Wednesday, May 22, 2013
The Left-Handed Hummingbird
Within the world of Doctor Who, Paul Cornell has to be considered not just one of the best but also one of the most influential writers out there. 'The Left-Handed Hummingbird', by Kate Orman, is one of the first wave of books to be conceived in the wake of Cornell's debut novel, and it shines through with every word. Kate Orman completely understood everything Cornell was saying, not just with his approach to the Doctor as a character but with his approach to storytelling, and her debut novel absolutely explodes with that same vibrant energy. If Paul Cornell was the first disciple of the new Doctor Who, then Kate Orman has to be the first disciple of Paul Cornell.
Everything about the novel brims with energy. From the opening, a transcendently chilling retelling of the last moments of John Lennon's life, through to the shocking and brutal sequences of human sacrifices in the Aztec Empire, up to the final showdown with Huitzilin on the Titanic is written with an intensity rarely seen in any kind of TV tie-in. This is a grown-up novel written for grown-ups, and not just because it's got blood and gore in it. It's a book about damaged relationships and wounded people, with a complex time-twisting narrative that seeks to explore the Doctor's effect on people and people's effect on the Doctor. Nobody would give this to their kid, even if you removed every swearword and bowdlerized every fight scene, because it's a book you have to be an adult to understand. It couldn't get published today, more's the pity, but at the time it was exactly what Doctor Who needed to be.
I could gush for another several paragraphs about the prose, because it's absolutely brilliant, but what's striking to me is what happens to the Doctor. This is a rarity for the Seventh Doctor, a book in which he is nothing more than a victim. His every effort to fight Huitzilin fails, he's tortured and brutalized and violated and in the end, it feels entirely believabe when he decides to make his last stand on a sinking ship in the middle of the Atlantic, just in case. Because Kate Orman makes it absolutely believable that this Doctor could lose. It's exactly what's needed at this stage of the arc, a novel that pushes the Doctor to his limits and beyond.
And Ace is just as well handled. You can feel, intensely ("intense" is a word I keep coming back to when I write about this novel, but it's the perfect word for it--it's a book you don't stop reading, you come up for air from) the way that Ace is losing her faith in the Doctor. Not in a simple, adolescent way like she did in 'Curse of Fenric', but in the way that adults look at their parents and wonder why they ever thought that they had all the answers. Ace is caught up in trying to justify herself for not being the Doctor, and it causes her to doubt that even the Doctor is really the Doctor. And with the Doctor in this novel looking very much like he doubts it too, we're given several threads that are well-developed as the arc moves toward a climax.
If I had one complaint, it's that Benny is a bit sidelined in this novel. With Ace and the Doctor getting all the meaty character development, and Cristian acting as a surrogate companion, Benny's role is basically to tag along and get in all the good jokes. ("Twentieth century medical care? I suppose you're still sewing people up with thread!") Still, she's authentically Benny, something that more than a few novels before now haven't managed, so I shan't complain overmuch. Not with as much to praise as I have. I really can't gush about this book enough--it's one of the finest debut novels the range ever produced, and it's no wonder that Orman became one of the "go-to" authors for Virgin and the BBC.