THE CITY OF THE DEAD by Lloyd Rose
Not long after Earthworld, another debut novel by a female writer. As we said about Earthworld, this is a good thing in itself: given the number of female Who fans we know are out there, it's about time we saw more of a female perspective.
Of course, affirmative action isn't enough. The book still has to be good. Fortunately, with City Of The Dead that's not a problem.
The book's not without its faults. But where it succeeds, it's very good indeed. Let's start in the most obvious place: the setting. Rose has knocked herself out to bring New Orleans to life, and she triumphs in spades. The city's incredibly well-evoked in all its lush, humid, decaying glory, with Lloyd carefully applying all the senses to make it real. It's done so well that it seems churlish to carp; our only complaint is that the author's determination to bring the city alive is just a little too obvious.
Then there's the Doctor. This is probably the best portrayal of him we've seen in the EDAs bar none: his character is complex, nuanced, believable and so, so real. Rose uses the dangerous device of seeing things from the Doctor's viewpoint, but her control is perfect - we're enough in his head to really bring him to life, but not so deep as to destroy his mystery. And more than anything else, Rose brings home his post-Earth Arc predicament more effectively than any other author has managed. She may be a little too fond of ripping his clothes off and setting about him with instruments of torture, but hey, let her have her fun, we say. It's never done Kate Orman any harm.
Other characters are handled variably. Fitz is very nice but wasted (no, not that sort of wasted). The development of Anji's relationship with Fitz is a highlight, but Anji's proto-romance is disappointing. Given that she starts the novel saying how much she's missing Dave, it's a little eyebrow-raising to find her embarking on a relationship without so much as a glance backwards. Overall, neither of these two really have much to do with anything and could comfortably have sat this one out, lolling around in the TARDIS in bubble baths or something. The occasional Americanish dialogue from the TARDIS crew is also a bit of a worry (powdered sugar, indeed).
As for the rest of them, they're pretty damned good. There are more interesting characters here than some other Who authors have managed in their entire careers. The only problem is that because of weaknesses in the plotting, many of them end up being totally spurious. This is a real shame: they're far too interesting to have been thrown away in red-herring plots tossed in to make up the page count.
And that's one of the book's major weaknesses. The stuff that happens is atmospheric and all; it's just not sufficiently integrated. In her acknowledgements Rose thanks Justin Richards for making the book more than just a string of incidents, but in our opinion, he didn't go nearly far enough.
The other plot problem, at least from our point of view, is the inclusion of magic. Maybe it's just us, but we think it fell flat on its face. Despite the occasional attempt to frame it in a scientific way, as far as we're concerned it's just too woo-woo for Who.
So it's got its problems. The thing that really redeems City Of The Dead, though, more than the setting, more than even the characterisation, is the writing. It's great: lyrical, original, superb. It's just like a real book.
We couldn't not recommend City Of The Dead. It's got far too many points in its favour for that, making it one of the line's stronger offerings. Overall, though, it falls short of greatness. Unlike the best EDAs, it's not, ironically, magical.