It's nice to imagine that for one brief, shining moment back in the long ago period of the early 2000s, no matter how implausible the Eighth Doctor arcs were, no matter how tediously bad the Past Doctor Adventures might become, you at least had the hope that Lloyd Rose would publish another "Who" novel and everything would be okay. Somehow, more than any of the other authors that emerged during those times when quality was a roll of whatever the British use for dice, the name "Lloyd Rose" became synonymous with a mark of quality. No matter what else was wrong with the world, you had the comfort of knowing she wouldn't steer you wrong.
As you can probably guess, this one was no exception. Switching over to the Seventh Doctor this time out, she does her best to bring back the glory days of the Virgin New Adventures and comes way closer than anyone who wrote for the BBC line ever did. Handling the Seventh Doctor was always a strange task for the writers that came after Virgin losing the license and the Eighth Doctor becoming the "current" Doctor, as half the reading audience wanted to see Seventh Doctor adventures that were in the same vein as that dearly departed line and the other half wanted to see normal "regular" Who stories like the show used to do, without adding all that needless complexity and moral grey areas that the Doctor became known for later. Most of the Seventh Doctor books were written by the same authors, who did an okay job, but it was still a weird experience, as none of the ones who attempted to capture the New Adventures style could do so in a way that didn't seem a child putting on a suit that's too large for him and pretending he's an expert stock trader. But the more "normal" adventures felt watered down to those of us who had read the other stories, since we saw what the character could be capable of in the right hands.
Rose fortunately remembered, and even better is able to evoke the era without specifically referencing it. Noting some weird skips in time (like a broken record) the Doctor decides to investigate with Ace and soon enough it leads to trouble involving what was no doubt her favorite topic at school: maths. Before long they're bringing in UNIT and studying strange markings in fields, along with some bizarre ice that keeps appearing. The local genius maths guy finds himself trying to solve an even more eccentric colleague's seemingly unsolvable problem and before long it seems clear that someone is using maths as a universal language to communicate with someone else. The question is who and how bad is whatever they want (since you can safely assume it's not good).
For a novel where the engine driving the dilemma is based around mathematical ideas that most people can't even grasp without high level college courses, she does manage to craft a page turner without trying to convince us that a shallow pool is really the deepest of oceans (i.e. Dan Brown) or dazzle us with her intelligence and prove that she really is as smart as these concepts require (*cough*NealStephenson*cough*). While she does dial back the delightful strangeness that was a highlight of her first two novels for the line, the threat is more abstract here and fits the slightly more esoterically complex problems that the Seventh Doctor often faced, giving us aliens that are just this side of unfathomable without becoming ridiculously bombastic world-conquerers and requiring the Doctor to both think fast on his feet and plot out twenty steps in advance. Indeed, his portrayal is probably the best thing about the book, effortlessly recreating the air of both mystery and intense emotional weight that hovered over his character, the notion that this Doctor had made some big decisions because he felt that someone had to and he was the only one willing to bear the burden. He's serious and jocular in equal measure but even his humorous moments are colored in a distanced melancholy and she's able to convey both his alienness and the acute aches that drive him, that he can't quite put into words.
The whole book is a minor leap for her in terms of emotional impact, with even the supporting characters coming across as strange but real people, whether it's resident maths genius Ethan Amberglass or the reporter of weird ephemera just trying to find the truth or even the good ol' Brigadier, guest starring in a story that doesn't make a point of trumpeting it. Even the villain comes across as a person, just a high functioning damaged one. There are several conversations that are more revealing emotionally than we've seen in a while, especially with the Doctor as catalyst and pains are taken to depict not just what toll all this takes on the Doctor, but what it does to everyone who comes in contact with the story. And it pays off, not only does it make the novel seem more geared toward adults who are more interested in reading a good SF story featuring their favorite characters than seeing their favorite TV faithfully and bloodlessly recreated on the printed page, but even in the little moments as well. The ending, which makes great use of the maths concepts detailed earlier, wouldn't have worked if not for the context she had painstakingly established earlier.
Ironically, the only person who doesn't fare well in this is Ace. Someone elsewhere commented that Rose noted she didn't know how to "write" Ace and it does show her as Ace seems to be in that awkward period when she was Ace in the TV show but turning into New Adventure Ace, a more adult and grittier version. Rose doesn't seem to know which way to play it and the results have her doing adults things merely to make it seem adult (the New Adventures were guilty of this as well), including sleeping with someone in a rather cliched scene (which is played for laughs, if that makes it better) that even she questions afterward, although Rose gets good mileage out of the emotional connection later. Some others may not be happy that the aliens aren't well defined but I prefer when the Doctor had to be clever versus something more abstract, as opposed to fighting warlords and high commanders. Whatever keeps us off familiar ground.
As usual she never puts a foot wrong and this is probably the most satisfying Past Doctor novel since, oh geez, "Festival of Death" and probably the most satisfying BBC novel since, well, the last Lloyd Rose one. The biggest shame of this is that, coming to the end of my run through all the BBC novels, I don't have any other Rose novels to look forward to. Unfortunately she doesn't seem to have written anything "Who" related after this novel other than a Big Finish production in 2004 (according to a well known Internet encyclopedia) and given she has some television writing experience it's a shame the new show hasn't asked her to write anything for them. But maybe this was all the "Who" stories she wanted to tell, which is fine in itself, and she's gone back to simply being a fan like the rest of us. It makes it kind of a weird legend that she came out of nowhere and wrote three near perfect books before vanishing back into relative obscurity, but it seems to have just the right amount of strangeness and charm, much like her novels. And unlike most legends, at least we have the proofs.