Friday, April 11, 2008

A Tale of Two Novels (a review in two parts)

The Many Hands: Book the First
In which the Doctor runs around a great deal and a soldier is hit by stone chips at a surprising distance

Well I'm exactly 100 pages into Paul Dale Smith's new NSA, The Many Hands and so far it suffers from some of the issues which have affected other books in the range.

Before I go any further I should point out that I think Smith is one of the top 2 or 3 writers to come out of Doctor Who - Heritage is one of my favourite books in the BBC range, his two short stories for the Enlightenment fanzine are up with Magrs and Moffat in terms of quality, and The Albino's Dancer, his Time Hunter novella, is excellent.

As a result The Many Hands is very readable - the characterisation of the two leads rings true, and when the author takes the time there's some really lovely writing in it. But the problem is that there's not a lot of time given over to anything other than moving the story on via one action scene after another.

The story starts in the middle of one such scene, with a stagecoach careening through the Old Town of Edinburgh (or as the Doctor amusingly points out, just 'The Town' at this stage in the city's life) with the Doctor on top battling a dead man and Martha elsewhere running through the
streets to get in front of the coach and stop it, new series style, with yet another handy sonic screwdriver function. From there, the next hundred pages are a series of run/get captured/run/get captured escapades - and it's not even the cliche of a series of set pieces joined together by linking narrative, as each breathless bit of running away blends into the next with barely a space for a linking sentence or two between.

To add to this, even the Doctor/Martha's escapes are simplistic to the point of non-existence. There's rarely a clever escape plan - they simply run away in a manner reminiscent of things of the Pertwee years, or some fortuitous distraction appears to distract their capturers' attention. Again, it's all exciting stuff on one basic level and if that's the audience it's aimed at then The Many Hands works perfectly, but there's little to engage the brain or cause the reader to mentally applaud authorial/Doctoral ingenuity (in which, of course, the books are just mimicking the TV series pretty closely).

It takes all of 100 pages in fact, for something original to occur, with the appearance of the titular hands. That's more than a third of the way through the book.

Smith knows his trade though and he can invest even this kind of thing with a degree of talent lacking in real journeymen writers like Justin Richards or Trevor Baxendale when he takes the time to do so. As it stands the majority of the book would never have held my attention when I was one of the famed intelligent 12 year olds that Who fiction likes to think of as its intended audience, but there are moments when you can see that there is such a book hiding beneath the 100 mile an hour romp.

The problem is that there's no time given over to thought or introspection - nobody except (occasionally) the Doctor and Martha seem to think about anything, with the result that everyone bar the two leads comes across as fairly cardboard. When someone does think about something other than what's going on around them, the results are excellent - Martha's musing that certain characters were exhibiting 'rather more ambition than humans were comfortable with from their corpses' is a great line, as is the Doctor's subtle manner of manipulating the soldier, McAllister. It's just that there's not enough time spent on this kind of thing, as all the available word count is spent on pushing the Doctor round Edinburgh with sundry baddies on his tail.

Perhaps it's a symptom of this that there's at least on key moment in the first part of the book which appears to make no sense. The scene in question, involves a soldier, apparently beyond rifle range of Doctor, taking a potshot at him anyway. The shot only misses by 'a few feet' (making the claim that the shot was a sign of a stupid, inexperienced soldier a bit strange) - and yet another solider manages to get himself hit in the face by splinters from the rock the bullet hits, even though he's also presumably behind or in line with the initial shooter. I might be being dense here, but it seemed a curiously inexplicable incident to me, and all I can think is that the frantic pace of the prose means that little mistakes like that are more likely to slip through unnoticed.

The whole thing is, to be honest, a little odd. Smith is a very good writer and he's a very, very good Who writer. He's shown this repeatedly in the past in other books and stories and he shows it in flashes even here. And if the guidelines for an NSA are the exact same - as is reputedly the case - then why is this book lacking the layers of Heritage, the poetry of 'Blossom' or the razorsharp cleverness of the plotting of 'Recursion'? The Many Hands is an enjoyable if somewhat brainless read and I doubt if Smith is capable of writing something not worth reading, but on the basis of the first 100 pages or so it's simply not in the same class as his earlier work. My nine year old son would probably enjoy it, but my 12 year old daughter who reads Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz and the like would, I suspect, find it a bit frenetic and lacking in depth.

So why is this so? Paul Magrs Sick Building made me laugh a lot, but even I wouldn't claim it inhabited the same universe as Verdigris or even his own Young Adult novels. Wetworld is a contender along with Sick Building for my favourite NSA, but Relative Dementias is the Mark Michalowski novel I'd take to a desert island with me. Steven Cole's Sting of the Zygons is more of a romp than The Many Hands (though The Many Hands is the better written book) but even Cole's most rompy PDA/MAs contain far more considered writing than Sting of the Zygons. And people whose opinion I trust have said similar things about Simon Guerrier and other writers' NSAs in comparison to their earlier work.

And yet all of these books are supposedly written with the same audience in mind and using the same guidelines - is everybody simply turning in lesser books co-incidentally? Or did the earlier books end up skewing far older than the guidelines strictly intended?

The Many Hands: Book the Second
In which a sinister creature is born, an underground street is explored and the Monro family tree turns out more complicated than expected

And now it gets even odder.

Having described the first 100 pages of The Many Hands as one single continuous chase sequence, involving a series of featureless supporting acts following the Doctor and Martha through Edinburgh, I now find myself viewing the remaining 141 pages as anything but.

It's almost like two completely different novels: the first suffering from the usual NSA issues and the second an excellent Gothic horror/cool steampunk (sort of) sf novel.

It really is as abrupt as that - simplistic run around shenanigans with pretty flat characters for the younger kiddies until page 100, atmospheric and creepy grown up novel filled with fully rounded individuals from page 101 onwards.

Suddenly the book is peppered with believable characters acting in an intelligent manner. McAllister, rather than simply reacting to whatever the Doctor does, becomes a far more rounded individual, capable of thinking and acting for himself. The Monro men make a substantive appearance in the story for the first time and add immeasurably to the mix. Even the Doctor stops rushing about and begins to act in a more Doctoral fashion.

The jokes also get better - Martha's confusion about whether Monro's description of himself ("we are the Chair of Anatomy") is the name of his species is both a a great joke at the expense of Russell T Davies' naming conventions for alien races and a subtle and neat plot point, for instance.

The setting too is more interesting after a round century's worth of pages. Previously everything had been set in and around a generic Royal Mile, so blandly described that even I, a lifelong Edinburgh Man, was often confused as to where the TARDIS crew were supposed to be unless a street name was provided. Now the action moves into a well-described Surgeons' Hall, about a blockaded church and down into Mary King's Close, all places filled with oppressive darknesses and creepy and cobweb filled rooms and corridors in which Smith allows his descriptive powers full range. There's no doubting where anyone is at any time by this point in the book and as the actual action (as opposed to the earlier page-filling action) takes place, the book continues to open out, with an intriguing and unusual set of villains and a reasonably well thought out conclusion (the final epilogue chapter though is a real disappointment, returning to the realm of cliche for no obvious reason).

I'm no nearer after reading The Many Hands to figuring out why the NSAs are comparatively unsatisfying when compared to earlier Who ranges. Indeed, I'm more confused if anything than before. The first part of this novel almost exactly exemplifies the definition of traditional tie-in prose - frantic running about, interchangeable supporting characters and little by way of subtlety or cleverness. The second part though is reminiscent of the better type of EDA or even the old TV series - spooky and scary in equal measure with a rich cast of extras and a distinct and lovingly recreated Gothic sensibility.

Why there's such a marked disparity I have no idea, ultimately. But hopefully if Smith does another book in the NSA range (and I hope he does) then it will be more like the later half of this particular work.

Oh, and one unrelated minor thing about the book which bears mentioning. At one point the Doctor explicitly says that the Sonic Screwdriver is not a gun, which apart from anything else demonstrates what a big fibber he is. Given that the new series constantly features David Tennant using the screwdriver exactly like a gun, it does make me wonder if that line was inserted as a request from Cardiff?

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Blogger SAF said...

Interesting, I don't think I've ever seen a book reviewed in two halves like that before. As one of the proofreading team, I remember it being pacey and atmospheric, but not separately so ;) But fair to say one of the aspects of proofreading is that you're so focused on looking for flaws, quibbles and things to pick holes in, you're dealing more in specific nitpicks than impressions. But impressionwise, IIRC I told Paul it was a very good New Series Adventure, which was meant as praise - as that was what he was commissioned to write - whereas coming from me, I could understand someone taking that as an insult ;)

2:09 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

I was a bit concerned that the review would come over a bit negative, which wasn't intended. The first part is, imo, a bit of a runaround and so not really something I'd seek out but the second half is excellent - with the result that the entirety (essentially harmless 100 pages + excellent 142 pages) equals an official Good Read.

At the same time I can't help but think pds can do better work - well I know he can, since I've read everything else he's done and it's been consistently very, very good.

I suspect that's partially due to the requirements of the NSAs which - for all that some people insist they haven't changed since the NAs - must be different in some way, given the more simplistic nature of books from pretty much every NSA writer compared to their earlier work.

They're not bad books (indeed some, like TMH, Sick Building, Only Human and Wetwrold, are really quite good) but they're not quite the kind of books the authors used to write, nor as they as interesting or as clever as those earlier books.

They are getting better though - they're worth reading now as books which is not something I'd have said of the first dozen or so. If they would just commission only writers I like, then they'd be even better of course - but it took three seasons for Rusty to start listening to me about how to write New Who so it could take a while...

2:45 pm  
Blogger TimeWarden said...

So, you think Rusty's got it right now? "Lovely jubbly"?!! I don't believe it!!!

2:19 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Tim: "So, you think Rusty's got it right now? "Lovely jubbly"?!! I don't believe it!!!"

I forgot about that line actually - along with the 'vulcanic' bit at the end I thought that was the only mis-step (and that bit had Rusty's hands all over it).

Two good ones in a row!

9:48 am  
Blogger TimeWarden said...

What about the opening?

"Here we are then!"

I winced and groaned audibly at the chirpy buffoon. There isn't a single "Doctor Who" story that couldn't begin in such an unimaginative manner and put a viewer off before it's barely started!!

I make it five bad ones in a row, not counting "Time Crash"!

3:23 am  

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