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THE FALL OF YQUATINE by Nick Walters
"I used to think it awful that life was so unfair. But then I thought wouldn't it be so much worse if life were fair and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we deserved them."
You'd be forgiven for thinking that this quote came from one of the characters in The Fall of Yquatine. It's actually Marcus Cole in Babylon 5, but the sentiment's about right for this novel. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, the things that happen to you come about not through any kind of karmic justice but because you just happen to be in a place at a time. It's not that the universe is against you: it's just utter indifference. And that's what happens to Yquatine.
We were lukewarm about Walters's last EDA Dominion, but Fall Of Yquatine is a distinct improvement. For a start, it's got one of the best openings we've seen, establishing a well-observed world you want to know more about and setting up some intriguing mysteries. It dips a little immediately after into a standard fairytale, then opens out into a more-or-less familiar story involving warlike races and political infighting, but it sustains interest by spinning these ideas through the concept that bad things can happen just by bad luck. Walters gets all this stuff over very well: he makes it easy for us to feel the heartbreak of the millions who perish through nothing more than the turn of a card. We were drawn in by his writing right through to the end, which in the EDAs thus far is somewhat of a rarity.
The involvement of the TARDIS crew in events is probably the most gripping part of the book. Fitz, in the thick of things as he loops through Yquatine's fall, is believably and sensitively portrayed. In Walters's hands, he's a vastly more interesting character than he was in earlier EDAs, and he's the perfect set of eyes to look through here. The Doctor is offstage for much of the time, but for once we didn't really miss him as there was so much other interesting stuff going on. And for sheer gobsmacking can't-put-it-downness, Compassion wins the prize. Her development here is absolutely fascinating, and it's this thread that really pulls the book together.
As for the much-discussed (and spoilerless) Thing The Doctor Does to Compassion, well, we're surprised at his insensitivity, but we don't think it's out of character. He's not omniscient, after all: he makes mistakes like the rest of us, and has to deal with the consequences. Moreover, it's hardly unknown for the Doctor to force a course of action on someone to protect the Doctor's interests - check out how the Third Doctor treats Barnham in Mind of Evil, for instance. It doesn't reveal a particularly pleasant aspect of his character, granted, but that's too bad. Personally, we quite like being reminded he's not a plaster saint. We're surprised, though, at the Doctor's musings about what it must be like to fall in love. As far as we remember, he had that down pat centuries ago in The Aztecs.
Where The Fall of Yquatine does let itself down, though, is in the development of the main secondary characters. Arielle is a very promising character at the beginning of the book, but her potential remains almost totally undeveloped. And we keep seeing Vargeld through different sets of eyes, which is an interesting but ultimately unsuccessful experiment. As a result, he never feels like a real person to us, which undercuts his scenes woefully. As chunks of the book depend on these two for their effectiveness, this is a major flaw.
The lesser secondary characters are much better: Lou Lombardo is fun although underused, and the aliens are interesting and well-realised despite the overfamiliar ring of the proto-aggressive Anthaurk. And although the Omnethoth reminded us rather too much of the black oil in the X-Files, they're a nice vehicle for the book's major theme.
With a bit more attention to the development of Arielle and Vargeld, this would have been a very good book indeed. Even as it is, it stands out against the rank and file of the EDAs.