If you're not familiar with the tale of Vanderdeken, this novel gives the impression of being a complicated book with lots of scientific mumbo jumbo. Schrödinger had a cat (well, he may or may not have had a cat), and Vanderdeken had his children. You'd be half right in your assumptions, since there's a heck of a lot of technobabble going around in VC. Hyperspatial wotsits and all sorts of energy transmissions, links through time and space, the list goes on.
What's important is that the technical stuff more or less makes sense, and even if it doesn't, it's unlikely to get in the way of the plot. VC hooks you with a myriad of mysteries. You're immediately given information to ponder over - what the hell is this ship? Where has it come from? Does it have some kind of time travel capability? Is it deserted? Little bits of info are revealed at regular intervals, and they're just enough to keep you reading until the next chapter, then the one after that, then... etc. This is helped by some of the shortest chapters in Who novel history - something I approve of heartily, because you can put the book down if something crops up that you need to deal with.
The answer to the question 'Is it deserted?' is 'no' and yet simultaneously 'yes'. It's a bit complicated to explain without reciting great chunks of the plot, but suffice to say that we get a new 'monster' for the Doctor and Sam to deal with, some unscrupulous characters looking to achieve their own ends and some very well portrayed background characters whose subplot is woven into the main story with aplomb. As people venture into the ship, you begin to wonder if a standard 'Alien' type creature is going to pick them off from the shadows, and the tension is brilliantly handled, steadily rising with each glimpsed sighting of... something.
The sections in the derelict ship could do with some visual reference, especially with it being so large and encompassing so many concepts. The image of the codepad at the beginning of the novel is useful (as you wouldn't be able to adequately understand a description), and I gained some personal triumph from solving the code before the Doctor revealed it.
As for the Doctor, he's mostly into his old 'Sherlock' routine, and it quickly becomes apparent that he's going to be the only one able to work out what's really going on. Chris Bulis has captured the essence of the 8th Doctor's personality quite well, and his interplay with Sam works to the extent that you feel they've been travelling together for quite some time. Of course, they have been travelling together for quite some time, but many authors of previous EDAs have slipped into bickering 'polar opposite viewpoint' scenarios all too often.
The point at which members of the two races realise their actions may destroy both their worlds is well handled and provides a genuinely shocking moment (well, if you didn't guess it was coming like I did.) If only they had worked together sooner... there's a message for us all in there somewhere, and it didn't feel preachy either.
The reason I didn't rate VC more highly is that the 'monsters' are a little too insubstantial for me. They can't really be fought, and although on the one hand this means they are a formidable foe, Bulis does run out of ideas when trying to get his characters out of monster situations. Running seems to work, but at the speed we're told the things can move, it seems unlikely running would prove an effective long term solution.
Vanderdeken's Children has some great ideas, but occasionally they aren't really given the punch they deserve. I personally was hoping for some controlling influence for the Doctor to spar with, but unfortunately it didn't materialise.
Boiled down, VC is an above average 'weird spaceship' story that borrows something from the movie Event Horizon, although thankfully it's much better than that.
Review by Tom Hey