While "Emotional Chemistry" is indeed a striking title, by not calling the book "Love Will Set the World on Fire", they really missed an opportunity to capture the market of all those romance novel readers who don't check what a book is about before they buy it. It's an untapped bonanza. Fortunately the book makes up for not giving us the steamiest of titles with a plot and setting that offers us something resembling a challenge for once, along with a few breaks from the tried and true.
In the course of an investigation, the Doctor, Trix and Fitz wind up separated in an explosion and find themselves in different time zones. The Doctor winds up in the year 5000 and change with a soldier turned art thief, Fitz stays put and gets interrogated by an increasingly exasperated Russian general, while Trix gets to cause chaos pretty much wherever she goes, one of those places being 19th century Russian right before Napoleon marches into town, where a beautiful Russian can kiss everyone back to health. If you don't think this all connects at some point, you must be new to "Doctor Who".
I remember Forward's first novel "Drift" as one that showed promise but probably needed to wait for his ambition to catch up with his talent. Even so, his talent was evident then and it appears that all he needed was a bit more seasoning. While this one isn't one of the game-changing masterpieces, it is one of those fine second-tier books that should be what makes up the bulk of the line.
Often it's not one thing that makes these books go well but a bunch of little things done right that all add up. Here, Forward takes a few storytelling risks that pay off, one of which is separating the main cast for the bulk of the novel and by separating, both in the physical and temporal senses. To make this work and give the impression that it's all happening simultaneously, he flips back and forth from plot to plot like a sugar addicted toddler, managing to keep the plots constantly moving without giving us whiplash. The sections are short and there are times when you wish he'd spend a little more time before racing off to the next occurrence but the end result is not only making the book a page turner but also making it reward close reading. Most of the lesser "Who" novels I can take knock off in a couple of hours, while this one required a bit more intense study to make sure I had everything straight. And yet, it wasn't a chore.
Part of this is helped by giving us interesting supporting characters. Most of the TV episodes that don't have world shattering premises live or die based on the people who aren't the Doctor and company. A good writer makes them come to life and thus brings the world to life, a feat that isn't necessarily easy to do. They exist as partners in the plot, capable of carrying scenes by themselves, whether it's Colonel Bugayev trying to piece together what the heck just happened or Razum Kinzhal outthinking everyone in the 51st century scenes, you get the sense of a whole series of moving parts that keep moving even when the focus isn't on them and the Doctor isn't in the room. It amplifies the effect of the Doctor, showing how he can push a balanced system out of whack, whether he intends to or not.
What gets me is how sly the plot is. There's a villain but he's more a means to an end and not the real threat, dangerous as he is. He's another link in the complexity, more catalyst than climax. The world is threatened but for once not from crazy generals or world-conquering aliens but by a mystery with an aura of strangeness to it, the components of the solution but only brought together by the Doctor and a little bit of luck, which is how it should be. For the first time in a while aliens are treated as great unknowns and not murdering psychopaths or warmongering fools, bringing back that sense of fairy tale myth that works best in the Eighth Doctor adventures (and really nowhere else). The Doctor doesn't have to fight anyone as much as stop something from happening, giving him a chance to puzzle out and solve, and that sleight of hand isn't what we commonly see in the "Who" books, but it's certainly welcome.
This is also our first real run of the new TARDIS crew, and while I'm pretty sure I won't like them as much as the Doctor/Fitz/Anji combo, it does have its moments. Fitz remains the unsung hero in the "Who" canon, the cowardly hero, the Jamie to this Doctor, and seeing him alone reminds us of what he's brought to the range and how different it would have all been without him. Trix I'm not as sold on yet, she's given more chance to act and make an impression here but it's hard to see what she's doing with these people. She's not altruistic (but the Doctor seems bent on teaching her how to be) and while the dilemmas in this novel appeal more to her special skillset as opposed to Anji's, beyond saving her own skin and continued survival. she's not making much of a case (although there's a hint that she's trying to prove to the Doctor she's not all shallow). But she likes the edge that Compassion brought with her, the balance of someone who isn't quite in tune with the Doctor but willing to go along anyway.
Still, Forward gets so much right here that even the lapses are forgivable. And the novel isn't perfect. For one, the resolution lacks any kind of impact at all and some of the "rules" seems easily broken (Aphrodite claims she can't go to the times of her parents, but, um, isn't one of those 19th century Russia?). The novel is a twisty, entertaining affair but lacks the emotional gut punch a scenario like this requires to be truly great, a heartstopping sacrifice or insight. We're brought to the lip of it, as several people claim to know the Doctor from old, adding a nice tension to the plot and reminding us of his memory loss. But little is done with it except add some local color (the 51th century scenes do tie in to "The Talons of Weng-Chiang", which is a nice subtle touch), where using that as a springboard to delve into the mystery of the Doctor and give us some revelations into how he works could have taken the book to another level. As it is, the Doctor remains distant as always, the hero we all know and yet someone we're not quite sure we know.
But all the hints that bleed off the page, the little touches and attentions to detail, it shows the work of someone who is capable of conceiving something that isn't standard, of writing odd structures without getting caught up in their own cleverness, of being able to use the background of "Who" without becoming enslaved to the continuity of it, finding new wrinkles to keep it interesting. A good rule of thumb with these is to see which ones work as "Who" novels and which ones work as pure novels. This one is more the latter than the former. Congratulations, you've made your name worth paying attention to.