Novel Review: The Left-Handed Hummingbird

We’re back! To date, I’ve reviewed the first twenty volumes of the Virgin New Adventures (VNAs, for short) line of Seventh Doctor novels. (There are a total of 61 novels in the VNAS featuring the Doctor, including one Eighth Doctor novel, The Dying Days. I’m not counting the novels with Bernice Summerfield as protagonist, although I do hope to read them and review them. Eventually.) Twenty sounds like an impressive enough number…except that I’ve read twenty-six of them (Well, twenty-seven; but I wrote the review for Lungbarrow a long time ago, after I read it out of order, and am just waiting to post it.) As I’m quickly beginning to forget details, and want to catch up as quickly as possible, I think a little picking up of the pace is in order. So, here we are, posting for the second day in a row.

Now, on to number twenty-one! This brings us to prolific DW author Kate Orman’s debut novel, The Left-Handed Hummingbird. Published in December 1993, this novel is the third entry in the “Alternate Universe Arc”. Let’s get started!

Left Handed Hummingbird

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not read this novel!

The life of a Mexican man of Aztec descent, Cristian Alvarez, is forever shaped by four events: the discovery of the Aztec great temple in 1978; the murder of John Lennon in New York, 1980; a marketplace massacre in Mexico City, 1994; and predating them all, a meeting with the Doctor in 1968 London. But Cristian has a secret that plagues him: at each crucial moment, he is assaulted by a psychic event or force that he calls “the Blue”. He can’t explain it; but he knows that when the Blue arrives, tragedy walks with it.

The Doctor, Ace and Benny are summoned by a psychic distress call. Arriving in late 1994, they meet Cristian for the first time—but, not his first time, as he knows them well. Soon enough it becomes apparent that someone or something is stalking Cristian through time; and, it seems, also stalking the Doctor. But, why? The Doctor first traces the phenomenon to the unearthing of the Aztec temple in 1978, and then to the temple’s bloody dedication in 1487. His course then takes him to 1968, and Cristian’s first encounter with the Doctor, in London; then at last to 1980, and the murder of John Lennon. At last, he comes to a final, traumatic event, one that Cristian would not have expected: the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. There, he faces a final battle with the persistent spirit of a long-dead Aztec warrior…but this battle will bring him no closer to his true enemy, the being interfering with his own past since the events in the alternate universe.

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My first inclination, when sitting down to write this review, was to be a bit hard on the book. I’ve already mentioned more than once that this arc of the New Adventures—the “Alternate Universe” arc—was a chore to work through. In fact, yesterday I said that this book represents the peak of that feeling for me—and that remains true.

And yet, that’s an unfairly negative description. Upon further thought, I’ve decided that to present the novel that way would be to do it an injustice and a disservice; because it’s a very good book, in the end. It’s possible my judgment, going into this book, was colored by the experience of the preceding two books; but more to the point, this book is extraordinarily complex, even for the VNAs, and I think I wasn’t prepared for that. My lack of preparation, though, doesn’t invalidate the fact that that complexity is a good thing.

Nevertheless, if you read this book, be warned: It’s going to take some time for it to come together. You’ll have passages where you think the plot is wandering. I assure you it isn’t. Kate Orman chose to weave together any number of very different historical events, on two continents and in three countries (plus the middle of the ocean!); naturally it’s going to take time to tie those things together.

It’s all that history that really shines here; and with that, I have to apologize, because I haven’t been able to put in the research time necessary to figure out what is real and what is fictionalized here. Some of it is fairly fresh; the death of John Lennon, for example, occurred within my lifetime. Some of it is distant enough to be of interest chiefly to historians—but we’re all historians here, at least when the Doctor goes to visit. Aztec history is something in which I’ve only lightly looked over the years, but if it’s even a fraction as interesting as Orman portrays, I find myself fascinated.

After a short reprieve, we’re back to the usual amount of violence found in the VNAs. Nearly everywhere Cristian and the Doctor go, people die in horrifically violent ways. Perhaps that’s to be expected in a story about the Aztecs, who were known for bloody human sacrifices; and yet, we don’t see much in the way of sacrifices (possibly not any at all; I can’t recall). This, in spite of the fact that the temple featured in the story was known to have been dedicated with twenty thousand sacrifices; we don’t stay on hand for that scene, if I recall correctly. Rather, the deaths here are often bloody, always personal, and always up close. Deaths are far from uncommon for the VNAs, but often they occur offscreen and quietly; not so much here. It’s one of the few times I feel the series thus far has earned its description of “more adult than the television series”.

Some things for which I didn’t care: After just finishing with the Garvond, we get another incorporeal, violent, possession-capable villain whose origin and persistence are tied to the Doctor’s mind—that is, the Aztec “god” Huitzilopochtli, aka the warrior Huitzilin. (I put “god” in quotes because, in true DW fashion, he’s not actually a god in the end; but he certainly plays the part.) Maybe that’s in keeping with a theme for this arc, but it’s not exactly revolutionary at this point. The Doctor uses LSD at one point; now, applying 21st-century society to this, I don’t care, because there’s been a softening of views on drug use in our time, and because there’s growing evidence that LSD has therapeutic value for some conditions. But, when this novel was released in the early nineties, the anti-drug movement was at its height, and this…well, it makes me wonder about the reception at the time. Anyway, having lived through that period, it feels jarring to me.

Most of all, though, we’re back to the same issues we’ve been having with Ace and Benny. Once again, the trust among the members of our TARDIS team is left broken at the end; once again, Ace is angry with the Doctor for interfering in her way of doing things, and once again, the Doctor suspects that he is responsible for making Ace a killer. Once again, Benny gets largely sidelined; most egregious of all, when the Doctor and Ace take off for 1487, it’s Benny, the archaeologist of the group, who gets left babysitting Cristian in the future! Don’t worry, Benny, your chance is coming…half a dozen books from now, give or take. It’s frustrating to see these same old problems—can I call them tropes at this point? They feel like tropes—arising again. Better things are coming, I think, but only through slow and incremental progress.

Continuity References: Almost endless! The Doctor visits the Titanic, which has appeared in numerous stories, and which he has visited in multiple incarnations (first DW appearance in a DWM comic titled Follow That TARDIS!). He mentions Barbara’s actions from The Aztecs. He mentions numerous aliens that have interfered with Earth: The Osirians (Pyramids of Mars), the Exxilons (Death to the Daleks; also of great importance in this very book, though not actually present), Scaroth (City of Death), the Daleks (The Chase, for this purpose, and many others), and the Timewyrm (Timewyrm: Genesys and its sequels). He mentions Woodstock; the wiki indicates two earlier incarnations were there. One is the Second Doctor (Wonderland), but I was not able to identify the other or his story; however, he will visit again in his Twelfth incarnation (The Crawling Terror). Ace mentions Saul, the church in Cheldon Bonniface (Timewyrm: Revelation). UNIT gets several mentions; notably, Mike Yates is known to not speak to anyone by 1994, and Harry Sullivan is mentioned. Unit Corporal Carol Bell was last seen in The Claws of Axos. Ace contacts an Air Commodore Ian Gilmore (Remembrance of the Daleks). Herbert Clegg is mentioned (Planet of the Spiders). The Nightshade TV series is playing in 1968 (Nightshade). The Doctor mentions the Mara (KindaSnakedance) and the Fendahl (Image of the Fendahl). The Doctor mentions that an aspirin could kill him (The Mind of Evil). Ace wears a shirt from Svartos, specifically Iceworld (Dragonfire). UNIT agent Hank Macbeth mentions the Yeti invasion (The Web of Fear), the evacuation of London (Invasion of the Dinosaurs), and Devil’s End Church (The Daemons). Ace mentions Merlin (Battlefield). Benny thinks of the planet Heaven (Love and War). The Doctor mentions Xanxia (The Pirate Planet). And, a touch of foreshadowing, the Doctor gets (ostensibly) killed and placed in a morgue with a “John Doe” toe tag, which will happen for real at his regeneration. Also notable: This book is absolutely littered with real-world pop culture references; I won’t list them here, but for a quick rundown, check the Discontinuity Guide.

Overall: You’ll like this one; and there are plenty of good reviews to support me on that. Just give it time, take it slow, and savor the story.

Next time: We’re more than halfway through the Alternate Universe arc! Next time we’ll look at the fourth entry, Steve Lyons’ Conundrum. See you there!

The New Adventures series is currently out of print, but may be purchased in previously owned form via Ebay and other resellers.

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