The Talons of Weng-Chiang
|Author||Simon A. Forward|
|ISBN||0 563 48608 2|
|Synopsis: Fitz is under interrogation regarding a burglary and fire at the Kremlin... where the Doctor disappeared in the flames.|
A Review by Finn Clark 19/10/03
A lot depended on Emotional Chemistry. As the last 8DA of 2003, the last for three months (and after that another three-month wait until Halflife!), it was always going to carry a certain weight above and beyond the mere contents of its pages. A bad book would have ended the year on a sour note even had the other 8DAs been respectable, but as it is the line was in desperate need of an upturn to help us forget what we'd endured lately. "Readable" would be a start. Frankly, I wasn't optimistic for the books' future until the recent Russell T. Davies series announcement.
Fortunately Emotional Chemistry is far and away the best 8DA since Time Zero. Better yet, it's also a good book. Of course it's still an 8DA, but mostly it manages to overcome this inherent problem and produce something rather impressive. Sabbath doesn't appear! I sang, I danced. There's no alternate universe! I opened the champagne.
Unfortunately there's still time travel... but it's Zygma energy from Talons of Weng-Chiang, rooted in the series' mythology, rather than yet another proliferating time-traveller pulled from the ongoing storyline's arse. Yippee! I'd have been happy with that (well, ish), but still more amazingly Simon A. Forward's time travel developments are both original and interesting! The Misl Vremya is damn creepy, as is the fella who's using it. It's a great story device and it lets one century affect another in ways we haven't seen before. This is a story told in three timezones which manages not to feel bitty and random, instead holding everything together with impressive control.
I should qualify that statement, though. We've previously had cover blurbs which include significant spoilers, but for the first time with Emotional Chemistry important information is given only on the back cover! I'm serious! For the first fifty pages, I was completely lost. We were jumping from 19th century Russia to 21st century Russia to 51st century Russia without hint or warning... but I hadn't the slightest clue where any of these eras were set or what was happening in them. Seriously, I was totally adrift. I'd heard that the book took place in 1812, 2024 and 5000, but I had no idea where this information had come from. It certainly hadn't cropped up on any page I'd read yet. (In fact, I don't think the 21st century segment ever gets dated beyond obviously being vaguely modern-ish.)
Then I thought to read the back cover and was amazed. Capsule summaries of the situation in all three timezones, complete with dates. Fantastic! Knowing where I stood, I could start enjoying the book! Why wasn't this information included somewhere in the text?
Mind you, even then it was hard work keeping track of the characters. I spent two hundred pages thinking I must have missed something important about Dusha. I'm still not sure what happens to Padorin in the end, which is, uh, surprising given his back cover status as 'Pivotal 19th-Century Character'. But I think everything else becomes clear and hangs together if you're prepared to wait a while for all the explanations. Besides, I'm prepared to forgive a fair bit since this is a character-based novel. They're rarer than they should be in Who, and this is a good'un. The plot's based on love! How often do we see that? What's more it's love done well, as opposed to Meaningless Shag No. 1076 or "you betrayed me Professor I'll never trust you again (until next time)". I found it genuinely moving.
Russia gives the book a distinctive flavour and it's well written, three times over. We get 19th century literature Russians, 21st century scary violent Russians and then the post-Greel 51st century characters who are something different again. It's all good, far better than the likes of Wages of Sin. In fact it's so well evoked that it became a problem for me personally, since I can't stand Russian literature! It's the characters. Life's so meaningless and we're all doomed to misery and let's take everything so seriously (especially ourselves) and whine whine bloody whine... c'mon guys, lighten up! Relax! Have a beer! The 19th-century sections of Emotional Chemistry are deliberately reminiscent of Russian literature, which got my hackles up almost immediately.
But in the end I even enjoyed those bits, which are at least stylish and bringing something new to Doctor Who. And if you can't stomach Natasha, Dusha and Irena and their fluttering sensibilities, hang in there and you'll soon get to see World War Six in the 51st century and some utter bastards in 2024.
There's continuity, which is ironically refreshing in this post-continuity era. The 51st-century world of Talons of Weng-Chiang is expanded upon for the first time, which is surprising since this is the books' third sequel to that story. There's what looks like a Pertwee-era reference on p170, but I'll be buggered if I can nail it down. I don't think it's Devil Goblins of Neptune or Time Zero, but I can't think of anything else it might be. Ah well. It's hardly important. There's even some discussion of the amnesia on p205 (as opposed to forgetting it's there and pretending it doesn't exist, as usual), which was refreshing too.
The regulars are... there. They're okay, which is a nice surprise. Fitz is Fitz; he gets a couple of good scenes and does his usual schtick. Trix I still don't like, but at least I didn't find her actively irritating this time. But leaving aside the fact that I want to see her dumped at the first opportunity, I don't understand why the Doctor's letting her travel in the TARDIS. The woman's a liability! For now I'll assume he has some Turlough-like plan for her character development and redemption, but even so I'm not sure that justifies the risk. Though in fairness I suppose I should applaud the way Trix is being allowed to step out of the box, in a way that never happened with Compassion.
Emotional Chemistry isn't just the best 8DA of the year, it's up there with the best of last year's 8DAs too. You've got to give it time and there's something oddly distant about it, but I admire its "Doctor Who Meets Dostoyevsky" mission statement. Interesting, gripping and well worth your time. Just make sure you read the back cover.
Fresh faced! by Joe Ford 2/12/03
Well that was a fresh novel indeed!
There are those among us who have become rather fed up of the current state of the EDAs (hey Finn!) and they should be extremely happy with this book. You see the main objections of the current arc are all entirely absent. Alternative realities? Gone! Anji? Much is it pains me to say but she's gone too! Sabbath? Not a wink to be seen. And the book sets up new time travelling team the Doctor, Fitz and Trix giving it an extremely clean feel, as though somebody had taken the past four or so books and pretended they never existed (although i'm glad they did because there was some damn good stuff there!). Now I know this stand alone state isn't going to last long as Justin Richards' Sometime Never is set to finish of the Sabbath arc with explosive results in January but for now, to have a book that stands on its own merits and not on its place in an arc, is extremely refreshing.
It also helps that it is an absorbing piece, a fantastic sophomore effort from Simon A. Forward. It's a story about love, something that hasn't had a big part to play in the EDA's of late what with the universe ending and the Doctor going rogue, etc, so this intimate tale of two characters in love with each other is a wonderful return to earth. Of course we expect more than a Mills and Boon novel these days, had this been published back when the EDA's began I could imagine a mawkish, melodramatic tale but these days we expect something more complicated, intelligent and involving and fortunately that's exactly what we get.
As the back cover explicitly states the book is set over three time zones, 1812, 2024 and 5000. This helps to keep the plot rocketing onwards, we dip into each of these time periods at regular periods and without a change in font or style to suggest that we have, so you have to keep your wits about you to keep track of what's going on but once you have the characters set in those years in your head following the book is a piece of cake. You have to concentrate but it is very rewarding if you do so.
Each period had much going on and so much to cherish. The 1812 scenes centred around the Vishenkov household, facing the advance of Napoleon Bonarparte and his troops, are very sensitively handled. It is here you find the most down to earth scenes, elegant balls, family feuds, unrequited love... oh yes it's all very engaging. The lovely Dusha, adopted into the family seems to captivate everybody, her beauty and charm radiating from every page. With some real history thrown into the measure and brutal battle scenes aplenty this plot stands on its own as being the most charming of the three and by far the most vivid.
2024 sees Fitz and Trix under interrogation by the Kremlin, accused of burglary of a precious Russian painting. These sequences were also a lot of fun especially for getting inside the head of newcomer, the duplicitous Trix. She has shown in the past few novels how well she can slip on a disguise and it is fun for her to finally meet her match, the astute Bulgayev who is the master at spotting lies.
The plot unfolds rapidly in this year, lots of viscous gun fights leading to the complete and utter bastard that is Garudin. With his own form of time travel to play with he is an effective menace, up there with the Sarah Swans and Daniel Basalts this year. There is a fascinating concept at play, the idea that you can jump into somebody's head in the past and leads to some disgusting spying on the beautiful ladies in 1812.
An exciting action plot unfolds that leads to a tense shoot-out. Forward makes sure that while he is cutting down characters left right and centre we feel for their loss.
But the most interesting stuff comes in the 5000 segments where a full blown war is commencing. Pleasingly some of the television show's history is leaking into the EDA's, not an overload of continuity like the Cole era but some very disturbing reminders. Appropriately to bridge this gap of three or so years without continuity they turn to one of the most successful shows in Doctor Who's 26 year run to make it work. I shan't say any more to ruin the surprise but I was giggling with glee at the references. This is subtle but interesting, the correct way to use continuity.
General Razum Kinzhal is another top character, the brains behind the Icelandic Alliance and their advance on the enemy troops. There are enough clever tricks, ploys and tactics to keep any action fan in heaven and counterpointed with the charming 1812 and the thrilling 2024 sequences the book continues to please fans of all genres. It sounds like a right mish mash but it really works, the plotting is so good that the plots all weave around each other and link together for the breathless finale.
The last few chapters are the best, all the characters drawn together in a big melting pot just waiting to boil over the edge. A factor this book shares with its predecessor is that is has a very satisfying finish, not too twee but just a well judged mixture of triumph and defeat. Plus the last scene with Fitz says everything about his character and more.
Simon A. Forward can hold his head high, he has added another top notch novel to the EDA triumph list. His writing is simply beautiful, I had a few problems with his prose in Drift feeling he was over-egging the pudding a bit but he has refined his talents here and provides the book with some breathtaking imagery and genuine emotions. Some of his descriptions were inspired and I regularly found myself chuckling at his twisted sense of humour. With such a huge cast it would be easy to get lost but he keeps track on each and every one of them, never letting them become slaves to the plot but allowing them to propel it on. This was a book that was crafted with much care and it shows.
After his brilliant return to form in Timeless I was unsure how Forward would treat the Doctor but he has nailed him spot on. A reckless dandy, still menaced by his lack of memory but romantic and dashing with it. He is quietly absent from the first half of the book but dominates the second half. When he bursts into Kinzhal's headquarters and warns about the dangers of time travel you KNOW he knows what he's talking about. Plus his intimate moments with Dusha, possibly as sensual as the Doctor has ever been with a woman strike me as necessary and bold. It is about time he explored the possibilities. But it is the links to the past that provide the best shocks, he keeps meeting up with people who claim to know him (but don't, they have met him in a previous incarnation) and he struggles to find out some more about his past. These scenes keep cropping up from time to time, reminding us of his frustrations and they are always compelling.
A substantial work in every sense of the word, Emotional
Chemistry provides a lot for your money. There is action, adventure,
romance, war, time travel and more and plus you don't need to have read
any of the previous books to get on with it. It just goes to prove how
well the books are doing without the TV show.
Astonishing how a second read can change your perceptions of a book. You see the first fifty or so pages of Em Chem left me adrift in a sea of thick prose and disparate plot threads. The anally relentless fan would of course take time to pick through these plots and try and find some meaning in them but the casual reader would probably chuck it on the 'maybe read later' pile.
Not that there is anything wrong with starting the book with so much going on but having each of your plot threads well under way before the first page leaves the reader a lot of catching up to do. It has been ages now since we saw the Doctor and co walk from the TARDIS as though it was just another adventure, Reckless Engineering in fact.
Whilst you are reading the first half of the book you might also be slightly miffed at the distinct lack of the Doctor. Admittedly in Timeless he was here, there and everywhere but in The Last Resort he was similarly absent and given the books' two or three month gap this underplaying of the Doctor has got to stop. He is the star of course and kicks off a series of brilliant scenes in the second half of the book, the biggest mystery is if Simon A Forward is this good at bringing him alive on the page why did he wait so long to have the opportunity?
Because of his mammoth guest cast, that's why. This is a HUGE book in every way; it has a huge cast, a huge amount of locations, huge, imaginative ideas, in fact the only thing that isn't huge about this book is its actual size, which is diddy but then we are once again treated to tiny font so we can fit a 400 plus novel into 288 pages. So get the magnifying glass out folks!
And while you may struggle with the plots to start with, you will never fail to get to grips with the characters, most of which are superbly written and very rewarding to read about. Each time zone the book visits is treated to its own set of well-defined characters, even lesser ones such as De Schalles, Orlik Sund and Irena are afforded some incredible character growth. My favourites were the ones who leapt from the page, Natasha and her childish tantrums, Dusha who is radiant and beautiful but capable of turning quite nasty in an instant to protect her family, Razum who is keeping quiet about his master plan to win the war but confidently putting all the pieces in place and Garudin, a real slimeball who gets his just desserts when he thinks he can just invade people's lives without consequences. It is the characters that give the story a sense of importance and it is with them that the story thrives.
The best thing about Emotional Chemistry is that it gets better as it goes along and keeps on improving to the last page. It is another book ala Time Zero and Timeless that has some seriously cool plotting going on with lots of good twists and turns, seemingly complicated but not overly so for anyone who has a good grasp of remembering what they have already read. The plot threads converge beautifully in the last half and lead to a wonderful revelation on page 208 that finally puts the whole book into incredible focus. The point where all the characters and all their ambitions meet up in the shattering climax is the high point of the novel. Plus the little coda is pleasantly heart-warming for a range that has left books on cliffhangers for some time now.
If Emotional Chemistry was a Christmas present it would be the most stylishly wrapped one there, promising all sorts of imaginative and entertaining goodies. The simple fact is this is an extremely well written book, crammed full of brilliant and hysterical observations and little prose tricks. Forward must be an amazing live storyteller because he has the ability to capture a scene beautifully, gorgeous sweeping descriptions of the landscapes, intense looks into his characters' heads (literally!), characters whose images glow from of the page and twists given appropriate gravity and seriousness. He writes with an occasionally chatty but always creative style that really grows on you the more you read. Whereas the early scenes are hard to get a handle on the later ones just fly by.
Whereas the Doctor is absent from the first half of the book, Trix is mysteriously sidelined in the second half. After such an entertaining spin on her character in her initial interrogations with Bugayev it is odd that she is ignored like this. Given this is her first book as the sole female companion she comes across as selfish, capable and clever. The only issue with Trix is the lack of background, it is hard to get to grips with a character who has had so little of her past revealed. Her little spat with the Doctor at the climax suggests fireworks to come (must be a good thing!) and I am hoping Justin fleshes her out a bit in Sometime Never...
But Fitz is amazingly good. What a guy, thinking with his package as ever! Forward gets Fitz perfect, his slight mistrust of the Doctor after the alternative universe arc, his lust for the ladies, how he always gets wrapped up in trouble, locked up, beaten up but still retaining the famed Kreiner wit and charm! The Fitz/Aphrodite relationship is one of those tragic non-romances that really tugs at the heart strings, a real hook in the story for the Fitz fans out there. People have been unkind about Fitz, saying it is high time he left (myself included) but when he can be as entertaining or thoughtful as he is in Timeless and Emotional Chemistry, then I will say he still has some decent mileage in him yet. Plus it was great to see Fitz and the Doctor at work together again; the simple fact is that it has been ages since the two have worked alone together.
Love is in the air... well something must be in the water because everybody is writing romances at the moment! Paul Magrs and Steve Cole tried their hand at a Doctor/Iris romance, Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts gave the Brigadier some nookie and now it's time for an epic, sweeping tale of lost love of the centuries courtesy of Simon A Forward. Thankfully this never descends into vomit territory (despite the fact that nobody gets their end away!) and in spite of the odd suggestion of incest (they aren't related by blood but they're still brother and sister) it is all quite sensitively done. The fact that two beings and their love for each other could bring the Earth to its knees is gripping and makes for a far more interesting novel to read than some power crazed nutter trying to take over the world. I love the idea of the Doctor having to improvise his way through the book, trying to keep two lovebirds apart for the sake of the whole world.
Plus more suggestions of the Doctor's past, that's two books in a row now! We must be leading up to some climatic revelation in Sometime Never... because these tasters of the Doctor finally confronting his past are fascinating. The way he keeps shying away from the information reveals how scared he is and I fear a breakdown is on the cards when he finally discovers the fate of Gallifrey. Meeting up with friends of past rengerations (more than likely the fourth Doctor considering the links to Talons of Weng-Chiang) is intruging and I see a 4th Doctor PDA on the cards written by Forward. Could be a corker!
This could only be an eighth Doctor book; it is far too romantic to fit in any other era. If there was any characteristic you could point at the 8th Doctor and shout out it is his sense of romance and his presence in this engaging, rewarding piece is not necessary, it's essential.
Keep with it, it may appear confusing at first but it ends up being one hell of a ride.
Three out of Five by Jamas Enright 10/9/04
When I started reading Emotional Chemistry I was trying to remember what else Simon Forward had written so I could have an initial impression of his work to use. I couldn't remember what it was until I got to the bottom of the first page and encountered a reference to snow... Oh that's right! Drift! And one of the most overused uses of snow and coldness the book range could offer! What is it about snow that authors feel the need to continually reference it? Although I didn't mention it in that review, Jacqueline Rayner also uses snow on the first page of Wolfsbane! The next author to do this gets an automatic review of 1/5.
Right, now I've got that out of my system, I'll turn to my next rant. The blurb. If you read my reviews (does anyone?), you'll know I don't read the blurb for fear of revealing details that are in the book. In this case, the blurb is part of a far worse sin. In this case, there is information in the blurb that is never given in the book! I didn't even know there was three time zones involved until I read the blurb (which I did early on, hoping there might be something there to help sort of the confusion the book narrative was causing). Was it really so hard for Simon Forward to indicate what year various parts of the story was in? Apparently, yes it was.
Okay, can I talk about the book now? Well, I'd like to discuss the story, but when I got to around page 200 I realised that nothing had really happened! It was all nothing but set-up! The Palace of the Red Sun was the same, but at least that was entertaining about it. And I'm not talking about any of the wars going on in any of the time-zones. Even I can tell that they are mere backdrops to the real story. No, what we have is nothing but set up until we hits reams of exposition then twenty to thirty pages of events suddenly happening! How did anyone think this was a good idea? (Then again, The Palace of the Sun did get published as well...)
What is really important is the characters, their motivation and their (if I may be excused the wordplay) emotion-ivations. Yes, it's all about love, what people will do for it, what people will do without it, what people will do to get it back. Love and its close cousin lust. There's a lot of both here, and not even the author escapes its influences (he spends quite some time been fixated on Trix's breasts). I must admit it's a bit different having nearly the entire cast use these emotions as the basis of all they do, and I also have to admit it works quite well.
Yes, as soppy as it may seem, there is a lot to be said for the satisfaction of characters overcoming great obstacles and ending up together (although that isn't to say there isn't a body count of both good and bad guys). It's one of the endearing stories that appeals to all of us, and Simon Forward even overcomes his own inadequate anti-climactic ending to make it work (see how I can't even give a complement in these reviews except backhandedly?).
By this time in a normal review, I'd have covered the story, the characters and good and bad points, but frankly, it's not worth it. Aside from my ranting above, at the end of the day, Emotional Chemistry is about a man and woman, and a love that spans time. Literally.
A Review by Jason A. Miller 15/3/05
I enjoyed that. Mostly. I try to knock these books off in five days, which works well because you can usually find something cliffhanger-ish every 55 pages to use as a stopping point (this worked especially well with Reckless Engineering and Timeless). However, Emotional Chemistry took me about ten days to get through. That's either the dense writing, or the miniscule print.
Um, if I had to edit, I'd probably separate it out into three parts, rather than twining the three centuries together. Of course, the book would have been a lot longer, because then Forward would have had to actually link scenes together. A lot more happens off-screen than on.
When it was all done I plugged in Part Six of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, just because I needed a Magnus Greel and Tom Baker fix.
How does Talons end? With Tom Baker at his villain-taunting best ("Now, heavens to Betsy, where did I put it?") and by winning a fistfight. How does Emotional Chemistry end? With the Doctor conspicuously failing to save the day, requiring a gunfight ex machina to save the Earth, and by hugging a woman. Honestly. I could have done that. Captain Maitland from The Sensorites could have done that.
Oh, and I liked the small stakes... only one planet at risk, not the entire multiverse.
8/10, probably would have been higher if I'd been able to read it quicker.
Next episode: The first 31 pages of Sometime Never... are bad. I don't think witty banter plays as well on paper as Justin Richards thinks it does.