Retrospective: Paul Leonard by John Seavey 5/2/04
"This novel is dedicated to Jim Mortimore, who showed me unselfish friendship and great patience and taught me all about writing novels (everything else is my fault)."Those specific words preface The Last Resort, Paul Leonard's most recent novel, but you can find similar phrases peppering the dedication of almost every single one of the novels he's written or co-written (Venusian Lullaby, Dancing the Code, Toy Soldiers, Speed of Flight, Genocide, Dreamstone Moon, Dry Pilgrimage, Revolution Man, The Turing Test, The Last Resort.) Paul Leonard, as a writer, takes his inspiration from Jim Mortimore. It's a basic fact of his writing, it has to be said before this retrospective can proceed any further, and indeed it's almost impossible to do a retrospective of Paul Leonard as anything other than a comparison to Jim Mortimore. So, being a phenomenally lazy person, I'm not even going to bother to try.
So what traits does Paul Leonard share with his friend and mentor, and where do they differ? Plotwise, they have a lot in common. (In fact, a few of their novels, like Blood Heat and Genocide, or Campaign and The Last Resort, are almost identical in plot.) Both place a strong emphasis on "hard" science-fiction, spending much of their time and much of their novel on developing the world that the characters visit. In Venusian Lullaby, Leonard writes a primer on the civilization of ancient Venus. In Speed of Flight, he shows us a strange, artificially created biology of death and transcendence. In his most recent novel, The Last Resort, it's all about overlapping and shifting timestreams. Each time, this emphasis on worldview and ideas almost eclipses the plot; Leonard isn't concerned so much with the specifics of what's happening as how it's happening. His novels don't spiral out of control quite so badly as Mortimore's, but there's frequent plot holes and abrupt endings galore, which could frustrate the tidy-minded Doctor Who reader.
So where do Mortimore and Leonard differ? It's difficult to put into words, but Leonard seems more connected to the reader. When reading a Jim Mortimore book, there's a sense that you're talking to a man who has gone so far out along his personal mental journey that he can't come back and tell you what it's like; in the end, he's forced to resort to shouting quite loudly and hoping you can still hear him from where you are. Leonard, on the other hand, seems to still remember what it's like to be where we are, and there's a deftly poetic quality to his prose that evokes warmth, humanity, and good nature even when the situations he's writing about are bleak in the extreme (which they frequently are. Although Leonard writes his characters with a lot more warmth and likeability than Mortimore's, the general rule for reading his books is still "Don't get attached to anyone.")
It's that bleakness, as much as anything else, that's a signature for both authors. Leonard puts his characters into very difficult situations on every level -- physical danger, intellectual puzzles, moral dilemmas, and really puts them through the wringer. His wringers aren't quite as bad as Mortimore's (he's never written anything on the level of Parasite or Eternity Weeps, for example), but in some ways, it's far more wrenching to read Leonard's books because that warmth makes you care more about the characters he's tormenting. (Especially the regulars... he has excellent characterization when it comes to the earlier Doctors and companions, which really makes it that much harder on them. His Eighth Doctor and Sam aren't done particularly well, but then again, that's not exactly a rare fault among Doctor Who writers.) All that pain and suffering transfers to the reader, eventually. It hurts to read his books... and I think I mean that in a good way.
My best advice to people wanting to get into Paul Leonard has to be, "Don't read his books in one go." He's an excellent author, and he's someone I'm more than willing to see write for the line again (plot holes notwithstanding), but you should take time to recuperate between Leonard novels before going on to the next one. Read them all in one sitting, and the cumulative effect of all that emotional torture can really get to you.