The Unnaturalists – Tiffany Trent

12988074Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly – the cover for this (and the sequel The Tinker King) is sexy as hell. Like, in my line of work, I get excited (and a bit jealous) about great book covers but I love these.

There, now I can be less shallow and suggest you might also like this book for something other than moody steampunk and typeface-porn. Because you probably will.

I’ll try and race through the set-up: we’re in a Victoriana London that’s religious system now runs on science (Saint Tesla, etc.) and Vespa Nyx works in a museum of ‘Unnaturals’ – mythic, magic beasts in suspended animation for the delight of the public. Meanwhile, outside the city, there’s the Tinkers, who live in harmony with the unnaturals, on the edge of the toxic creeping Waste, and are being picked off by the city-dwellers, dragged off to work in factories. Which is what happens to the family of thirteen-year-old Syrus. And, as we might expect, Vespa and Syrus’ paths are due to cross…

However – refreshingly- it’s not just a pedestrian steampunk outing. In fact, it takes only the fine bones of the genre, and fleshes it out with the sort of at-one-with-the-elementals mysticism and cultural diversity that it put me in mind less of airships and clockwork than series like Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori. Also, happily, it takes a turning about halfway through that satisfyingly derails your expectations, and builds to a showdown at the end that for once doesn’t feel either pat or anticlimactic (and I have to say, that’s rare to find in adventure fiction.)

The Unnaturalists isn’t a perfect novel in one of those ways which is really more a compliment than an actual complaint. Chiefly, I wish it was a good half a book longer, because the first third is taken up in such a kaleidoscopic medley of wonderful invention (the Tinkers! The sylphids! The manticore! The factories! The Raven Guard! The Architects! The aristocracy!) that it’s hard to take a chance to fully appreciate the really wonderful world-building that’s going on. I’d happily read the padded version of this novel where I can really explore everything that’s happening, because Trent has really gone all out on imagining a firecracker of a world. Whilst I appreciated the imagination, it was hard to actually settle to the story, and it’s a third of the pagecount before the story settles into itself. (I’m always loathe to pick up on this sort of thing though – the book classifies itself as YA on the reverse of the cover, and I know from other writers that publishers central tenet for this genre is ‘faster! faster! faster!’)

And, of course, there’s a romance, but thankfully not one that absorbs every waking moment of the female protagonists mind. She might have a touch too many ‘oh his beautiful eyes’ moments, but she’s also canny and independent to offset it and – in a great touch – there’s a nice little plot twist in the relationship that keeps it fresh and, I admit, I didn’t see coming.

Thankfully, there’s a sequel – The Tinker King – which I will be grabbing hold of sharpish. Setup out of the way, it should be great to see the characters go out an explore the extraordinary world that Tiffany Trent has created. It’s a great adventure, it’s very well-written (not a clunking sentence to be seen anywhere) and it’s got a bucket-load more imagination than a good deal of the books on your shelf, I promise you.

Doctor Who – 11 Stories

Doctor-Who-11-Doctors-11-Stories-Neil-Gaiman-book-reviewI bought this book in some anticipation back during the 50th Anniversary, and then just sort of… forgot. I was reminded of it by the very friendly and seemingly mirror-of-my-every-interest Bec Graham when she pointed out during #bookaday that one of my picks – Enid Blyton’s Five-Find-Outers – turn up in the collection. So I’ve unboxed it (all the books are now unpacked! Celebrations are to be had!) and plowed through it on a weekend working back home in the country.

There’s a short story for each of the eleven incarnations of the Doctor (no War Doctor, sadly) by a well-known name from storytelling of recent years. There’s a slightly odd mix of marketing happening here, as they’re mostly all stalwarts of the young adult novel (either long-established like Malorie Blackman and Philip Reeve, mega-selling and beloved of the current generation like Derek Landy and Charlie Higson, adult-crossover wunderkind, like Neil Gaiman and Patrick Ness, or just generally a really odd choice – like Richelle Mead) but the weighting of this on the fifty-year anniversary and the release of it for the kindle in 11 small segments is very adult in its approach. That aside, it’s still a great lineup, and you’d expect good things.

Eoin Colfer’s A Big Hand For The Doctor is not a great start. I’ve never read Artemis Fowl, but I was seduced by the frankly beautiful cover for WARP and then promptly gave up after six lumpen pages of prose. This story is laboured, unimaginative and wastes a great Peter Pan pastiche on a rather out-of-character action romp that hangs on a MacGuffin that, had it been introduced in a full novel or episode might have creaked by, but totally unbalances this slender story. Gah.

Michael Scott’s The Nameless City is a step up, though not a huge one. At least Scott can string a sentence together with a big of verve, which is handy, because half of this story is tense waiting for the doors of the TARDIS to open. However, whilst I’m all for literary mash-ups, I remain unconvinced that the barmy, optimistic world of Doctor Who is a good mesh with the dark, wild fear of the Cthulhu mythos.

Marcus Sedgewick’s The Spear of Destiny is – judging by a few of the reviews I read afterwards – pretty much exactly what you might expect from a Third Doctor story: i.e. James Bond with the Vikings. It’s entertaining, hits all the right notes in the right order, and would probably make a pretty good episode, and that’s the long and short of what I can say for it. It sails on it’s crowd-pleasing character returns which are, in fairness, rather excellent.

And just when I’d feared the book was going to be that worst kind of YA (the one that assumes its readers can handle on the most basic Scooby-Doo adventure, the collection gets good. Philip Reeve’s The Roots of Evil is a world-building gem that plonks the Doctor on a tree-planet, where people live amongst the roots and somewhere deep inside the very angry spirit of the trees has been waiting for the Doctor to arrive – without harbouring anything near the kind of hero-worship we’re used to with the Doctor. Atmospheric and emotive, and at last, a strong step forward.

Followed immediately by Patrick Ness’ Tip of the Tongue. It’s the first story to really tackle Doctor Who with anything other than superficial whimsy, and although other reviewers complained it was Doctor-lite, I don’t mind at all. In fact, bring on Ness to write the next Doctor-lite TV episode, in my opinion. In this story, a craze has spread across America amongst teens for a small fluffy creature that sits hooked on the tongue and always speaks the truth. Our hero hopes that his will help him land the unattainable cool girl from school. His friend to whom he remains oblivious hopes he learns his lesson. It’s a coming of age story filtered through Doctor Who with great results, and features what may be the finest sentence in English Literature, “the sheepfish looked sheepish.” Oh yes.

Richelle Mead’s Something Borrowed is a bit of a falter in the pace – but not a terrible one. Like The Spear of Destiny, it’s doggedly functional. When you’ve got people in here like Ness and Reeve, it’s hard for your prose not to come of a bit lumpy, but it trots along fast enough and gains bonus points for what might be the gnarliest invention in the anthology: a laser prison that shrinks every time you touch it, constricting tighter the more you struggle.

Malorie Blackman’s The Ripple Effect, however, is brilliant. Blackman has set sights on one of the most fundamental icons of Doctor Who and really whacked it one. You see, in this parallel universe, the Dalek’s are nice. They’re philosophers, scholars, and healers. People from throughout the galaxy flock to them, like zen masters. Surely this is a better parallel world… right?

Alex Scarrow’s Spore is an odd beast. Tonally, it seems a very long way away from Doctor Who, being more in the vein of the post-apocalyptic body horror games like Fallout, but it seems to work for the Eighth Doctor and – whether it ‘fits’ or not – the story was actually pretty absorbing (and nasty, too.) In fact, it has something of a feeling of Torchwood about it – X Files with time travel.

Charlie Higson has sidestepped the fan expectation with his Ninth Doctor story The Beast of Babylon – this is not a Rose story. In fact, this is a whole adventure that occurs in the seconds between the TARDIS dematerialising at the end of Rose, when she’s said no to coming adventuring, and it rematerialising to mention that it also travels in time. Here, the Doctor scoops up another companion – whose true nature is cleverly disguised by the narration – and they go off on a hunt for a mythic planet-devourer who’s popping up sometime in Babylonian history. It’s what Doctor Who vs Cthulhu could have been, and the Ninth Doctor characterisation is spot on – of all of them, this is the easiest to envision being performed, with Christopher Ecclestone’s voice shouting off the page.

Derek Landy’s The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage is just… brilliant. The Doctor and Martha end up in the world of stories, in which everyone and everything serves its story purpose only. Archly deconstructing the tenets of Enid Blyton books and their ilk, it’s liable to make you laugh (and sometimes wince) at its unpicking of your childhood reading, and then tops the whole thing off with a blinding chase scene through all the stories that Martha can remember (Rapunzel vs Dracula!). I loved this story.

And then we round it off with Neil Gaiman’s story Nothing O’Clock, which, much like his episodes for the show, is mainly about the fun of watching Neil Gaiman do Neil Gaiman, with a TARDIS. This one’s all about his trick of making the mundane (corporate accounting in this case) monstrous (aliens buy up every single home in the world, in order to take over earth legally) which sounds dull precis but is smart-as-a-whip in practice. It’s hard not to just take the story on face value as a very strong entry in the anthology, but the reality is, Gaiman can do better, and this one is all about set-up with a bit of a half-gasp of an ending (a great outing for anyone else, a touch disappointing for Gaiman.)

All in all, though, it’s a decent volume. Not spectacular, but certainly decent, and certainly a fitting tribute to fifty years. There’s a split between writers that have taken the premise of Doctor Who to write a straight-forward little adventure, and those that have decided to use it to tell something inventive, which – most of the time – is Doctor Who down to a tee anyway.