Monday, June 21, 2010

"Border Princes" by Dan Abnett

Almost smack middle in the Border Princes, a BBC Book, featuring the team from Torchwood, Dan Abnett, author of the Gaunt's Ghosts series for Black Library, various comics for Marvel, and Triumff from the British imprint Angry Robot Books, demonstrates his greatest strength: the ability to present a scene of horrific violence without actually describing the violence. The trick, of course, is that the reader imagines the horrific machinations that occurred offstage and fills in the details, thereby heightening or magnifying the sensation of violence. Here is a portion of the scene: "The bodies--there were no whole bodies, just pieces--had been scattered in front of his shed. It looked like a direct hit by an 88 round, except there was no crater, no litter of cordite ash. The poor bastards looked like they had been pushed through a wood chipper. Bits of bone and half-limbs, some still partly clothed in meat, protruded from the soil as though they were heads of celery, carefully planted. (p. 148)"

Border Princes is a Torchwood novel, and Torchwood, of course, is the BBC series featuring Captain Jack Harkness. Harkness appeared originally in several Doctor Who episodes and who, through the actions of Rose Tyler, is now immortal and heading up the Torchwood team guarding Cardiff against the denizens and riff-raff that enter our world through the Rift. The Rift in the Doctor Who universe is located at Cardiff Bay, Wales and acts as a generator of stories. It has been defined as a wormhole but it acts as portal contacting various universes. The Rift appeared initially in the Doctor Who episode, entitled "The Unquiet Dead," starring Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor. In that brilliant episode, featuring Simon Callow as Dickens, a rift opens in Victorian Cardiff and allows the Gelth, gaseous humanoid organisms to pass into a funeral parlor, where they inhabit corpses. Additionally, the Rift releases radiation, which grants people psychic powers, including Gwyneth, a servant in the parlor. Gwyneth in the episode is played by Eve Myles, who later plays the current day policewoman Gwen in Torchwood and perhaps is a descendant of the first Gwyneth. In the Doctor Who episode Gwyneth saves humanity by the forfeiture of her life. In Abnett's Border Princes, the modern Gwen is also at the center of the action. This time her forfeiture involves the loss of a lover.

Abnett's novel contains the usual suspects but at the same time it shares and demonstrates all the Abnett tropes and devices. First, Abnett uses multiple points of view. That works well with this novel because it is really about the team. Second, Abnett is the master of delay and suspense. He carries us along to the end by slowly dribbling out the clues. Intertwined with the mystery of the sixth member of the Torchwood team, James, is numerous other stories of Rift mishaps and mayhem. Third, no one writes combat better than Abnett and there is plenty here. His alien creatures sizzle with hardware and battle expertise, causing us to want to know more about them. Fourth, surprisingly, Abnett writes domestic scenes well. My fantasy was that his well-crafted scenes between James and Gwen were echoes from his own relationships.

Needless to say, the novel is well-written, exciting and true to the Torchwood IP. However, it is almost impossible to discuss the plot without giving something away. So I won't. Instead, I will just say that if you like Torchwood, you will like this novel. If you like Abnett, you will be pleased because you get the usual Abnett--plus. The plus is the way in which he describes domestic scenes and relationships. In the Border Princes, Gwen is having trouble with Rhys, her boyfriend. The number of incursions through the Rift has increased her workload and is interfering with her personal life.

Finally, if you haven't read Abnett, I recommend the following novels: the omnibus volume from Black Library, entitled The Saint; the Warhammer novel Riders of the Dead, a personal favorite, and Triumff from Angry Robot.

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