VANISHING POINT by Stephen Cole
It shouldn't be an occasion to open the champagne when you can get through a book without being assaulted on every page by clunking prose, should it? You'd think that you could kinda take it for granted that whatever their other faults books should at least be written competently. But this is the Doctor Who line we're talking about, so when we come across a book with readable prose we're deeply, deeply grateful.
There's no doubt Cole can write: his Tara Samms short stories, in particular, are little gems. And while the prose in Vanishing Point isn't Shakespeare, it's eminently, blessedly readable. As far as we're concerned, that gives the book a humongous tick right from the start.
As for the rest of it, it's, well, not too bad. The major debate about religion and faith didn't interest us particularly, but that's just us. (We're a godless lot here at Androzani, so we don't think there is any debate.) The combination of religion and genetics, though, is an intriguing one, and Cole builds a society around it that sustained our interest right through the book. Unfortunately, he's a bit fuzzier on genetics than he should be, which weakens the premise, but overall the story's interesting enough.
One of the chief strengths of Vanishing Point is characterisation. Big Ideas are all very well, but if the characters expressing them are just ciphers, the book is nothing more than an intellectual tract. Cole knows better than to make this mistake. Anji and Fitz are well done (if not, in Fitz's case, always likeable), and the "local" characters of Dark, Etty, Lanna and Vettul come to life enough for us to care about their fates. Cole particularly excels at drawing Dark and Lanna's loneliness, something that's not terrifically relevant to the plot but which succeeds brilliantly in giving them a third dimension. The mooncalves are also lifelike, if a touch patronisingly sweet and adorable - aren't disabled people allowed to be nasty bastards too? The villain's a bit on the mwahahaha side, but we like the macabrely gigglesome mindwiped bunch. (Who probably aren't supposed to be funny. Ahem.)
As for the Doctor, he's pretty believable although not compelling, but then we've rarely found the Eighth Doctor particularly gripping anyway. And we were disappointed to see the hypocritical gun issue surface yet again: the Doctor goes to greatly stupid lengths not to use one, including throwing one at somebody, yet elsewhere cheerfully smashes a man's head against a wall.
The alien setting doesn't take too much to evoke considering how Earth-normal most things are, but given that we can't take for granted that even Earth will sound convincing in a Doctor Who book, it's worth recording that Cole manages it believably, especially the scenery-and-cliffs stuff around Etty's farm.
Where the book does fall down, though, is in its inclusion of so many cliched story elements. Capture/escape, sprained ankle, the villain helpfully outlining his evil plans: they're all there and more, and they're disappointingly dull.
It's not one of those eye-opening books that changes the Who line forever. But it's a smoothly written, well-characterised story that despite its faults kept us willingly flicking pages until the end. We like it.