Starting off, I'm going to agree with probably every other person and note that the cover is by far one of the most evocative and mysterious covers to grace the series that I've seen so far. While a lot of the others have seen fit to throw together whatever garish elements the BBC Books design department has bet each other won't go together for a cover, this one actually does what a good cover should do, it sets a mood, it illustrates a scene (even if it's not a literal one), it makes you want to pick up the book to find out what's going on inside. The image of a ghostly TARDIS stranded in a snow-covered forest, setting there like you've just stumbled upon it, is as close to illustrating the heart of the mystery of the strangeness of "Doctor Who" I can imagine.
It's also the best thing about the book.
Now, before anyone goes jumping down my throat, I'm saying that the book is bad, it's just that the cover is a masterpiece and the story is so-so. It's not for lack of trying, however. Much as the cover promises, the story takes place in the snow. In a blizzard, to be exact, and probably with the team most equipped for outdoor survival, the Fourth Doctor and Leela. But before they even show up we're treated to heaps of action, or at least implied action, as covert military team goes to take out a bunch of cultists and discovers that most of them have gone missing. Fortunately, the team has a psychic soldier and soon they're on the case.
Forward has quite a few things going for him here, the most notable is that his prose shows all the marks of someone trying not to be pedestrian. He doesn't achieve the quirky grace of the better stylists (Kate Orman, Lawrence Miles and Paul Magrs are the main ones that come to mind) but there are quite a few parts where you can almost see the steam coming out of his ears as he's clearly trying to find ways to describe things that aren't ordinary. His reliance on a thesaurus shows at some moments, notably in the introductory sections where he has to come up with a zillion metaphors for snow and a-l-m-o-s-t succeeds. If he had cut it short by maybe three or four sections nobody would have noticed but it goes on long enough that it calls attention to itself. But, you know what, I give him credit for trying. A little flair is always welcome.
The other notable point is how he tries to give us an alien that is different from ones we've seen before, without falling back on the tried and true "I want to take over the world puny Earthings" trope we've seen many, many times. He even has friendly aliens in the book and barely calls attention to it! Unfortunately, these bright spots tend to get hamstrung by the odd pacing of the book. In his attempt to build atmosphere, he winds up working against himself. A good chunk of the book has various hints that Something Bad is about to happen, ranging from people disappearing to the storm getting ominous and while that can be very effective when used sparingly, its about a hundred and eighty pages in before we even determine that we're fighting an alien, period. There are very few times when I wish for MORE aliens in "Doctor Who" but this was a time when the reveal could have come a little earlier. Maybe not if the pages before were filled with fascinating suspense but for the most part we get Leela running around in circles with the Psychic Native American Soldier so they can both talk mystical/tribal to each other and the Doctor roaming around trying to investigate but mostly spinning his wheels because nothing has really happened yet. So, in the meantime, the rest of the plot has to ramp up.
Therein lies the problem. In the absence of the alien, there's too much else going on. Years before Russell Davies entertained us with the antics of Rose Tyler and family, we get a whole host of domestic problems here, as cop Mackenzie deals with his romance with single mom Martha, her troublesome daughter Amber, her alcoholic and abusive ex-husband, meanwhile his brother is part of the covert soldier team. It threatens to push the problems with the looming alien off to the side and you start to wonder how any of this is relevant. It reaches its peak (or nadir, depending on one's perspective) when the two brothers argue over the reasons why one left town to venture into the big city and who stayed behind to play small town cop, at which point you start to wonder if the Doctor is even going to guest star in his own book.
He barely does. Frankly, there are too many characters here, most of which have too much to do. Beyond the members of the covert action team, you have the cultists riding around shooting people as the plot leaves them little room to do anything else, the aforementioned alcoholic ex-husband, plus two CIA agents hiding a secret and investigating the alleged alien as well. By the time murders start happening, its almost a relief because it starts to winnow the cast down and give me a chance to tell the supporting characters apart. Leela's first written appearance in a while not written by creator Chris Boucher actually holds promise, until she gets sidelined for chapters at a time, with only the occasional checking in to prove that, yup, she's still running around.
At least matters pick up when the alien arrives for real. Except we barely see it and it tends to murder people off-screen so we don't even get to see the body horror factor. Which means people either spend their time running from it or debating how to communicate/kill it. There are some clever bits, the idea that getting sauced on the demon rum provides protection against it gives us a great sight gag, although a drunk Doctor wasn't as entertaining as I thought he would be. The idea of the alien taking over people and turning their nervous systems into a crystal ice lattice is creepy but little seems to be done with it to indulge in true horror. It's hard to say a book stuffed with so many characters is killing time, but an element of that starts to sink in. By the time we reach the explanation of how the alien understands the emotional problems of an alienated ten year old, you're just waiting for stuff to blow up. Which, fortunately, it does in spades.
Don't get me wrong, Forward has an extremely appealing writing style (some of the dialogue, especially with the CIA agents (who I assume are getting used later) is a little too cutesy and arch for me, but there are other places where he nails it) and does manage to keep things moving, both easy and hard with so much going on. But the novel could have used another round in the plot sharpener, as everyone's motivations other than the Doctor's (who is just there to be awesome) remains a bit cloudy. Nearly two hundred pages of setup followed by a hundred pages of all-out action isn't really the best pacing for the novel. Done right, the slow build up would have achieved a creepy tension that demanded an explosive climax just for the sake of release. But by the time you get there everyone has made you numb.
It's probably possible that nothing could live up to the glory of that cover, but the book has all the hallmarks of a valiant first attempt that could have gone through one more round of rethinking before getting published. Still, every page shows evidence that he's trying very hard to think this through and give us a nontraditional traditional "Doctor Who" experience, which is enough to make me look forward to his next Who endeavor, when hopefully he has a little more seasoning under his belt.