Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Left-Handed Hummingbird

1487: The Doctor and Ace go to the ancient Aztec empire and investigate a warrior-god who might have some sort of psychic powers.
1912: There's something on the Titanic that the TARDIS crew and Cristan must get to before it sinks.
1968: A commune of hippies, led by an LSD-taking Cristan, are getting together to research ancient Aztec gods.
1980: The Doctor doesn't turn at the sound of the gunshots that kill Lennon while Cristan looks on in horror.
1994: The Doctor, Benny and Ace respond to a message for them at UNIT headquarters to meet a man in a Mexico City hospital. This man, Cristan, met them three previous times, but in the TARDIS crew's future, and in Cristan's past. There's a great enemy out there.

I specifically gave a detailed plot summary in chronology order so that readers of this review will be confused going into this. Certainly, The Left-Handed Hummingbird is the most complex thing in the New Adventures, related to plot, that is. It's also the first NA written by a female, and it's the first NA written by an Australian, that is to say, Kate Orman. Even though this is apparently Orman's first novel, it's fantastic. It doesn't feel like a first novel at all. This is an amazing read that uses the TARDIS crew properly, time travel properly, and even research properly. You'll not read a pre-James Cameron Titanic fiction that recalls so much of Cameron's titular movie.

I said that this book was amazing, but let's discuss what I didn't like about the book first, so that I can end on a high note. The first major issue is that there's a Marc Platt-style obfuscation occurring in certain scenes. When in 1487, the Doctor takes magic mushrooms and prepares to do battle with the unseen enemy on the psychic battlefield. At the same time, Ace gets goaded into fighting some Aztec warriors. Something or other happens and people die. It's not entirely clear what happens. It's only the Doctor's description of the events a posteriori that allow the reader to make sense of the situation. This isn't an isolated occurrence however. There are numerous scenes, mostly important action bits, that are left purposefully unclear. It recalls some of the more esoteric scenes in Time's Crucible or Timewyrm: Revelations.

As much as I like when authors don't hold the readers' hands, I'm equally frustrated with opacity for its own sake. There has to be some sort of a middle ground between the two. The unnecessary confusion seems almost self-indulgent. There were two instances in the novel where I had to consult Wikipedia just to be sure of what I read. That's not a good sign. It's not Joyce's Ulysses, after all.

Also, in a move reminiscent of modernist novels, Orman inexplicably shifts back and forth between tenses in the novel. For the most part, Orman sticks with the standard third person past tense. However, for some arcane reason unknown to me, she will use the present tense. Perhaps, and this is just a guess, it's meant to convey a sense of urgency and immediacy. Whatever the reason, it's jarring when it happens in the same paragraph. This shift happens frequently during the climactic scene on the Titanic, and I cannot tell you how distracting it is. I cannot believe that this wasn't fixed at the editing stage.

One more minor complaint. While I applaud the excellent integration of research into the novel, there's a couple scenes where it's just too much. Especially in Orman's depiction of the development of the villain. It's simply detail and name piled onto detail and name, simply confusing me. It doesn't help that the Aztec names are all very similar and impossible to pronounce. This is almost more of a failing of the reader, than the writer. But sometimes, when it comes to impressive research, less is more.

Okay, now we can get to what I like about the book. Dorian, of postmodernbarney.com, describes this as "more of a romp" than the other novels in the Alternate History arc, so that's what I was expecting. This most assuredly not a romp, but it is in comparison to the other ones. The Left-Handed Hummingbird is purposefully and almost oppressively depressing. The weight of the untold deaths and personal cost feels palpable on the shoulders of the TARDIS crew. Ace has never felt so distanced from the Doctor. Benny has never felt so out of place. The Doctor has never been so inscrutable. The relationship between the three of them is depicted perfectly; this is the first NA that I've read to do this so well. Not only are they characterized well, but their relationships and feelings are taken to a logical place based on the previous events. Which is another way of saying that Orman integrates previous continuity in a logical and beautiful way.

It's not just previous books that are referenced in this NA. No, The Left-Handed Hummingbird recalls dozens of televised stories including the First Doctor's adventure The Aztecs. But it's not simply a case of Orman name-checking something. That's too simple for her. Instead, Orman integrates the story's themes into her own. Which sounds utterly circular and obvious, but it's not something that previous writers have accomplished with the New Adventures. Not only does the Hartnell story feel like it makes sense in context, but it feels like a part of the Doctor's past, compounding the Seventh Doctor's burden and age. It's well done assimilation.

The Left-Handed Hummingbird uses time travel properly, as well. When meeting Cristan out of order, the Doctor mentions that it's weird that this doesn't happen more frequently. This totally makes sense and it's one of the first things that Steven Moffat used when writing the TV show. Writers often forget that time travel doesn't necessarily leap the conclusion of linearity. The better time travel stories do not flow in a chronological sense. This novel understands that, but doesn't go too crazy. The time travel is in service of the plot, rather than the other way around. This is a mistake made by first time writers, and Orman avoids that.

Orman succeeds in keeping the stakes high. This may sound like a minor point, but I think it's extremely relevant in light of the Eleventh Doctor's near godhood in the televised stories. The Seventh Doctor has been previously depicted as Machiavellian and manipulative, to the point of being alien to humanity. He's a master player of games, and nothing is unforeseen. Orman picks up on this theme and turns it around. Not only does the Doctor experience extreme physical danger, but he himself is the vehicle for the enemy's psychic attack. The Doctor is the most dangerous person in the TARDIS crew because of his strong psychic powers. Because he continues to be the attack point for the enemy, Benny concludes incorrectly that this is some sort of ploy on the Doctor's part. Even Ace remarks that his strategy is cunning, but the Doctor repeatedly tells them both that he is not playing games. He even swears on this, but he can sense the distrust. Normally, a reader wouldn't expect to take the Doctor's word at face value, but because of the nonlinearity of the events, we can only conclude the Doctor is finally making it up as he goes along.

So, to sum up, we have time travel, research, characterization and themes all synthesized and working together harmoniously to provide an excellent adventure with small reservations. This might be the first time that a New Adventure has all the elements working in tandem. It's a fantastic read, and this doesn't even mention Orman's above-average prose. Of the twenty-one New Adventures that I have read so far (!), I would rank this in the top ten, easily, maybe even the top five.

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