If I had to choose one word to describe the first book written by Simon Forward, I'd have to say "atmospheric." Forward does a wonderful job of setting the scene, but he falls down a little bit on the characters, which brings the ranking down.
The Doctor and Leela arrive in New Hampshire in the middle of a blizzard which has closed off Melvin Village. They meet up with White Shadow, a US Special Forces group that is in the area looking for a downed experimental aircraft. There's also a survivalist cult which is under observation by the military. Meanwhile, personal problems and strange disappearances affect some of the residents of Melvin, problems which result in these residents getting caught up in the saga of the downed jet. There's something out there in the snow, something that kills. Something that not even the Doctor understands. The Doctor must not only deal with this alien menace, but also some menaces that are all too human.
The main character of this novel, you could say, is the weather. A blanket of white coats this entire book (and not just the cover!). The atmosphere in this book is almost chilling as everybody is out wallowing in the snow, trying to get to where they need to be. The snow is almost a living creature in this book, and Forward almost makes you feel cold with his descriptions of what's going on. It's been a long time since I've had a scene in a book set as vividly as it is here. Sometimes, you get an image of a town that's in one of those sno-globes, which you pick up and shake. Other times, the atmosphere is menacing. It's always perfectly placed, though.
The characters aren't as well drawn, however. Most of the Special Forces soldiers have a personality quirk or something to identify them, but otherwise they're pretty faceless. The only ones who don't have this problem are Morgan Shaw (the captain), Kristal (the Native American guide), and Joanna (the medic). The rest are indistinguishable. The same can be said for the townspeople, other than the sheriff (Makenzie Shaw) and Amber, the daughter of Makenzie's girlfriend. They have a personality conflict which ends up with Amber getting intimately involved with the ongoing menace. But their story itself is rather dull. Other characters (both soldiers and townspeople) seem to be around just to be killed off.
This lack of character extends to Leela, as well. Leela,being from a primitive society, is always learning from the Doctor's tutelage. When Forward concentrates on this, Leela shines almost as much as she does when Chris Boucher writes her. However, there isn't that much of this, as Leela is quickly separated from the Doctor and she's on her own. The rest of what happens to her is fine in a character sense, but she just doesn't get anything to do. She follows Kristal around for awhile and senses a kindred spirit, but that's it. She's sidelined to a great extent.
There are also two characters that, while I found them interesting, I found them unnecessary. They are two NSA agents who are harbouring a secret of their own. The mystery is fairly effective, but once it's revealed, not much is done with it. It becomes just a background trait, and it lost a lot of its interest when that happened. They didn't really need to be in the book, and I thought they detracted from the rest of the story. As characters themselves, however, they were quite good. Too bad they weren't in another book that was about them.
The Doctor is relatively well done, as Forward captures Tom Baker's manic energy that he brought to the television role. He's bouncing back and forth between situations, making foreboding comments to the locals and generally doing his best to solve the problem. He's fine, if rather stiff. And if I heard one more character (or even the narrator!) call him Doc, I was going to scream.
The situation that Forward presents, however, is very interesting. I like the idea of a weather-based foe for once. Usually, when you think "elemental," you think of water or fire, so this was a nice change of pace. The method of attack the creature has was pretty neat. I could have done without the zombies, though. The editor of the Who books seems to have a thing for zombies. I wish I knew why.
All in all, this is a pretty decent book, especially for a first novel. My advice is to revel in the atmosphere and not worry about the characters so much. You'll like it a lot better.
Somewhere, lying underneath the layers of snow-laden prose, there was a good idea in Drift. I like the setting of a small American town, I like the idea of cultists being involved, I like the trailer-trash aspect, and I like the idea of the monsters. The writing is decent and there are some good action scenes, so why did Drift completely fail as a novel for me? The setting is a double-edged sword. While very visual, the endless descriptions of characters wandering around in the blinding white snow soon become very tiresome. The plot can be neatly summed up in "characters wander around lost in the snow and occasionally see something spooky." Now, that ignores the action-packed end, but the majority of the book had me asking, "What's the point?"
The plot is simple. A military jet has crashed in rural New Hampshire and there have been strange occurrences surrounding its disappearance. Cultists, the military, and two CIA agents are all trying to track the object that the jet was carrying. Meanwhile, people are disappearing in the snow without any trace. What this means is that we have several plot strands that all have the same storyline. We see the military people wandering through the snow, we see the cultists wandering through the snow, we see the Doctor and Leela wandering through the snow. You get the idea. In between these wanderings, we have some domestic soap-opera drama involving little Amber Mailloux and her family. Amber is one of these annoying kids one often sees in action movies, and while her situation is dire, after the umpteenth time she's run away, gotten lost in the snow, and had to have someone risk his or her life to find her, I was beginning to hope that the kid would meet an unwelcome doom. Trying to develop original characters is always a good thing, but many novelists think that characterization is automatically equated with angst and family crises.
The Doctor and Leela aren't characterized very well. Leela is paired off with a Native American, which is sound in theory, but spends the entire time just being that character's shadow or being unconscious. Her brawl at the end seems very out of character. Leela's a much more capable fighter than that. After Chris Boucher and Jim Mortimore's stunning prose treatment of Leela, Simon A. Forward had a lot to live up to with the character. Sadly, it's not up to par. As for the Doctor, I kept on hearing Davison or Pertwee say the lines, and not Tom.
The underlying idea of the menace in the book is very well thought-out and original, but there are a lot of unanswered questions. Where did it come from? What was the real background and motivation of the CIA agents? Sadly, Drift is one of the most disappointing books I've read in a long time. There are people who seem to like it, especially people who enjoy books with military action themes. However, for me, it just seems like a book that tried too hard to be great and didn't even make it to mediocre.
'See, I've got this problem with you, Doc. I believe what you say your are, as far as it goes. Don't get me wrong, if I had the comms to run extensive checks, I would. Now, I want your help and you're no use to me working blindfold, but I can't afford to let anything I tell you find its way back to Geneva, you know?'
'It's a terrible pickle to be in,' sympathized the Doctor.
'I'm not about to put my career on the line here, so I figure, I tell you only what you need to know and if any of it gets talked about in UNIT circles, I'm going to point my finger in your direction. There's going to be no culpability for my people and as far as I'm concerned, you, Doc, are a dangerous masterspy. I'm going to paint you as a James Bond with a twist of lime and they're going to come after you, wherever you roam, and they're going to poke laser designators through your bathroom window.'
In the frozen winter of a small New Hampshire town in the north eastern United States, a military platoon known as the White Shadow is seeking for a crashed aircraft. A Raven EF111B has crashed and its pilot hasn't been found. The craft was an experimental model, one fitted with a top secret device of power called the Stormcore. Captain Morgan Shaw leads the White Shadow into the depths of a storm that seems to be personally attacking whomever it can. He's up against an unknown predator, finding his best hope in a lunatic named the Doctor, UNIT's scientific adviser, who he is hesitant to trust. He comes to the realization that he can't save this town, that it's either evacuation or death. His biggest personal conflict is that this is the town he grew up in, a town he'd spent his entire life trying to run away from.
Young Amber Mailloux has found the parachute of the lost Raven pilot. Amber is a ten year old girl, the child of a broken home, drowning amid the existential angst of pre-adolescence. Her father, Curt, is a complete fuck up, a drunk with tendencies for violence. Amber is in the custody of her mother, Martha, and is alienated by her mom's new man, Makenzie, the town sheriff, who is doing his best to do right by her while in the shadow of her real father. Makenzie is up against his own succession of crises. His partner, Laurie Aldrich, has gone missing, he's found the wrecked abandoned car of Amber's missing father and the town has been turned upside down by the presence of White Shadow, the military squadron led by Captain Shaw, Makenzie's own brother.
Amber's mother Martha loves her daughter. She was the victim of spouse abuse and she's raising her daughter under Makenzie's care. Martha is a strong woman who insists her new love give some of the attention to her family once in a while that he more often gives to the town he protects so obsessively. Martha would give her life for her child, and there's a sensational scene in which she fights off the deadly alien menace, a being of living ice and snow, with a tire iron to protect Amber.
Amber's father Curt is a mess. He loves his daughter just as much as Martha but he can't even seem to manage himself, much less manage to be a proper father. He's a reckless drunk, a violent wife beater, but he's written as a sympathetic dysfunctional. The reader feels for Curt, often feeling more compassion for him in his failed attempts to act responsibly than for Makenzie. Amber loves her father Curt and never truly allows Makenzie into her life. Mak cares for Amber, but he makes odd choices. When Amber is seemingly infected by the alien menace, he keeps it to himself. He feels for her, but he's a calculating and analytical man who rarely wears his emotion on his sleeve. Curt, to the contrary, is nothing but emotion, mostly depression or rage. Curt crashes his car and Mak finds the wreck, knows the meaning of the harbinger, and seeks Curt without telling Martha or Amber. Curt, meanwhile, makes the mistake of shoplifting and pulling a concealed gun on a CIA Agent. The results of which are instrumental in the Doctor's investigation of the alien threat, but Amber is made to suffer for her father's poor judgement's as usual.
The novel contains many characters that nicely play off each other, that seem to display the flip side of each other. Kristal Owl Eye Wildcat, soldier for the White Shadow, is a nice foil for Leela. She's a native herself, member of the Pasamaquody tribe, oddly linking Doctor Who to Disney'' Pete'' Dragon. She speaks of the Algonquin People, now vanished under the power of a new nation. She's a passionate character and resembles what Leela might have been had circumstances been different, she's a version of Leela who had joined and fought for the Tesh.
The two characters that propel the most of the plot are Parker Theroux and Melody Quartararo, apparent CIA Agents. They represent what might have happened had Mulder and Scully had actually been the truth that was out there. Parker is the one confronted with Curt's hold up. Melody was the key in an autopsy that revealed the nature of the alien threat.
The Doctor realizes that there is no need to seek enemies in the mist because the mist is the enemy. The alien threat can penetrate humans, rebuilding their nervous system with a crystalline ice structure that grow through the skin like shoots. The creature is sort of a living snow storm, a storm that reproduces itself, that divides and reproduces itself into smaller storms that can grow and conquer. The concentrations of nimbostratus increase with each division, like accretion. Each storm center amasses greater energy as it divides and reforms, in a monotonous cycle. Much like the formation of star systems, there is increased density and mass around the gravitational centers. The creature comes at you like a violent snow storm and invades you, much like a twisted Christmas version of Final Fantasy. It becomes quite questionable whether this is actually the same alien threat from Time and Relative by Kim Newman. It has awareness, it reacts to heat and detects prey. It's formed a nucleus just above the village. The Doctor realizes that it is inert in liquid form and plans to use the lake to his advantage.
The Doctor is at his investigative best. The master detective here, his "performance" easily reminiscent of The Talons of Weng Chiang or The Horror of Fang Rock, though this time he's in contemporary United States, driving snow mobiles, conducting autopsies, investigating an ominous threat.
The novel kept reminding of the Sean Penn film The Pledge which stars Jack Nicholson. The tone and setting are quite parallel to that film, well meaning men and women driven by commitments and ideals that are bigger than them. The alien menace and the characters of the book are all longing for something. The novel is about individuality and interacting in a greater context and finding purpose. The story is one of personal journeys.
In much the way that Paul Thomas Anderson's epic film Magnolia is a character driven piece that branches outward from a single character, the entire narrative structure of Drift seems to start with a ten year old girl and takes of from there. The novel acts as a sort of flip-side to the amazingly accomplished The Burning by Justin Richards. On the surface, one is about fire and one about ice, but there seems a deeper connection. Both represent the pinnacle of Doctor Who in it's contemporary literary form at the dawn of the new millenium. Both are about madness and loss and relationships. This Doctor, however, is in full possession of his faculties and there is not doubt that he is one hundred percent Tom Baker.
Forward's language is so vivid that the reader actually begins to feel the coldness inherent in the tale. So striking is the visualization that the reader has a perfect idea of how this book would look if filmed. There is a mad scene with Tom Baker riding a snow-machine, his hat tied on with his scarf, hair billowing in the cold wind as his vehicle rides rapid on snowbanks and bends. The writing illustrates a very real picture of Baker, in close up with teeth gleaming in full frame, eyebrows and nose nearly frozen. You see it. You're there. The novel has the adult sensibilities of Relative Dementias, with some of the harsh realism of The Taint or Rags but with the action driven darkness of Eater of Wasps. Expect more of the Philip Hinchcliffe era of the Fourth Doctor than that more whimsical later Graham Williams, but with all the adult realism of a proper novel.
Deep in the snows of a freezing New Hampshire winter something is stirring...but you know that already don't you? You've seen the cover, you've read the blurb, so lets dispense with the usual plot regurgitation style of reviewing and, as recently requested on the forum, actually talk about the language for once shall we?
Another PDA - another new author. With some range authors output now in double figures its always refreshing to hear a new literary voice, though unfortunately in common with many debut authors Forward initially seems to have some difficulty finding his own. The early pages are a struggle, and wading through the leaden prose brings to mind ploughing through snowdrifts in a manner the author doubtless never intended. The descriptions of the snow bound New Hampshire landscape veer wildly between floridly overwritten ("...the vampire sky flocked to the trees, to perch alongside the cold, waiting for a splash of red to quench its thirst for colour") and the mundane ("Today it was like that painting she'd gone over with a spray-can of white"), with precious little middle ground. Things settle down after a while, but this schizophrenic style of writing is exaggerated by the author's insistence on arbitrarily colouring the usually impersonal third person descriptive passages with the voice of whichever character is assuming the role of lead for a paragraph. The upshot of this is a constant peppering of lazy American internal dialogue spilling into the narrative ("They'd taken the best part of a summer afternoon - yeah, a different world - hauling Martha's trailer up the goddamn mountain; Mak bitching at his truck every turn like she was some horse refusing a fence"). I suspect the author was trying to emulate the easy swagger of Stephen King's style, but while such intimate character observation feels natural when concentrating on a small cast at some length, with Forward chopping and changing voices every few pages the reader rarely gets a chance to settle. Not only do we have to wade through 'yeah', 'goddamn' and 'son of a bitch's, this also unfortunately means that the brooding figure of the 4th Doctor is saddled with that most unfortunate of diminutives. Confined to speech marks is bad enough, but there's no excuse for descriptive sentences that start "The Doc was searching the snows..." in my book!
As for the Doc...ahem, Doctor himself, he's mostly sidelined for the first 150 pages, as the action is given over to Special Forces group White Shadow. The leads to a fair amount of the usual butch posturing, though just for a change a large amount of the gun fuelled testosterone seems to be emanating from the female members of the outfit.
The main point of identification for Leela, and by extension the reader, is full-time Native American and part-time psychic Kristal. Unfortunately all of her most distinctive traits; the spirituality, the closeness with nature, the natural hunter, are all the usual 'Red Indian' clichés. It doesn't take long before Kristal has teamed up with fellow 'noble savage' Leela, and is uttering such predictable lines as "For my people, the Owl is a wise and friendly spirit, possessed of powerful love medicine" with a straight face. While at such moments you can almost hear the ethnic soundtrack, Kristal does provide a key figure for this early and inexperienced Leela to latch on to, though in the process she does render the Sevateem warrior somewhat redundant.
We are also introduced to the double act of investigators Melody and Parker, possibly the least alien aliens ever to feature in a Who novel. However, while the open ending leaves ample room for a welcome return from this pair, it does feel exceedingly out of character for the Doctor to gaily leave two aliens stranded on Earth without even offering them a lift home. This problem seems to be a direct result of Justin Richards requesting the original team of the 3rd Doctor and Liz be replaced in favour of the 4th. A couple of months ago Dying in the Sun suffered from a similar editorial decision, which necessitated the virtual writing out of one companion, and here the emotional impact of the 3rd Dr meeting other stranded aliens on Earth has been totally lost - why? There seems to be no logical story reason why these decisions are being made; if these changes are warping storylines simply to ensure each Doctor is equally represented in the range then its shallow beyond belief.
The nameless creature at the centre of Drift, while well realised, is very similar to the Cold from Time & Relative. An unfortunate case of bad timing, as the creature here is slightly less cartoon-like than Newman's. With possession amongst an isolated snow bound community, Drift is highly reminiscent of John Carpenters The Thing (complete with gruesome autopsy scene), although an ultimately pointless chase sequence straight out of Stephen Kings Dreamcatcher threatens to derail the plot.
While it may sound as though I've been giving this novel a hard time, I must stress that my predominant feelings were positive on reading. Despite the faltering style of writing, Drift is a compelling action based adventure that manages to propel the reader over any rough patches by its sheer pace. Though he doesn't hit the mark quite as successfully as last months debut author, this is still a promising start from Simon A Forward, and I hope that with the reduced schedules we still get the opportunity to watch this author develop.