I've never really warmed to The Left-Handed Hummingbird. Everyone seems to rave about it, but it's always left me cold. It's ingenious and admirably crafted... but I think I've nailed my problem. Simply put, this book has no characters.
Okay, obviously that's not strictly true. There's Cristian Alvarez and Hamlet Macbeth, to whom I'll come in a moment. However everyone else is a walk-on bit part, little more than the latest cannon fodder of whatever timezone the TARDIS happens to be in. The hippies get a bit of personality, but the Aztecs and the doomed folks on the Titanic don't really come alive before they die. Their deaths are more memorable than their lives, in fact. In a twisted way, it's thematically appropriate in this novel for everyone to be a victim awaiting the author's sacrificial knife.
The exceptions are the aforementioned Cristian and Macbeth. The latter manages to become an actual character (and would return in Kate's 3rd comic strip in DWM 221-223: Change of Mind), but you couldn't call him a major player. Blink and you'll miss him in Mexico, then he makes a nuisance of himself in London but then drops out of the book entirely. That leaves Cristian, who's such a null that he hardly exists. He's just some random dude who's involved in the Doctor's nightmare but drifts along passively. Oh, and better yet... this is a timehopping book, so Cristian in London knows nothing about what we just saw happening to him in Mexico, and so on. I honestly can't think of a better way to disconnect your characters from the story's developments.
There's the TARDIS crew, of course. They're good. Arguably, since the Blue is directly targeting the Doctor instead of generically threatening the world, galaxy or multiverse, then to an extent the book's claustrophobic focus is appropriate. Other people aren't needed for the drama because they're not involved. The regulars are well drawn, with New Ace for once managing to be a badass killer without being an annoying cartoon. It's oppressively po-faced, without even a vestige of a sense of humour, but I was impressed by Kate's handling of the inter-crew tensions. It's more sinister and thoughtful than the usual stroppy disagreements, possibly the most interesting treatment of this ongoing story element in any NA.
Benny is interesting, too. In 1993 she'd only been in the books for a year... and here she's as obviously from the future as would be Chris and Roz. She's a bit less "fish out of water", but it's startling to see her unfamiliar with pizzas and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Cristian has to explain to her that the latter isn't a documentary on p25, in contrast to the Benny of later books who's so au fait with every nuance of popular culture that she can get her friends out of trouble with her foreknowledge of Star Trek X: Nemesis in The Dying Days. (Her predictions are doubly impressive, incidentally, since the film didn't exist when Lance wrote that scene.)
So is this novel a dry, uninvolving experience? Perhaps, if you're not in the right mood for it. However if you're judging it as a horror novel, this kind of prose works really well. It's the kind of thing Ramsey Campbell's been doing for donkey's years. This is hallucinogenic horror, cool and dispassionate. It's not always easy to work out what's happening, but that's deliberate. It's light-years from what we're used to in Doctor Who, which tends to be more visceral and less detached in its storytelling, but in its chilly way the prose here is highly accomplished.
The Titanic section labours under a handicap it didn't in 1993: a certain film by James Cameron starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo de Caprio. This could have been a real problem, but the book has a strong individual viewpoint on the events of 1912 and preserves its distinct identity in the face of a blockbuster challenge. That's not a frivolous point, by the way. There are subtle touches, like all the Beatles references. There's a nice take on Aztec civilisation, which is full of authentic-sounding detail and historical background without ever degenerating into History Book Syndrome. This is doubly impressive since the Aztec section of the book is surprisingly short, with the Doctor and Ace hardly dropping in for a moment before they're gone again.
I had to laugh at the cover illustration, though, which is goofy even by Virgin's standards. Oh, and re. the back cover... "Now he finds that events in his own past have been altered." Damn straight! We all know that the Titanic was really sunk by the 7th Doctor and the Sleeze Brothers while chasing the Meddling Monk in Follow That TARDIS! (DWM 147). Finn thinks for a moment about Virgin's Alternate Universe arc. The Meddling Monk, hmm...
Personally I admire this book but find it hard to love. It's an impressive piece of work, but to appreciate it you'll have to approach it on its own terms. I find its first hundred pages a bit boring, to be honest, but it picks up speed later. It's widely praised. Many people seem to love it (or like it more than I do, anyway), but I can't see it being for everyone.
In short, I loved it. Read it. Now for the details…
Recently I received The Left-Handed Hummingbird as a gift. I’d never read any of the New Adventures before, and had only a basic knowledge of the backstories of Benny and “new” Ace. But it didn’t matter. I was easily able to pick it up.
The first thing that caught my attention was Kate Orman’s storytelling style. She isn’t afraid to take unconventional approaches to narration, speaking directly to the reader several times (Take your seats for the final act!). Other techniques include repetition of key phrases, quick cutting from scene to scene, and film/video techniques such as “pausing” and “slow-motion”. The next thing I noticed was the sense of atmosphere. Orman takes time to paint vivid scenery with sumptuous sights and smells, from Tenochtitlan to the Titanic. Every location feels alive.
The next thing is the plot. The Doctor gets a note from Cristian Alvarez of Mexico City in 1994, someone he hasn’t met yet, warning him about the presence of an entity that seems connected to him. The Doctor traces its origins to the Aztec Empire in 1487, and then must find Cristian in London in the 1960s so he can meet him for the first time. From there they follow the entity to New York in 1980, and finally to the sinking Titanic. This is complex and ambitious, but the reader never feels lost.
One constant companion on this journey is fear. Horror, suspense and tragedy are perfectly blended together. From the human sacrifices of the Aztecs to the murder of John Lennon to the sinking of the Titanic, death, and the fatalistic inability to cheat death, permeate this novel. This is bleak, but believe it or not, there is a happy ending to the story, albeit somewhat ambiguous and bittersweet. The villain, Huitzilin, is reminiscent of Sutekh, but his villainy is much more personal and specific, feeding on multiple deaths, but primarily on the Doctor himself. He also manipulates the Doctor skillfully, making him a good nemesis for the Sylvester McCoy interpretation of the character.
This paranoia-inducing constant threat of death intensifies the emotional drama between the characters, which touches the heart, and sometimes stings it. The Doctor worries that Ace has become desensitized to death and violence. Benny worries that the Doctor will martyr himself to solve their problem. Ace worries that the Doctor will die alone and unmourned. Cristian suffers from panic attacks. Ultimately, it is these relationships between the characters, these worries, which keep you reading. Even the supporting characters have their individual joys and woes. Kate Orman is brilliant at making the reader care what happens next.
This novel was one of the best I’ve read. I unreservedly give the book ten out of ten. It’s nearly perfect.
1968: Christian Alvarez meets the Doctor in London.
1978: The great temple of the Aztecs is discovered in Mexico.
1980: John Lennon is murdered in New York City.
1994: A gunman runs amok in Mexico City.
This list of dates is featured on the back cover of Kate Orman's novel THE LEFT HANDED HUMMINGBIRD. What do these events have in common? Well, each time, Christian is there. And each time he experiences the Blue, a traumatic psychic shock which the Doctor himself can barely handle.
The Doctor's eyelids half lowered. I've been possessed more times than I can remember. Usually it's like being inside a fist. Something comes from outside and grabs you. This is different. It comes from inside. The way a headache does. Or an idea.'
This book is set within a cycle of Virgin novels known as the ALTERNATIVE UNIVERSE SAGA beginning with BLOOD HEAT in which someone is manipulating time. The Doctor finds that his past has been altered and a deadly force from South America's prehistory has been released. The novel is a work of artistic brilliance and was a turning point for Doctor Who. This novel was sucessful enough to entice and entertain both die hard fans and mainstream science fiction readers. It is rich in its well researched portraits of Aztec society, the Titanic, the Beatles and drug use. It has a distinctive style of enriching prose, vividly realistic characterization and it never fails to take risks.
This story mixes multiple layers of accurate historic references with breakthrough science fiction concepts like temporal paradoxes and the Blue. Very rarely do we see the full potential of Doctor Who exploited to its fullest than in this tale which interweaves so many different times and places and concepts so effortlessly. This novel was every bit integral to the evolution of Doctor Who as TIMEWYRM REVELATION. For one, it breaks tradition by telling the story out of order. The TARDIS team is introduced to future events by temporary companion Christian who has met them in their future and his past. When you read this scene, note how realistically each character reacts.
This is of course the brightest part of this novel. Kate Orman developes these archetypal characters into real people. Only Christian plays the part of the traditional companion in holding the plots strands together. The real companions have much more in common with living and breathing people.
Ace doesn't trust the Doctor after recent events, and says so repeatedly, but she stands beside him and defends his ideals anyway. The dynamic between the two was never stronger and never more layered and complex. Ace understands the Doctor in a way no other companion was allowed to before.
When she had run away from Heaven, it had been the worst thing she could think to do to him, the worst possible punishment for his sins. He wasn't scared of monsters or pain or dying, he was scared of being alone. She imagined him travelling through the blackness at the end of the Universe, every sun and planet and life-form withered away to nothing, leaving him travelling, travelling alone.
Bernice is a nice foil for Ace, being the clear minded, less aggressive companion. Benny acts as the wide eyed explorer who faked her credentials into a life of adventure. In this book, she is introduced for the first time to pizza and discovers that STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION was, to her surprise, not a documentary.
Ace and Bernice are not traditional companions. They are the Doctor's partners. So much so that when the Doctor ends up being the screamer it's entirely appropriate. These people are a dysfunctional family who compliment each other when working on separate tasks but just don't mesh properly when together. That's reality. Their interactions with each other are so vibrantly on the mark to the credit of Kate Orman's artistry.
Do you know', said the Doctor, two years ago the Russians took a survey of what frightened them the most. It wasn't winter or economic collapse. It was vampires. Specifically vampires that lived on life energy. Psychevores.'
Ace picked up another burrito. Bernice said Mind eaters.'
The Doctor let his head tilt backwards onto one of the cushions until he was staring at the ceiling. There are many and varied creatures which feed on the mind. The Mara fed on raw emotion. The Fendahl sucked souls whole.'
Are you saying that's what we're up against?' said Benny. A mind vampire?"
The vampire', said Ace. Can you shoot it?'
The Seventh Doctor, Time's Champion, was always my favorite and nobody writes him better than Kate Orman. She knows how to play out all the facets of his personality, at once a charming but seeming ordinary small man and next a terrifying enigma manipulating time itself to his own ends. As he rises to godlike proportions, Orman reveals his deepest vulnerabilities.
One of the most controversial aspects of the book is the idea of the Doctor on LSD. This is a nice touch thematically as drugs do tie together the Beatles with the Aztecs. Anyway, the Doctor can control his biochemistry and can instantly metabolize the hallucinogenic psilocybin. (Hey, if the Faction Paradox and Fox TV want to make him more human )
As a close friend of the immortal Martin Kulp (who has kept me educated on the Aztec culture and who has convinced me on so many occasions that THE AZTECS embodied the Best of Hartnell and everything after) I have to say Kate Orman has gotten all the Aztec facts and descriptions correct. The Aztecs provide an interesting look at early cultures. We, like Barbara, can not comprehend a society that sacrifices twenty thousand to please a demon. But then, ten times that died in the Gulf for oil. The Aztecs, motivated by greed and economics, were more contemporary and more similar to us as we might not wish to admit. And the book does a good job at presenting us with these very ideas.
Time travel is never better explored than in this book. Ace prevents a Huitzilin possessed assasin from killing John Lennon in Hyde Park in 1969 but eventually the Doctor witnesses his murder in New York in 1980. The scenes on the Titanic are a therapeutic alternative to that awful Cameron film with the obsolete formula of three plus hours equals epic. Finally, a good tale on the doomed ship.
All in all, this is one of the finest Doctor Who books ever written. It works well within the context of the Alternative Universe Saga and is a fine piece of literature on its own. At the time of its release, it was the first book ever a woman and the first a non-Anglo. It is also Kate Orman's first novel. And like other brilliant Doctor Who such as GHOST LIGHT, repeated readings will reveal more and more. Find this however you can and read it at least once every year. It's one of Doctor Who's finest.