(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 4 December 2003.)
According to rumor, The Suns of Caresh is the product of a disgruntled book reviewer who wished to show the authors of the line "how it should be done". While I have no idea as to whether or not this is true, I think that the book line could do far worse than a few people writing the best book they're capable of in order to improve the general quality of the range -- The Suns of Caresh isn't going to match the greats of the line, but it does go a far way towards keeping up a recent spate of excellent books.
Admittedly, Caresh is a bit thin on plot... actually, "thin" isn't the right word to use, but I'm not sure what is. The book basically breaks down into two sections, the first being on Earth and the second being on Caresh. However, the Earth section takes up the majority of the book, with the Doctor's trip to Caresh being confined to the last third or so. This unbalances the novel a bit, especially since most of the exposition occurs on Caresh; it leaves one with a lingering feeling that very little happens in the first two-thirds of the book.
Amazingly, though, one never gets that feeling while actually immersed in the book. When I'd heard that this was going to be "hard sci-fi", I physically winced -- "hard sci-fi" usually seems to be a euphemism for "sci-fi with bigger words and a smug sense of superiority to people who just call them 'rockets' and 'rayguns'." However, apart from making sure his model of Caresh works, Saint mixes his hard sci-fi in quite effortlessly with the story, letting his characters tell most of the tale. Troy Game, the Careshi trapped on Earth, is a well-drawn and well-realized character, as is Simon Haldane, the human who befriends her, and Roche, the Time Lord whose attitude towards collateral damage is a bit more cavalier than the Doctor's. The prose works nicely, and the time on Earth passes quite quickly (with lots of evil monsters from the Vortex, escapes, and a temporal anomaly that seems to get a bit of short shrift, considering.)
Once we get to Caresh, the exposition flows a bit more, although there's still time for a bit of the traditional Doctor Who runaround -- still, to be fair, the "capture-escape" does function to illuminate Roche's character quite well. (The natives mistake the Doctor for Roche, and we see through their eyes that although Roche is concerned about the welfare of Caresh, he's still terrifyingly amoral.) There's one very ham-fisted plot device on page 238 -- the Time Lord "mercy gun", which will stun the first time and kill the second, seems to be almost sign-posted 'THIS IS A PLOT DEVICE' when you hit it, and sure enough, it's a plot device. The book doesn't often hammer its ideas into your skull, though, so this stands out more or less as an isolated instance of creaky writing. The Doctor's final solution to the problem, too, is clever, and doesn't rely on pointless technobabble. However, something occurs to me about the Doctor's cunning solution to Caresh's problems that's rather disturbing... In the early, Earth-based portions of the book, we learn that the natives of Caresh have "fertile times", based on the proximity of the different suns. This stands out for Troy Game as a prominent difference between Earth and Caresh, since on Earth, we're fertile according to individual biological rhythms, whereas on Caresh, they're fertile (IIRC) at the mid-point between Beacon and Ember.
The Doctor's just shifted Caresh into permanent orbit around Ember.
Doesn't this mean that the Careshi won't be able to breed, and the race will die off of infertility?
On the whole, I'd consider this to be a very worthwhile debut novel, and I hope to see more from Mr. Saint... if that is his real name...