There's something viscerally weird about reading a book and literally seeing the tatters of the plot unraveling further before your eyes, especially when the book itself is about time unraveling. It's like grabbing hold of a rope to pull yourself along and then realizing after some time you're not holding anything in your hands because the rope was made of snow and at some point dissolved. But at least you can explain that. I don't know what the heck happened here.
This book does pull off one neat trick . . . it manages to completely fail in conveying any kind of coherent plot but never makes me angry in the process. There have been other books where I've had a far better grasp of what was going on and come away completely appalled, wondering how such an abomination of literature can exist. Here that never happened. I came away aware that it was only a novel because it was bound printed matter in the shape of one, but it never engendered in me the complete and utter sense of despair that the worst of the worst can cause. I wanted it over and it was, but I don't feel anything firm one way or another about it. Odd.
It's a shame because the characterizations and the concept of the novel itself were actually well done. Especially the concept. In the wake of the ongoing Night of a Trillion Zillion Parallel Universes, we come upon a situation where a corporate called Good Times, Inc has essentially turned history into a big theme park, turning the most important eras of Earth's history into the equivalent of cheesy roadside attractions and charging so that people can go back and see the Wild West, but one that has local Indians and cowboys forced to act as sanitized family-friend versions of themselves. Oh, and each time someone goes back it splits off into another parallel universe. Something may have gone awry.
There's so much rich material with this concept that it's amazing the editor let the book go as far afield as it does. The opening scenes, showing Egypt essentially turned into the Magical World of Pharaohs, is brilliant, conveying both the humiliation and absurdity inherent in the idea, as well as the cluelessness of the tourists who believe they're getting some kind of authentic experience. It's a ripe vehicle for a satire of theme parks and the idea that people who want to experience "real" history, just without all the unpleasant parts, and puts the Doctor up against a well-organized corporation that is willing to break time (or take advantage of breaking time) in the name of profit, not realizing the true damage they're causing. We could get a careening ride through all the messed up areas of history while delving further into the nature of time, giving us one of those dense complex plots and scenarios that the New Adventures of Yore used to give us, only with a Doctor who's more reactionary than chess master. With so much at stake, all the materials are there.
It's hard to say where the missed opportunities are, only that they exist. The beginning is promising enough, showing the Doctor, Fitz and Anji in mid-investigation and playing to one of the strengths of this team, the fact that we now have a TARDIS crew experienced enough (even Anji) to be proactive and act on their own. But it's not too long before it all goes out the window and we're stuck in a series of increasingly convoluted scenarios featuring multiple versions of everyone all intersecting at different times because time has become that fragmented. Sabbath shows up and for the first time in a few books is actually written as intelligent and menacing even if it's still not clear what he's after except for annoying the Doctor, but it does give them someone else to play off of. Which is good, because the supporting cast generally isn't up to the job. Young time traveler Jack is somewhat colorless when he's not dying in repeated timelines and everyone else is essentially nonexistent. All the babbly talk about time travel and discontinuities only muddies the plot and takes it further away from the initial premise, which was supposedly to fight a corporation that is doing serious damage. Good Times itself seems to fade into the background and after a while it's not clear who the Doctor is even supposed to be battling. And without the strong personality of a central villain to hold this together, you need to rely on the scenario or have a crackerjack of a plot, neither of which are on display here.
It's frustrating because every time we get close to the book dragging us into fun and strange territory (a glimpse into early hominids being forced to till fields in pre-history) we're dragged back into more talk about things that don't make any sense, even in the context of the book. At one point it seems that we might delve further into the TARDIS and what secrets lie deep inside of it, but even that falls by the wayside. What's missing is any sense of mystery, where matters aren't quite as we understand them or even as the Doctor understands them. Instead we get a plot masquerading as complex without being able to pull off the gymnastic depth required for such an affair. Which means you're left with a rather nonsensical time travel plot and little else. The Doctor even seems absent from his own book, only appearing to order people around in service of a plan we barely grasp, or argue with Sabbath. Choosing to focus on the abstract only emphasizes how empty the plot feels.
What's worse is that when it was over, I barely noticed, as the climax passes and resolves almost invisibly. I knew the book was ending because I was near the end of the pages, but then suddenly I'm in an epilogue and not sure how I got there. It's as if the book itself couldn't handle any more and just truncated the plot to save itself. Unfortunately, none of the proceeding stuck, and its telling that I managed to finish the book in around two hours (half of that either on a train or waiting for a subway), not because it was a gripping page turner, but because I didn't have to process any of it beyond turning pages mechanically and reading words. If there's any book that I wish could be redone, it's probably this one, because the basic concept I feel could have been a worthwhile plot goldmine with a better focus or more definite point of view. But while I wonder what a Paul Cornell or Lawrence Miles would have made of this, I can only hope in some parallel universe one of those authors wrote this novel, and my parallel brethren are having a vastly different experience than I did. One can dream.