EARTHWORLD by Jacqueline Rayner

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Hooray! Another woman writing for the EDA range!

Now, it's not as if we think female authors should be picked just to even up the numbers. Obviously, they have to earn their place. It's just that contrary to appearances there are a lot of female Who fans out there, including us. And after years and years and years of male scriptwriters and novelists it's a breath of fresh air to look at Who from a woman's perspective.

Like we said, though, any new novelists in the line have to earn their place. Is the selection of Rayner just favouritism? Or is Earthworld worth it? We'd say it gets there on merit. It's by no means perfect, but where it's good, it's very good indeed.

It's certainly a very girly novel. And as we're all girlies here at Androzani, we like that a lot. Bang bang, bleed, die, yawn yawn yawn - we get very bored with that stuff. Give us character development, we cry. And that's just what Rayner does.

First of all, and most notably, she gets top marks from us for her development of Anji. Anji's potential in Escape Velocity was apparent, but in Rayner's hands, she really shines: a complex, likeable character, enjoyably real and with lashings of backbone. If she stays this interesting, she's going to be a real star.

Amongst what's mostly a light tone, Rayner mixes in Anji's pain over the death of her boyfriend, using the Bernice-esque device of imaginary emails. While this, together with the other sad bits such as as Fitz's angst, sometimes jars against the jolly romp, it also deepens the characters involved to great effect. It's just this kind of stuff we've complained so often about being missing from other EDAs, and it's a refreshing change seeing events actually having an impact on characters, instead of them shrugging them off on the way to the next slaughter scene.

Rayner also draws very real-feeling relationships between Anji and the rest of the TARDIS crew. Her reservations about Fitz are exactly what we'd be expecting her to feel, and we'll be intrigued to see where other writers take this pair. As for the Doctor, Anji's reaction to him is just, well, perfect: she's given him her cautious approval, but her feet are too firmly on the ground to be utterly bowled over by his charm just yet. Nice. We note that Rayner wastes no time, either, in flinging Anji into a clinch or two with the Doctor, hedged about, of course, with appropriate excuses. We're sure it'll make the purists snarl - in fact, that's probably why it's there - but we thought the touch of Mary Sueism was an excellent giggle.

Fitz and the Doctor are also well portrayed. We particularly like Fitz's struggles with his nice new coat - it's details like these that really bring a character to life, and this stuff combined with his (somewhat belated) identity crisis make an already great character even better. As for the Doctor, while he inclines a bit too far towards the wide-eyed huggy-kissy innocent of yore, Rayner hints at enough darker stuff seething behind the (apparently) ice-blue eyes to keep him interesting.

So, TARDIS crew v. good (spot the deliberate Bridget Jones allusion), which counts for a great deal with us, since we think they're the most important part of any book. But what about the rest of it? Well, we love the humour, particularly the theme of the hopelessly misinterpreted Earth history. Some of the set pieces, like the struggle with the drawbridge, are a hoot. And overall, it's a short (check out the size of those top margins), fast, entertaining read.

On the other hand, though, Rayner gets very low marks indeed for originality. There's very little here that hasn't been done before, either outside Who - Westworld, Jurassic Park - or inside it - The War Games, Kursaal. We've even seen triplet princesses before in the Trillium novels. In fact, it's so blatant that we have to wonder if it was deliberate. If so, we can't for the life of us think why, since ironic homage is no substitute for a plot and setting of your very own.

Earthworld's characters outside the TARDIS crew are pretty uninspired. The triplet princesses are presumably meant to be hilarious, but they left us cold, probably because they're so relentlessly one-note. The "terrorists" start off interesting but don't seem to go anywhere. The rest, including the dull and obvious villain, are ciphers.

As for the plot, it couldn't be described as a high point. Like the Sixth Doctor, it's soft in the middle, and overall not a lot happens except some running around. One of the prices you pay for a comic tone is the risk of a detached audience, and the tone's so light here it's hard to really care about anything that's happening. Rayner giving the princesses very similar names all starting with A means it's very difficult to tell them apart. And we see far, far, far too much of the bloody sonic screwdriver.

The cliched setting and weak plot means we can't rate Earthworld up there with the best of the EDAs. But if every EDA writer took as much care with the TARDIS crew as Rayner does, we'd be opening them with an awful lot more anticipation than we do now.

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