(Originally posted to the DWRG, April 2003.)
As I began reading The Crooked World, it only took me a few pages before I immediately decided that the whole thing was a great idea with the wrong author. The idea of the Doctor materializing in an animated cartoon world with cartoon physics was fun, yes, but Steve Lyons has a far too solid, sensible approach to really make such a thing work. This would have been better suited, I thought, to a wild, wacky author like Jac Rayner or Dave Stone, and not to Steve Lyons.
Then I got into the book, and I realized I was wrong. As the story continued, I started to realize that this wasn't a "wild, wacky" book. This was full of interesting questions about morality and free will, as the inhabitants of the Crooked World took a look around them and wondered just what they'd been doing all these years. I began to grow attached to the characters, and started wondering how it would all turn out. I found myself very impressed with this novel, and I understand exactly why it's gotten such praise.
The two big decisions that Lyons made that I applaud: One, he didn't decide to make the Crooked World a "virtual thingie, a computer thingie, or an alternate thingie" (to paraphrase Daniel O'Mahoney.) We don't get an easy explanation for the Crooked World so we can dismiss its inhabitants as figments or phantoms or computer programs and stop caring about them. They're real, and they stay real throughout the book. Two, (which is linked to One,) Lyons doesn't press a reset button at the end, or destroy the whole world. The inhabitants live (most of them, anyway) to deal with the consequences of their newfound free will and the society they're beginning to make. This is all really happening. We don't switch it all off at the end and walk away.
That's what gives the book its momentum as well -- the whole thing just seems to proceed to its inevitable conclusion like water running downhill. From the beginning, where Streaky Bacon finds out the consequences of shooting people with guns, everything seems to flow naturally... all the way down to the end where Mr. Weasely gives his wonderful, wonderful speech about the consequences of a villainous life ("Yes, I did have choices, I can't deny it, but I was weak and I was selfish. I let other people make my decisions for me, and this is what they have brought me to.")
Admittedly, the book could come off as preachy to some -- to me, though, it was saved from that by the sense of purity. When the Doctor defends Jasper the cat in his trial for killing Squeak the mouse, what could come off as a bunch of speeches feels to me like these people are really thinking these thoughts for the first time, really considering these ideas as real, and having to grope their way to the conclusions on their own, just like we have. It's my favorite scene in the novel, and it really does define the book for me.
Not everything's perfect in the book -- Anji gets sidelined a lot, and Fitz... no, Fitz is still writer-proof as I think about him trying to describe "real" villainy by using James Bond movies as a guideline, and trying the moves on Angel Falls, only to find out she's not quite anatomically correct. Still, I understand now why The Crooked World ranked so highly, and why Steve Lyons was just the person to write it.