Thursday, 9 August 2012

WHO REVIEW: Dark Horizons by J. T. Colgan

J. T. Colgan wasn’t a name I was expecting to be announced in connection with Doctor Who. Better known as Jenny Colgan, she is a bestselling author, but one known for what can only be called chick-lit. She writes books with names like Sixteen Again and The Good, the Bad and the Dumped. This is presumably why the BBC decided to disguise her under a gender-neutral version of her name, fearing that the usual Doctor Who readership would be put off by a such an author writing for the Doctor. Now, I could make some snide comment about how my Mum loves Colgan’s work, and it’s true, she does. She also loves Terry Pratchett, Iain M. Banks and Stephen Baxter, so perhaps we shouldn’t make any genre-constricted judgments. After all, if there’s one group who should be used to having their tastes mocked, it’s science fiction fans.

As it happens, Colgan is a perfect choice for Doctor Who. As she points out herself, she is a long-term fan of the show, back at least as far as the Davison days, although a cheeky cameo in her book would suggest that Tom Baker is her Doctor. Of course, being a fan of the show doesn’t mean she’s necessarily going to be able to write well for it; thankfully, she’s a natural. Dark Horizons, the fourth in the BBC’s range of occasional larger format hardbacks, is a cracking read. It would fit in nicely amongst the BBC’s old EDA range; not one of the groundbreaking books, but a solid, enjoyable one.

Dark Horizons places a solitary eleventh Doctor in Scotland in the twelfth century. He arrives at the island of Lewis in search of a game of chess, Colgan using the famous Lewis chess set as a hook on which to hang the novel. The Viking crew who are transporting the set have something else in their hold: the Princess Freydis, daughter of their king and promised to a revolting Icelandic monarch. Colgan has clearly done her research, and brings the setting to evocative life. She does a particularly good job of making the Vikings seem to be genuine, three-dimensional people, with their own hopes and fears. True, some of them are unrepentant bastards, but others have some decency about them, and come to understand the consequences of their actions on others. However, Colgan never forgets that these people have committed atrocities, and that the people of Lewis are right to fear them. These villagers have a hard life, never far from starvation, but they are not an unhappy people, and it’s easy to see why the Doctor stays with them for as long as he does.

Well, it’s also because of the extraterrestrial threat that is threatening the locals. The Arill are a species of energy-based intelligences existing as a sort of information network. They make for an interesting alien life form, although Colgan doesn’t seem to have the same flair for the science fictional side of things as the historical. The Arill come across as an insubstantial threat, in spite of their propensity to set living things alight as they try to channel through them. This leads to some quite impressive moments of horror, as innocents are subsumed by the Arill’s power. To begin with, the aliens are restricted to the sea, leading to some excellent nautical passages, and even a deep-sea sequence, although the TARDIS, peculiarly, has developed a fear of water and suffers severely from its time at sea.

Where Colgan really excels, and this should come as no surprise, is in her characterisation. By utilising a companionless Doctor, the supporting cast are given the chance to shine. Most notable are the Princess Freydis, a not-always-likeable but very believable character, and Henrik, a remarkably open-minded Viking with whom she falls in love. The romance between the two is made all the more believable by its slow development and their difficulty in overcoming their differences; she is a young woman torn from her privileged background, while he is a farm boy for whom the life of a Viking is the greatest thing to which he had ever previously aspired. Some might not like that a romance is so central to the book, and many fans will probably complain that this is what you get when chick-lit authors are allowed to write for it. However, romance and relationships have been a major part of the series for several years now, and this facet of the story seems very much in keeping with series current style.

Other characters that stand out include Corc, the Lewis chieftain, written with great sympathy, and his youngest son, Luag, who is a precocious child and yet not at all irritating. Even minor characters receive decent characterisation, though. Where Colgan really impresses, though, is in her portrayal of the Doctor. She absolutely nails the eleventh Doctor, and it takes no effort at all to imagine Matt Smith saying these lines. Perhaps inevitably, the locals immediately wonder if he is a god, with Freydis, in particular, convinced that he is Loki the Trickster. Amusingly, it turns out that perhaps he really is! In spite of his fast talking, the Doctor is a little lost here, unsure how to solve the situation while maintaining the peace. Indeed, he’s unused to being  presented with a problem that can’t be solved in a couple of hours (perhaps a little jab at the frenetic style of the new series).

The smooth characterisation of the leads, along with the straightforward nature of the story - not unwelcome after all the complexities of the series lately - and the uncomplicated prose style, make this an easy read. That’s not to say that there are no remarkable moments. Colgan has a knack for realising the differences between out time and the novel’s distant setting. There are numerous amusing communications problems, as the Doctor struggles to find words for concepts that neither the Vikings nor islanders have any inkling of. Brilliantly, when introduced to the TARDIS, it isn’t the impossible dimensions that impress Henrik, but the colour - he’s never even seen pure blue before. Such a colour simply doesn’t exist in his world. It’s just one of a number of memorable moments in an undemanding, but very enjoyable addition to the series.

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