I've read the argument stating science fiction stories have fewer interesting people in them because the author must spend so much extra time setting up their alien and/or futuristic worlds, they have less time to spend developing believable characters. I'm not sure I agree that this is a necessary or inherent failing in science fiction, although I must admit it does successfully describe a phenomena that occurs with some regularity. And I think the heuristic it expresses goes double for alternative universe stories. The author must not only evoke the real-world historical and physical setting, but he or she must also spend time meticulously explaining how, why and in what way it differs from our own Earth, leaving even less time for the story's characters. This may explain how Nick Walters could present us with a very detailed look at an alternative Bristol, 2003, yet populate it entirely with cardboard.
I found much to enjoy in RECKLESS ENGINEERING, but character development was not one of those pleasures. I wouldn't have minded so much (I'm perfectly capable of appreciating a plot-intensive story which exists at the expense of character), except that the book kept making half-assed efforts at injecting life into these people. There's a bizarre love-triangle subplot handled so clumsily that I wondered why the author bothered including it. The supporting characters are uniformly bland, with the sole exception of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. IKB is, of course, a historical figure, although one which I don't know a lot about, so I'm unsure how faithful this portrayal is. However, he works well here; the grumpy engineer is exactly what the story needed.
Despite not caring much for the characters, I found myself racing through the book's second half much faster than I expected. The reason for this was that I was completely engrossed in the plot and shot through it intent on finding out what was coming next. The TARDIS crew has landed in an alternative, post-apocalyptic 21st century, where the last remains of humanity have been slowly rebuilding their world for the past hundred and sixty years. There's a lone mansion that seems to hold the key to the mystery of how history became corrupted, and there's apparent alien influence in that situation. There's a hell of a lot going on, and while it's generally presented very well, I felt the ending was a bit short. Careful reading and going back to reread earlier passages suggested to me that everything necessary was actually there, it was just a bit rushed. It could have benefited from an extra ten or so pages, hopefully without unduly disturbing the pacing.
Another thing I enjoyed was the fact that we are not shying away from the consequences of the Doctor's actions. Putting the timeline (or space-time continuum or whatever it is) back to its proper state means having to wipe out these alternatives that are springing up. Remember how this was hand-waved in the final few pages of BLOOD HEAT, way back in the New Adventure days? Thankfully, we are getting a little more discussion concerning these side effects of the alternative universe arc than we did the last time. Walters puts the argument in favor of fixing the universe in the mouth of the Doctor (as it should be), while leaving the "what about...?" and "doesn't that mean...?" questions for Fitz to ask. This arrangement seems to work quite well. The audience realizes that the Doctor may be ultimately correct in his assessment, but that doesn't stop us from thinking the same questions that occur to Fitz, and it's only right that the book should address them in this way. I quite like how Walters handled this.
There are some wonderful descriptive passages detailing how Bristol has changed in this alternative timeline. Walters wipes out a huge percentage of the world's population in the 19th Century, and then flashes forward to the 21st to see what the world would look like after that amount of time had passed. He spends a lot of time mapping out this universe, describing what the population has become and how the physical world has decayed. And he balances out these lovingly written pieces of very effective prose with violent scenes that are almost cartoonish in their banality. I think this strange counterpoint sums up my opinion of the book as a whole: stunningly great in some places, but truly painful in others.
I liked Nick Walter's prose style, something I don't remember being particularly tickled by in his previous books. I was taken by his ability to create a genuinely oppressive and depressive atmosphere, and then to momentarily break the mood with a clever joke. Not to give away any punch lines, but I loved the bit near the end about the poet who isn't famous.
Despite some fairly serious problems, I did ultimately enjoy RECKLESS ENGINEERING. The pacing is just right. We leave events just before they can become tedious. For example, the storyline concerning the settlements is relegated to the sidelines in the book's second half (prior to it become stale) and the plot then becomes a series of time-travel hops. Since so much of the book's successes revolve around its plot, I wonder if I'll care for it as much the second time I read it when I'll already know how things unfold. Perhaps it won't be a book with much longevity, but it's a bit too soon for me to make that judgment. On my first reading though, I thought it was a pretty decent book.