14 July 2016

Book Review: Doctor Who - Touched by an Angel

I think it's probably fair to say Jonathan Morris has something of a reputation for playing with narrative and structure more than most writers. Touched by an Angel, his first novel for eight years, certainly follows that trend, which ties neatly into the inclusion of the Weeping Angels - as Morris himself puts it, Steven Moffat's best monsters. This is a very accessible and readable story, with a tragic narrative at its heart. At times it can feel a little too indulgent in painting particular scenes but when the thrust and quality of the novel and are so consistently excellent, this extremely minor observation pales into insignificance.

As in the Angels' 2007 debut Blink, Touched by an Angel follows an individual as their world is turned upside down by the winged assassins. Mark Whitaker is presented as the most ordinary man in the world, which is made even clearer as the strange situations he finds himself in throughout the novel create great contrast. Morris has latched onto the great thing about the Angels - they thrive on temptation, and that's what drives a lot of this book. Eight years ago, Mark's wife Rebecca was killed in a car crash, and he still hasn't got over it. After a meeting with the Doctor, Mark is sent back to 1994 and given the opportunity to stop that ever happening. A letter he receives from his 2003 self tells him it is possible, and gives him a list of instructions to make sure his past stays consistent - a lottery ticket here, a trip to Rome there.

All is not as it seems, as you may have guessed it. Morris shows he understands the Weeping Angels, and how to use them most effectively. These are definitely the creatures of The Angels Take Manhattan rather than those of The Time of Angels, and playing the long game shows off their strengths - and their weaknesses. This particular group of Angels are scavengers, desperate for a good feed. After millennia of waiting, it seems it's dinner time. There's several heart-in-your-mouth moments at significant points in Mark's history, as the Angels seek to disrupt the course of history, but the author manages to maintain every ounce of the villains' credibility, despite the Doctor, Mark, Amy and Rory escaping from them so many times.

One of the crucial constituent elements of great drama is that actions have consequences, and that is what this novel is all about. I remember one of Russell T Davies' rules of writing was that each line should make you want to read the next and Jonathan Morris certainly achieves that - not an easy task, especially for such a long time. You might remember from my previous reviews that reading isn't a great love of mine, but I finished Touched by an Angel in two days flat. This is thanks to it being extremely readable, great characterisation and an addictive plot. Mark is a conflicted man, and has to make several tough decisions through this novel, and crucially he doesn't always make the right choice. This makes the climactic scene towards the book's end all the more dramatic, as Mark arrives at the point we always knew he would eventually have to.

Touched by an Angel is much more about Mark Whitaker than the Doctor, Amy or Rory, but that's not to say the regulars are irrelevant. It's probably true that this story could have survived with just a single companion, but Morris uses each of the couple in situations that are entirely appropriate for their characters, rather than just splitting them off into unnecessary subplots. All three of the TARDIS travellers are extremely well-captured, with the characterisation here feeling more like an extension of what Matt Smith, Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan are capable of than exactly what they are asked to do on television. The Doctor is probably the best-served, with a lot of problem-solving necessary as we get further through the novel. Rory is at times unfairly characterised as an idiot (if I had a pound for every time he was described as gormless) rather than bewildered, which is how he came across to me on TV. Nevertheless, the resolution is entirely thanks to him, and is a neat trick by Morris in a book full of neat tricks.

There are a few little bits I was less keen on, such as why the Doctor didn't think to attempt the way by which the Angels are defeated at any earlier point in the book, considering it is in some respects a little obvious. But these don't mar the good work done through the rest of the novel.

While I'm not sure Touched by an Angel is my absolute favourite piece of Morris' work, though it is high on the list, it's an impressive showcase for his imagination and literary talents. It's as good an audition for the TV series as you're likely to find, and shows a deep understanding of storytelling in the twenty-first century. If there was one nit to pick, it would be the aforementioned occasional abundance of popular culture references; Jonathan Morris' world-building is more than strong enough without it. For those who follow Morris' blog or Twitter feed, it's also fun hunting for little sparks of his own personality slipping through. This novel has it all: poignancy, comedy and scares. Highly recommended.

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