There seems to be a common formula to the way that authors have handled Torchwood, be it TV, audio or books. It tends to be thus: bit of a slow start, pick up pace until it’s a bit like a rollercoaster, then throw some technical explanation into a five minute ending. This isn’t just an issue with Torchwood, but with many forms of science fiction. It’s up to the writer to craft something engaging for the reader or viewer and, regardless of what the author does or how well he does it, you’re pretty much guaranteed that they’re not going to be able to keep everyone happy. Some writers have handled Torchwood ably, Dan Abnett’s Border Princes, for example. Other authors have let the beast run away with them, but I won’t name them through fear that they’ll hunt me down and write me to death.
So, here we have James Goss and his novel, Risk Assessment, number thirteen in the ever growing library of Torchwood original fiction. Will it be unlucky for Mr Goss?
Risk Assessment starts with a bunch of unusual events happening; firstly, we’ve got the arrival of a bunch of coffins through the Rift, followed by the summoning of the cryogenically frozen Torchwood Assessor to audit the activities of Team Torchwood.
On top of that, there’s a weird gelatinous blob about to be unleashed on Cardiff and it is intent on taking over the world, then the galaxy and beyond… if only it can get its strength back. Thankfully for the blob, it’s got people, cars and plastic to eat, and lots to learn about Earth as it goes about its business.
With the arrival of Agnes Havisham, the Victorian Torchwood assessor that is awoken only in times of real crisis, we see a new side to Captain Jack. Gone are his bravado and over-the-top characteristics, replaced by cautiousness and a more guarded approach to situations. A product of Old Torchwood, Havisham truly believes that Torchwood is there to protect the Empire and all alien incursions into our territory are to be exploited for the benefit of England.
She’s headstrong, fearlessly going into battle, weapons at the ready and able to deal with all manner of threats, including aliens, politicians and, eventually, big alien blobs. More than that, she’s a perfect foil for Captain Jack, seemingly oblivious to his charms and unmoved by his recreation of Torchwood as a thing for good.
James Goss’ writing is superb, from the titles with “In which our heroes…” style subheadings, to his wonderful use of pithy and witty prose, particularly surrounding said blob and its burgeoning curiosity about the Earth, well… Cardiff. He has crafted a truly splendid character in the form of Agnes Havisham who, in true Torchwood style, is not all she seems. He manages to include references to previous Doctor Who foes, as well as situations and events seen in previous Torchwood adventures – the alien scalpel, Torchwood India, Torchwood 1 and 4 and Skypoint all pop up in one form or another. However, Goss doesn’t make the references so jarring that you feel you have to be a Torchwood boffin to keep up. He spends time exploring Agnes’ history, through flashbacks to previous Havisham adventures, and bringing together her sparing relationship with Captain Jack in a well crafted way that makes sense and doesn’t end up with the pair in bed, whilst also taking time to develop Gwen and Ianto. He does tend to use the word ‘bonhomie’ a lot and it would have been nice if a character had actually phonetically pronounced the name of the second alien race, instead of leaving me to take random and various stabs at it before deciding that I’ll rename them myself.
Indeed, all the characters are well realised in Risk Assessment. Rhys gets to act the hero, again, whilst Gwen and Ianto find themselves torn between their loyalty to Jack or to Havisham. There’s little mention of the death of Owen and Tosh, which is good as some of the books and audios have tended to dwell too heavily on the subject. With believable characterisation and two interesting alien threats, I’d go as far as saying that you could imagine this story being on the screen.
Obviously, one of the difficulties with the Torchwood books is that the events in them are limited by the TV series. We know that Gwen can’t die, so when she’s falling from the sky we know she’s going to survive. This doesn’t stop it being quite entertaining to read, especially when you consider the incredulous way in which she has ended up in such a predicament in the first place!
There are, in effect, two stories running here. Just as one story ends (fifty pages before the end of the book), the other one picks up. The coffins and a reference to Havisham’s beloved all become important again as the team race to overcome their second catastrophe of the day. It doesn’t feel like a tacked-on situation, nor does it feel rushed or unwelcome. Goss manages to build a second wave of momentum as the novel reaches a rather unexpected conclusion that I hope, one day, is resolved.
Overall, Risk Assessment is a well paced, funny, occasionally touching novel that is well worth a read. If it’s your first Torchwood novel, you won’t be disappointed.