Book review: Dan Abnett — Torchwood: Border Princes

It’s first season (pre-Countrycide, and probably pre-Cyberwoman), and Team Torchwood are doing their usual thing — but they have an extra member. James has recently joined the team, he fits in very well, and he’s conducting a romance with Gwen — not just a stress relief affair, but an actual romance that leads Gwen to think about how to finish gently with Rhys. He is, in short, a classic Mary-Sue figure for the first half of the book.

Since this is in series 1 continuity and thus we’re going to have a reset button pressed by the end of the book, it’s obvious from page one that there’s more to it than that. But the book’s more than just the unfolding story of who James really is and what he’s doing in Torchwood. This book does a nice job of showing the day to day work of Torchwood, and how it can often be a lot of little things, some tying together and others not. There is a definite main storyline, but there are other small stories entangled with that, and it’s not always clear to the reader which is which until it becomes clear to the characters. It does make the book feel a little choppy in places, but not in a bad way.

It’s competently written, there are some interesting ideas in it that develop aspects of the Torchwood universe, and I am particularly taken with the secondary character of Mr Dine. He’s an excellent study of a non-human character who is trying to blend in, and who understands humans just well enough to recognise how very limited his understanding is. He reminded me a lot of the character of Death in Pratchett’s Discworld.

But…

I’d have liked this book a lot more if I’d read it when it first came out, rather than after seeing all of series 1 to 3. It treats Rhys as a nuisance that Gwen stays with purely out of habit, rather than a man she loves but is tempted to stray from. This is just about compatible with series 1, but even in series 1 it’s pretty clear that Gwen’s affair with Owen is about the stresses of the job and the stress that puts on her relationship with Rhys, rather than because she actively wants rid of Rhys. The book portrays James as being the incentive Gwen needs to get on with ditching Rhys. While the eventual explanation for the presence of James might cover this, I don’t get the impression that this was the author’s intention. And for me this jars very badly with the Rhys/Gwen relationship as portrayed later in the series.

I suspect this is a reflection of the planned direction of the series at the time the writing brief was put together for the first trilogy of books (Rhys was originally supposed to be killed off in series 1), so I wouldn’t consider it to be bad writing, just something that I personally didn’t like.

The book focuses very strongly on James, Gwen, and Jack, with Owen and Toshiko getting less attention and Ianto being hardly present — again, reflecting the show over the first few episodes.

I felt that the other two books in the first trilogy were accessible to readers who weren’t already familiar with Torchwood, but I think this one would be much more difficult for someone new to the universe — and perhaps pointless, given that much of the story is about the reader’s understanding that James should not be there. If you’ve never seen Torchwood and want to pick up a book to see what the fuss is about, this isn’t the one to start with.

In spite of my criticisms, I’m glad I read it. It’s just not the one I’d pick up first for a re-read.

The book is also avilable in an (abridged?) audiobook read by Eve Myles, which I haven’t heard.

LibraryThing entry
Play (print)
Play (audiobook)
The Book Depository (print)
The Book Depository (audiobook)

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