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THE YEAR OF INTELLIGENT TIGERS by Kate Orman
Colonists. An indigenous population with a mysterious form of evolution. A scientist studying the natives. Yes, it's... The Mutants!
Well, no. Actually, it's a Kate Orman EDA, an event we look forward to with bounce-up-and-down excitement. Does Year Of Intelligent Tigers justify that? Not quite. It's good, undoubtedly - just not as mindblowingly good as some of her others.
It starts brilliantly: the first seven pages, in particular, could be used as a textbook example of How To Begin A Novel. In that span of pages, the world of Hitchemus comes vividly to life, characters, especially Anji and the Doctor, are wonderfully established and all the important plot threads get underway. It's a fantastic and lyrical piece of writing that shows Orman is head, shoulders and probably hips and knees above the vast majority of Who writers.
And the style of the piece continues in the same vein. Orman is a master of the telling detail and the well-turned phrase ("a dripping minor key"), which make her prose something to savour and contribute to a stunning sense of place. Her characterisation, always the bit that interests us most and often a serious letdown in the Who novels, is also excellent. While her description of him is still on the swoony side, she's really got to grips with the character of the "new" Eighth Doctor: a lot of his behaviour here doesn't fit the old model, but Orman has no trouble persuading us that it's in character for who he might have become.
Orman also addresses the point we've raised elsewhere about why the Doctor should automatically be on the side of the humans, which is nice. The Doctor's definitely more alien than he used to be, and why not, we say.
As for the other characters, Anji's the pick of the bunch. Since Orman could make even Sam likeable, we're not surprised she does such a good job with a character who's been fun since her inception. Fitz is more of an also-ran here, but believable when he does appear, and as a bonus we get to see more of his musical side.
In Karl the Doctor gets another admirer, which works well enough but doesn't really tell us anything new: we found ourselves itching for a sympathetic character who thinks for a change that the Doctor's a complete wanker. Besma's a great character, but her abrupt exit from the story is disappointing. The tigers, on the other hand, are fairly one-note.
The thread of the tigers' history is absorbing, and Orman spares no effort to bring their society to life. And the concept of the alternating stupid and intelligent generations is a fascinating and thought-provoking one. The reason finally revealed for why things are these way is a wee bit predictable, but that doesn't really detract from what's probably the most interesting part of the book.
In the end, though, the tigers aren't quite enough. Their story, the brilliantly evoked setting and the excellent characterisation can't disguise the fact that this is a plot we've seen too much of. When the tigers took over and the humans formed a resistance movement, our hearts sank. When the Doctor tries to get both sides talking and isn't listened to, we were sighing and drumming our fingers on the arm of the sofa, and it's such a familiar scenario that we really couldn't work up much interest in how that side of things played out.
As for the resolution, that definitely was unexpected; call us churlish, but we weren't happy with that either. It's believably "new Doctor", but it's all just a bit pat, not to mention overly optimistic. Maybe we're cynics, but to us, human if not tiger nature being what it is, even if the two sides did manage to cooperate in the short term we think the chances are that would turn to compost as soon as the crisis had been averted.
All of this meant that for us, after the storehouse bit Year Of Intelligent Tigers's pace was dragging. It wasn't as bad as the usual EDA-induced coma of boredom by any means, but it wasn't absorbing either. While still a very creditable effort, the book simply lacks the wow factor we've come to expect from this author. Of course, we'll still be wrestling all comers away from the shelves to get our hands on her next book.