Useless fact - Major Beltempest was a character in Original Sin. I expected him to be in this novel and was quite frankly glad when that turned out not to be the case. However, Beltempest does have much in common with the New Adventures in general. The adult prose, the religion and philosophy, drug taking and hinted at incest are reminiscent of the NA era's deeper themes, and appear at odds with the more 'pulpy' EDA style.
From the top then - the beginning of the novel leads us quickly into the first major events and lends an air of mystery to proceedings into the bargain. We switch from the remnants of a civilisation to the Doctor and Sam enjoying the sun on a beach, before it all goes pear-shaped. A gravity shift in a nearby moon causes earthquakes, and chasms begin to open along the beach. The TARDIS disappears into a chasm, the Doctor and Sam get split up and Sam appears to die at the hands of an unruly mob and a religious nutter. All this is in the second chapter, and if you think that's a blistering opening, the novel keeps up the hectic pace for the duration.
When the pace does begin to drop even slightly, Mortimore levers in another searing set piece, such as asteroids destroying a starship, the Doctor holding a crashed ship roof up with some hastily botched anti-gravity device so that a medical team can free the trapped captain - all while a Tsunami approaches. Not only that, but then he rides out the Tsunami on a massive surfboard with about 300 other people. Then there's the scene in which Sam tries to rescue a dying child from a frightened, stampeding crowd of refugees, which has an extraordinary emotional resonance. You could say Beltempest is 'Doctor Who does the ultimate disaster movie', since it's got more scope than Deep Impact and The Day after Tomorrow put together.
It's the emotional resonance of the novel that leads me to my next point - Sam and the Doctor are examined in some detail here. The fabric of the story allows us to see into their thoughts in a manner that most other EDAs have eschewed in favour of plot. The Doctor analyses his decisions, his conflicting ideas causing him much stress. Sam's ordeal is related to something akin to a death cult - those that have achieved the Endless State. Priest Denadi thinks death is what we should all aspire to, as it eases suffering. Saketh on the other hand is essentially an undying Jesus figure - bolstered by the fact that he later lets his followers 'eat of his flesh and drink of his blood' (literally, unlike Jesus.) His belief is that we can all be immortal. The two peacefully vie for Sam's belief, but she chooses to remain true to her personal philosophy. At least, she does for a time, until she gets as near to death as it's possible to get without passing on, at which point she does what most of us would do - she takes a bite.
The religion aspect is present throughout the entire book - at one point, Sam encounters a moral choice - save a dying father and son by communing with Saketh, or don't commune and let them die. The decision nearly drives her insane, especially since she's high on drugs (probably speed) to keep her awake. Asking herself a number of searching questions in a brilliantly written spatter of thought, she chooses to help them, only to find they've died while she's been dithering. She compare's Saketh's religion to the disease of a vampire, reasoning that she may be corrupted, and is unsure whether that means life or death.
Despite Beltempest's staggering cataclysmic events, the best section of the novel is on a considerably smaller scale. The Doctor is imprisoned, and begins to construct a device out of bits of junk from his pockets. He insinuates that it is a weapon with enough power to bring down the door, knowing full well he's being watched on CCTV. As he's about to 'use' it, some troopers open the door and take it off him. When one of them fires it to render it useless, chocolates shoot out of the end. Great stuff.
The only flaws I could find were that some of the chapters were too long. Don't get me wrong, I loved every minute of it. But I don't like stopping reading books halfway through a chapter, and working life tends to influence my reading in such a way that I read before sleeping, and often have to put a book down and go to sleep.
Also, Sam has learnt to become a starship engineer, fixing up a shuttle so she can leave an icy moon. Then there's the poor oxymoron joke - 'what's the point in being an oxygen breather if you can't be a moron.' Groan.
Until I read Beltempest, Alien Bodies was my favourite EDA - very good plot, prose, humour and characterisation. But Beltempest outscores Alien Bodies because it has all those (although the humour is darker) AND it addresses some of the fundamental questions of life in glorious abundance and with breathtaking panache.
It's Doctor Who at its most visionary. It has real emotional weight, main and secondary characters you care about, semi-villains you love to hate, action packed flowing prose, great set pieces and nifty chapter cliffhangers. Almost everything about this novel is absolutely brilliant, and only a few minor imperfections drag it down a notch. I'm not entirely sure why it's generally so underrated - perhaps because its themes are a little too adult for the average EDA readership age - but the redressing of the balance starts here.
Jim Mortimore's finest hour.
Review by Tom Hey