surprising number of such moments for a book that basically gives the impression of being po-faced.
Not all of the plot twists made sense, mind you. The Doctor is pretty damn stupid in Chapter 19. What did he hope to achieve? Whatever happened, he would have always had to go back still further and his actions at that point could easily have made things worse. And then there's the dire ending. A bunch of stuff happens, then it's all over! Huh? What happened to the climactic drama? The courage! The danger! Any kind of resolution that isn't a technobabble handwave! And there isn't even proper closure, thanks to a dangling plot teaser that I presume they're following up in The Last Resort or Timeless. (On reflection I think it links back to Time Zero, but I couldn't swear to it.)
However despite all these problems, I kinda liked Reckless Engineering. Its setting is dull, its characters are dull and its ending is atrocious, but... um, actually that doesn't sound good, does it? But seriously, the plot generally managed to juggle enough surprises and unanswered questions to keep me reading. The prose has a bit more texture than The Infinity Race and The Domino Effect (i.e. it has some) and at least there's more to the plot than "Oooh Gasp An Alternate Universe". It certainly isn't a masterpiece, but I'm glad I read it.