Saturday, 15 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #22 – The Left-Handed Hummingbird by Kate Orman

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
The Left-Handed Hummingbird
By Kate Orman

Where do you start with a novel that goes backwards and forwards at the same time?  When the Doctor, Ace and Bernice show up in The Left-Handed Hummingbird, the plot's already laid out before them, other characters being fully briefed; they go to various locations later on purely because they meet someone who was there.  It's ambitious.  Not for the first time reading a New Adventure, I imagined Steven Moffat taking notes.

Kate Orman is one of the more talked-about New Adventurers, and I can see why.  I was immediately impressed.  (And a little relieved.  You never know with hype.) The prose is thoughtful and confident.  There's a lovely bit right at the start as the Doctor stands on a street corner trying to pick up a psychic trail, that toys effortlessly with second-person-past-tense.  ("You might have wondered what he was doing there, standing alone and unnoticed.  But if you happened to be Huitzilin, standing at the window of the hotel room with one ghost hand pushing back the curtains, you would have known.  And you might have smiled.  There you were, a mere eight flights above him, winning a game of hide and seek.")  We're frequently privy to trains of thought, each of which tumbles convincingly on.  ("She didn't want to leave him alone.  She had to leave him alone.")  And there's some apt character development, as Bernice wonders if three's a crowd, and considers getting out.  There's some lovely Bernice writing dotted around here; much attention is paid to her being a woman out of time.  ("She imagined the horrors of twentieth century medical technology and didn't want to know.")  I love when writers give her something to do, even when it's pointing out that she can be a bit of a third wheel, but especially when they highlight what makes her different from the rest.  Mind you, I could do without "Cruk!", for the same reason "Frak!" makes me giggle in Battlestar Galactica.  But there's a "Smeg!" in here for good measure, which I don't mind, so I guess I should pipe down.  (I doubt I'm the only one who has adopted "smeg" in everyday parlance...)

A story about an intangible, bloodthirsty god of war, there are plenty of evocative and even horrifying moments.  ("If Ce Xochitl had looked back, he might have seen his strange guest start to shiver, his blue eyes locked on the temple.  He could not move.  He shook with revelation.  The temple was looking at him.")  There are also quaint little funny ones.  ("[The Doctor] was the one everyone thought was Quetzalwhosis.  God knew he probably was.  He had turned out to be weirder people.") But as I dipped in and out of it over a few days, I found The Left-Handed Hummingbird more like a collection of moments than a single, coherent story.  Despite the marvellous prose, I didn't love it.

A complicated timeline is a sure way to impress a Doctor Who fan.  It's the sort of thing we ought to see a lot more of.  But knowing the Doctor and co. must visit points A, B and C makes it all seem a bit perfunctory.  There's a line early on stating that, since Christián Alvarez (a man who met them decades ago, whom they haven't met yet) has summoned them, they must survive whatever is to come or he wouldn't have asked.  Just knowing that makes a dangerous visit to ancient Mexico, or an emotive rendez-vous on the Titanic, or a strangely underwhelming but-apparently-the-scariest-bit sojourn in the '60s feel like bus stops on the way back to the first chapter.  The villain, Huitzilin, toys with fear and death and comes dangerously close to absorbing the Doctor.  Except he won't, will he?  Okay, we all know he won't succeed because it's an ongoing series – we must suspend disbelief or there'd be no point tuning in at all – but laying it all out like that from the start really took some of the fun out of it for me.  Yes, time can be re-arranged.  That's the point of the arc that began in Blood Heat, and it's not like we know everything from the start.  The book's coda underlines that despite the rules, it was all to play for.  But there are limits.  I felt like the story was constrained by them.

And there's another problem with this sort of wibbly-wobbly globetrotting: just when you're settling down, you're off again, briefly wondering if anything was achieved besides ticking off another locale and the Doctor having marginally more of a clue what's going on.  Perhaps the best sequences are the opening in Mexico City (where catastrophes befall our heroes right from the off) and the trip to Aztec times (which is terrifying and emotive territory, as John Lucarotti showed).  But I was often looking back at these or other sequences and feeling like they were other lives, or at least other books.  At one point, pretty much just to raise your eyebrows, three weeks gallop past.  Orman cuts and runs with characters, too; she makes a decent fist of Christián, who appears (out of sequence) throughout the story, but other characters can find themselves not as nuanced (the frustrated paranormal investigator Macbeth) or barely written at all (the hippies).  Again, Orman is skilled enough to bring it home with the occasional sock-to-the-solar-plexus, especially when it's directly tied to the leads; there's a stunning, tiny moment where Bernice clutches a list of Titanic survivors and weeps, because moments earlier she caught a man's name and it isn't on there.  And there are some delicious passages about the TARDIS, including its tendency to play "musical rooms".  But on the whole I had to strain at The Left-Handed Hummingbird to fathom where we were going, and what was at stake.  It was probably written with considerable thought and much excitement, but there's also a kid-in-a-candy-store element.  Somehow there's too much and too little to it.

For the first time since Transit, another odd book, I'm thinking this may work better the second time.  (Certainly once I'm no longer checking my watch and willing this arc to end, or even progress.)  Like Aaronovitch, this is a writer to reckon with, but the story takes a form which doesn't quite hit the spot – for me, anyway.  I'm still excited to read more by Kate Orman, and I'm not about to give up on books that side-step linear storytelling.  Keep it varied and don't be afraid to go odd, I say.  But each book is its own thing, and despite the rich authorial voice, this one falls short.


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