on 3 August 2004
Justin Richards is the editor of the Doctor Who line of books, so it's only fitting that he get the occasional "big" book rather then just doing fill-ins when an author misses a deadline. He can always be relied upon to give us an interesting story, often compelling and never boring. Time Zero is one of the big ones, though not as big as everybody thought it would be. It doesn't really end the Doctor-Sabbath war of ideas concerning how the timestream will ultimately work, instead blowing everything up and forcing the Doctor to try and pick up the pieces over the next few books. Time Zero keeps moving at a steady pace, gripping the reader, but then it hits a patch of ice. Still a very good book, though.
After the events of Camera Obscura, Fitz has decided to join an expedition to frozen Siberia in the 1890s and Anji just wants to go home. The Doctor is alone again, but things are already set in motion to link him with his companions yet again. Fitz's expedition was attacked by dinosaurs from a history that never happened, and the Doctor has Fitz's journal to prove it. The journal also indicates that Fitz never returned. Anji's back working the financial markets, but gets co-opted into joining an American expedition to Siberia that has unknown purposes, though it involves the Naryshkin Institute. The Institute ostensibly is trying to create a black hole, but why? And what do the Americans want with it? Are all these events linked? The Doctor seems to think so. He's the only one who does, and his arrival on the scene could be the catalyst that destroys the world, or at least the past. Repercussions could stretch back to the beginning of the universe. Or even farther.
Richards manages to tie all of these events together expertly, leaving each plot line to move on to the next one just when it's getting good. The suspense was killing me at a few points, when Fitz was endangered by the dinosaurs or it looked like Anji might get killed. This had the classic feeling of a "companion leaving" story, and I wouldn't have put it past Richards to kill one of the companions in their final book, so the sense of danger was palpable. Only the Doctor seemed safe, as it's obviously his series. Richards also keeps the reader guessing on how everything ties together, with only Siberia visibly linking everything at first. It's definitely a high-concept book, with alternate realities, time experiments, black holes, and an examination of the universe and how it functions. But Richards also grounds this in some believable characters and modern-day action, including two Special Forces units.
The characters are what make the book great. The Doctor, Anji, and Fitz are simply wonderful, with the Doctor being at his frenetic best. He's on top of things, he's a force of nature at times, almost child-like at others, but always the moral center that everything revolves around. He's calm when everything around him is hysterical and he's intelligent as well. Gone are the days when he would do something truly stupid and na?ve, the "congenital idiot" that some fans labeled him. Anji and Fitz are just as good, each leading their own scenes, taking charge (figuratively, if not literally) and displaying the attributes that we've always loved about them. While this is the Doctor's book, they aren't sidelined like they are in Camera Obscura. They are an integral part of the plot. While Anji doesn't get to actually do a whole lot, she gives us a viewpoint into Hartford's team and what they're doing, and she shows quick flashes of brilliance even as she's horrified by what Hartford is doing.
Most of the other characters are quite good as well, though I thought Hartford was a little too over the top in his ruthlessness and I didn't quite buy his transformation at the end. It does give a new look at his previous actions, but I don't think it actually worked. Hartford and his group are chilling and work wonderfully, but Fitz's expedition members are given just enough characterization to make them mildly interesting, but the bits before the expedition reaches the castle dragged a bit because I just didn't care that much about them. Things picked up once the dinosaurs got involved, though.
So the book is moving along very nicely, I'm contemplating taking a longer lunch at work because I want to finish this fascinating novel. The Institute is rigged to explode and there's a countdown and everything. Then Richards steps on a technobabble landmine, all of a sudden trying to explain all the concepts that he's been examining. Revelations of who's who and who's been pretending to be who come fast and furious, and the book comes to a screeching halt. I put the book down and went back to work, eager to finish it but not driven to like I had been. The tension burst out of the book like a balloon. Don't get me wrong, Richards quickly recovers from it and the climax is just as exciting and thought-provoking as the rest of the book, but there's a brick wall right in the middle there that just brought everything rudely to a halt. It's the only real problem in an otherwise wonderful book.
Don't let that stop you, though. Time Zero is yet another hit in the Eighth Doctor line of books