CASUALTIES OF WAR by Steve Emmerson

"How do we make such stories when we have so much real horror in the world?"

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Well, you can't say Steve Emmerson's not a brave man, if a little misguided. In his first Who novel, he takes on Pat Barker's Booker Prize-winning Regeneration.

And loses in straight sets.

A novel set in a psychiatric hospital during the First World War was always going to bring Regeneration to mind, and it would have to be a very special book indeed that wouldn't come out the loser. This is not that book.

The major problem with Casualties Of War is that the horror of trench warfare was so extreme that it's virtually impossible to come up with anything to top it. Faced with this dilemma, Emmerson's feeble solution is to march on some bog-standard zombies. Not only is this ineffectual - we'd rather face his creations than the mud of Ypres any day - it's just plain crass. While Autumn Mist wasn't exactly our book of the year, its violence was at least grounded in the reality of World War II. Casualties of War, on the other hand, manages no more than a glancing acknowledgment of what's going on in the trenches. Apart from a few references, this could be any zombie story in any village at any time. Dealing with this material was never going to be easy, but it's a shame that Emmerson fails quite so spectacularly to come to grips with it.

So the basic premise is fundamentally flawed. But what about the rest of it? As usual, it's a mixed bag. The story's very Doctor-centred, which is always a good thing, and the Doctor's more engaging and consistent than he was in The Burning. But two books into this arc, we're starting to find the (presumably editorial) approach to him somewhat annoying. Yes, we know he's supposed to be all alien and that, and we're not suggesting he starts spouting monologues about exactly how he's feeling. But what's the point of putting him through such an extreme experience if the only effect on him we get to see is puzzlement and the occasional misty look?

There's the practical stuff, too, which is disappointingly entirely ignored. Under normal circumstances, we don't want to know how this stuff works, but that's all different now the Doctor's stuck on Earth with no visible means of support. How, exactly, is he surviving? We know why he turned up where he did in The Burning, but why is he now following up stories in the tabloids? And why is he carting that pesky TARDIS all around the country with him instead of leaving it nice and safe in a left luggage somewhere? Inquiring minds want to know.

Casualties Of War's characterisation is variable, but on the whole pretty passable. Mary's a nice character, and the Doctor's relationship with her is potentially the most interesting part of the book, but it's disappointing that as with the World War I material Emmerson bottles out. For Mary at least, it starts with a, er, bang: the world stops turning and the birds are silenced as soon as she claps eyes on him. Blimey. As for the Doctor, Emmerson has an each way bet. Although he's flirting for Gallifrey at the beginning, he manages to entirely overlook Mary's amorous advances later on. And, confusingly, at the end we see him shedding a tear over Mary's billet-doux. It's clear that Emmerson wants to develop this side of the Doctor - and there's no reason why he shouldn't - but in the end it's all too much for him and he just tiptoes timidly away. It's a sadly wasted opportunity.

There are some other fairly interesting characters here, such as Briggs and Cromby, but there are also a lot of people who seem to pop up then go away again for no discernible reason. Characters are more than furniture: they need to earn their place, not just hang round to make up the numbers and then piss off. As for the villain, in his attempt to keep us guessing as to whether he's Evil Dude or not Emmerson makes him so inconsistent as to be completely unbelievable.

The story starts well, with an intriguing setup. But as ever it's easier to start a story than finish it, and the second half of the book, with its by-the-numbers gore and monsters, brought with it the familiar tedium that so many of the EDAs have made peculiarly their own. And as we've already said, who cares about a tree with dead animals dangling from it when a few miles away across the Channel corpses are hanging from barbed wire? As for the ending, we were too bored to be following it closely, but we eventually realised that Emmerson had committed the cardinal sin of having the most important bit happen offstage.

And the writing? Well, it's not going to be any ordinary old prose for Mr Emmerson. No sirree. Instead, we get bizarre turns of phrase such as "a murky smile passed through the Doctor's cheeks" and "his jaw whirled around the bottom half of his face". Seriously strange. Then there's his odd description of land girls morphing into men and his apparent belief that "suffrage" means "liberation". Apart from this kind of stuff, though, the writing's not too bad: if he tried a bit less hard, his prose would be a lot more readable.

Yes, it's a first novel. But as the cover price is the same, we don't see why we as readers should cut it any slack. It's got its good points, but ultimately it's sunk by an unforgivably dull premise. Better luck next time.

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