A story too broad and too deep for Ben's hard drive.
Everyone reading this review doubtless already knows the story of how two names came to be on the spine of SO VILE A SIN. I have nothing to add to the tale other than to relate that I always picture Kate Orman coming to the rescue as a Doctor Who version of Harvey Keitel as the tuxedoed Winston Wolf in PULP FICTION. ("You're sending the Orman? Rebecca, mother-editor, that's all you needed to say!")
Vastly different images come to mind when I think about the past works of Aaronovitch and Orman. Saying "Kate Orman novel" to me conjures up thoughts of many heartbreakingly touching character moments strung together in a tight plot. "Ben Aaronovitch novel" makes me think of solar system-sized transit mechanics, solar system-sized civilizations, and armies dropping big things out of orbit onto the heads of other armies. However, these caricatures of mine do both authors a disservice, as each has his or her particular strengths and weaknesses. A fan of their previous individual work, I was extremely curious as to how their styles would mesh. Although it's perhaps a little unfair of me to judge this as a true collaboration, given the circumstances behind the pairing.
The combination of their two distinct styles is very interesting. Some of my favorite moments in Orman's novels have been when she concentrates on illustrating a single setting, such as the human colonies in SLEEPY and THE YEAR OF INTELLIGENT TIGERS. Here, she does much the same thing, only instead of confining herself to one place, she has several of Ben's Really Big settings to populate. The first hundred pages are spent warping from one gorgeous setting to the next. Although these are great locations (and superbly brought to life) I kept wondering when the story was going to settle down and get started. (My thought processes: "Wow! This is a great location; now the story will start here! [A few dozen pages later.] Wow! This is another great location! Now the story will start here! [Even more pages later.] Ooh, an even more interesting location... with robots and hardware! Now the story will surely begin here!")
The impression that this gave me was (and I am likely completely wrong in this evaluation, but it's how it felt to this reader) that it was a struggle to get all of these great individual pieces into the final manuscript. More thought may have gone into determining how to flesh out each of these components with little time available to figure out how they fit together and whether they were all really needed in the first place. It's not that all these things jar with each other, more than they just don't quite mesh smoothly.
I think the biggest problem is that there's just too much going on. Indeed, I was surprised when I got to the end and realized that the Ormanovitch managed to fit everything I had just read into a mere 312 pages. We aren't given the chance to really dwell on anything, and this is a pity because there's a lot of great stuff going on. This is why I find it difficult to be too critical of the content; it's the structure that doesn't seem to work. The character of Vincenzi, to take an example, is given quite a bit of build-up, but then just seems to fade. On the other hand, the galactic politicking is mentioned early, but so casually that the later power struggles seem to come out of nowhere. Roz's death (no spoiler this -- it's mentioned on the first page) is indeed haunting, epic and powerful. But while the sacrifice itself engages on the emotional level, the actual events leading up to it seem somewhat cold and detached.
Before I sign off, I should point out that despite the paragraphs I've spent complaining (I find it strangely easier to analyze flaws than to praise successes), I ultimately did enjoy reading this. In addition to the aforementioned settings, the characters are fantastic. I enjoyed seeing Roz interacting with her family, even if their motivations baffled me. The plot, although wandering and disjointed, is ultimately satisfying. The development of the book's alien races and the future history that builds upon what we saw in ORIGINAL SIN are also both a lot of fun.
Given the circumstances surrounding the publication of this novel, it's almost ludicrous to suggest "oh, if only they'd had more time to iron out the problems", because, obviously time was not a luxury available. But, oh, if only they'd had more time to iron out the problems. Although it suffers from some flaws, I can't help but love a lot of the pieces that make up this novel. At times it touches brilliance, which is exactly what we would expect from a book with those two names on the cover.
One of the advantages of reading the New Adventures several years down the line is that I can actually read the novels in the order intended, with So Vile A Sin completing the ‘Psi-Powers’ arc rather than being a tagged-on coda a few books down the line. It’s been a rambling sequence of novels, and while I prefer the tightness of the Timewrym or Times Crucible sequences, at least it hasn’t waffled around as much as some of the EDA arcs.
The death of Roz hangs heavy over this novel, but her actual death is kept off page in a low-key ending. I’m not sure why the decision to kill off Roz was taken - presumably to toughen up Chris’s character - though her death is a timely reminder that the Doctors companions aren’t superheroes. While not a particular favourite, at least Roz never outstayed her welcome (hello Ace and Benny).
So Vile A Sin goes for an epic space opera feel, but ultimately the huge cast means that there are very few characters that actually have any impact on the reader, and the constant changes in location soon begin to get wearying. The novel ties up the ‘Psi’ arc satisfactorily, but its real problem is a chronic dose of sequelitis. We’ve already had the rampaging N-form in Damaged Goods; we’ve had psi-powers physically transforming people into monsters in The Death of Art; we’ve explored the Time Lord battle between the rational and un-rational states of existence in Christmas on a Rational Planet. So Vile A Sin plays with all these themes, but it doesn’t really have anything new to add to the mix - it’s a sort of ‘greatest hits’ of the last few novels, and besides the death of Roz there seems little storywise to make this novel stand out.
An adequate and necessary arc finale, but as a novel in it’s own right So Vile A Sin fails to rise above mediocrity.
"If you step back into history, I won't be able to protect you."
The leavetaking of any companion (but especially the good ones)is traumatic, like losing a friend or family member. It doesn't matter how the companion parts from the Doctor, whether for a nobler cause or for hormones' sake, it's still sad. In "So Vile A Sin" Roz Forrester gives up travelling with the Doctor for a taste of home and family and she will definitely be missed.
A culmination of the last eight books or so, "So Vile A Sin" concludes the 'psi-power' adventures that started with Orman's earlier work, "SLEEPY" (or possibly even earlier). Warning: this is not a stand alone book. I recommend reading at minimum "SLEEPY" and "Damaged Goods" before you read 'Vile' if you want even a clue about the events leading up to it.
There are so many storylines and characters racing around in this book that it's impossible to cover tham all here. Suffice it to say the Doctor, Roz and Chris return to to Forrester family homestead to find the Empire in political turmoil (which might have something to do with the Doctor killing the Empress or it might not). As various political factions fight over who will next rule half of the known galaxy, the Doctor realizes that there are some very strong pockets of psi-power opening a Nexus, or doorway in the Universe, that bad boys the Brotherhood wish to utilize for their own nefarious plans. Various red herrings and loose ends from the past eight books and beyond are touched on here including: the War between the ancient Time Lords and the Great Vampires, the N-form psi-power-eating monsters encountered in "Damaged Goods", the Forrester House's political ambitions and more.
There was a lot of ground here to cover and this book does manage to accomplish much event-wise while still delving further into Roz's character (as Orman did so admirably in "Return of the Living Dad"). The book deals with choices on the galactic scale and the interpersonal one as the Doctor and his companions consider what or who they might've been had they taken other roads.
As for the writing, I felt myself drifting occasionally from the event scenes, being much more drawn to the intimate personal scenes that are Orman's speciality. There are enough beautiful scenes appreciating the fullness of Roz's role as companion and character to satisfy any Roz fan. Equally, there are enough lovely little fannish references to everything from "Star Trek" to British cult author Jeff Noon to satisfy the most esoteric of readers. Orman's wry humor comes through as well, giving all of the characters wonderful self-aware, self-deprecating moments.
If I seem to dwell on Orman's contributions rather than Aaronovitch, it is due to the overwhelming impression that though the shape of the book was sculpted by Aaronovitch, the personality was given by Orman. If it was a more collaborative partnership, then I praise Aaronovitch for allowing the voice of Orman, most truly the voice of Roz, to shine through.
On another note, it's quite nice to see the image of two strong, successful African-American women gracing the cover of this book, an unusual occurrence still, even for science fiction. Actually, another favorite cover of a New Adventure that stands out also has a stunning portrait of Roz on the cover. (I vote for Alfre Woodard should Roz ever see the light of screen.)
I waited some time for this book and I was not disappointed. I have not yet read any of the New Adventures that chronologically follow this one (even though they've been out in the stores for months) as I'm a purist and wanted to read it as it 'happened'. It is a frustrating path the New Adventures chose to follow by becoming serial adventures rather than stand alones, but this 'Missing' New Adventure caps the psi-power stories well, though it would've been tighter (not to mention easier to remember which plot threads to follow) had this been published as the third direct book in a trilogy with the aforementioned "SLEEPY" and "Dangerous Goods".
Still, if you've been paying attention for the last few books, I think this proves a strong addition and a well-plotted (credit to Aaronovitch where it's definitely due) denouement.
So long, Roz. Make justice.