on 2 July 2004
Lloyd Rose's debut Doctor Who novel, City of the Dead, was a magical adventure with such lyrical prose as had not been seen in a Doctor Who book for a long time. The question would be whether or not she could follow up such a stunning debut novel and avoid the dreaded sophomore jinx. I'm pleased to say that she does an excellent job. Not only is Camera Obscura just as good, but it's good in a much different way. Gone is the mysticism that City of the Dead had in spades. Gone is the magical reality. Gone is the New Orleans atmosphere. However, she captures the atmosphere of Victorian England with vivid descriptions and the same style as she did in the first book. It all adds up to a wonderful book.
Back in The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, the Doctor had one of his two hearts taken away, supposedly for his own good. It was the heart that was linked to Gallifrey, a planet that had been destroyed by his own hand and then wiped from his memory. His sometimes ally and sometimes enemy Sabbath removed it to save his life, but implanted it in his own chest so that he could time travel too. Both he and the Doctor have been on a mission ever since to heal the wounds in of the timestream that were caused by the destruction of the Time Lords, to police the time travel that they used to police. A rogue time machine has appeared in Victorian England, the use of which has already caused some temporal disruptions. Whoever has used it has been fractured in different ways. One person has been split into eight separate but equal beings, all sharing the same mind and perceptions. Another has been split into two individual beings, one good and compassionate, one dark and mutated. And one has been split inside her own mind, with multiple personalities inhabiting one body. The Doctor is trying desperately to stop the machine before it's used again. Sabbath has the same goal, but for much different reasons. The Doctor has discovered that the heart Sabbath stole has created an inseparable bond between them. Through that bond, the Doctor discovers Sabbath's horrifying vision of the timestream, causing the Doctor to have yet one more person to watch out for.
Rose has quite the way with words, both dialogue and description. Her England oozes atmosphere, with a mad chase through dank and dark Dartmoor or a dark and eerie mansion that somebody's trying to break into. You can feel the darkness of the dungeon the Doctor is kept in, almost feeling claustrophobic despite being in a well-lit room reading a book. The streets of London are just as crowded as they are in the 21st century, but this time with horses, carriages, and boys paid to run through the streets and pick up dung. Everything is quite vivid.
The characterizations are wonderful as well. This is the Doctor and Sabbath's book, and everybody else takes second billing. The banter between the two is electric, trading barbs and trying to convince each other of the rightness of their cause. The Doctor is horrified when he finds out what Sabbath ultimately wants to do to safeguard time itself, refusing to believe that the ends justify the means. The Doctor is at his most compassionate, almost crushed when he realizes that he's led someone to his death. Sabbath accuses the Doctor of the ultimate arrogance while demonstrating that he's even more so. The book is filled with these scenes, and I don't think there was one false note in them. They realize that they need each other this time and that they have to put all of their past animosities behind them. The final act gives Sabbath a human quality that he's lacked the last few books he's appeared in, an act of compassion that also, as always, has an ulterior motive.
The rest of the characters fulfill their function but aren't anything special. Rose does just enough to avoid making them caricatures without making the reader that interested in them. Unfortunately, both Fitz and Anji fall into this category. Don't get me wrong. They're characterization is spot on, but they are relegated to the sidelines and have almost nothing to do with the entire story. They're bit players that take up screen time, do some small part to move the storyline forward, and then run offstage. The Doctor is not telling them what's going on, which isn't really anything new. This time, however, it makes them surprisingly ineffective. They show up to point the Doctor in the right direction once or twice, set events in motion that will result in the Doctor's rescue occasionally, but that's it. Ultimately it doesn't matter, though. Rose captures the Doctor and Sabbath so well that it doesn't matter that nobody else does anything much of interest.
I really enjoyed Camera Obscura. Despite the fact that it was about the nature of time itself, I found it to be a lot clearer then City of the Dead. While Rose handled that magical realism very well, I think she excelled even more doing a science fiction story this time around. The plot is straightforward, though it's never boring. It's a lot easier to understand, and it has the added benefit of not annoying those Doctor Who fans who don't want even a hint of magic in their Who. While it is part of the ongoing Eighth Doctor storyline, Camera Obscura could easily stand on its own feet if it happened to be the first Who book you've read. So what are you waiting for?