While it is true that you can't judge a book by its cover, a sentiment that I have supported with determination in my other review of the Torchwood novel tie-ins, sometimes the title can give you a hint of what lies beneath. I must admit that from the moment I saw this book I suspected it might be something a bit special, at least in the TV novelisation stakes; a decent pun in the title, a nice contained but enigmatic plot captured in the blurb and so on. But Torchwood novels can be very hit and miss so I was not about to lay money on this being worth reading more than once.
The House That Jack Built (THTJB) centres on the lonely Edwardian house of Jackson Leaves, the site some strange temporal activity, ghost sightings, murders and all manner of foul play. But the Torchwood team also discover that the house was once occupied by none other than Captain Jack Harkness, their mysterious leader. So is the house really haunted or are the events that are overtaking the house more terrestrial – or extraterrestrial – in origin?
Being the sad person that I am I frequently find myself reading the dedications before I start reading a book proper. They are never worth mentioning in a review and usually involved people's names out of context so I'm not even sure why I do it. Guy Adams has dedicated this book to his partner Debra, who he writes is a source of reassurance when he feels he cannot write. Rest assured, Debra is not wrong about that. The prose is good, old fashioned, well-written, well-paced, artful writing of the kind that these days is so rare it's really worthy of some praise. It's not so technical that your head aches with every passing page nor is it so dumbed down that you feel cheap just reading it. The entire novel is tightly framed and well-contained, each scene singing off the page even if it's just another joke about Ianto's coffee-maker. It's good stuff of the kind you don't expect in a Torchwood novel.
But good writing really isn't enough. If the ideas aren't there, good writing cannot carry the story. Fortunately, it is apparent that Adams has woven a feast of ideas into the story. Admittedly many of these are staples of the ghost-story genre with which he is flirting, but that doesn't detract from the story at all. Restraint of content is also a big plus in THTJB, ideas are neither overdone nor are too many of them stuffed into the novel to bear satisfactory conclusion. It all just melts together nicely into a solid adventure.
Fans should certainly be impressed by this novel. One of the only problems with having turned Torchwood Season 3 into a five-part mini-series following a single storyline is that the season did not have time to create any real build up or development among the characters, not that you'll have time to miss it watching a mini-series as action-packed as Children of Earth. But like Almost Perfect, THTJB capitalises on this absence brilliantly. You really feel, reading this book, that it is a real Torchwood episode slotted right into the canon just prior to Season 3, particularly in terms of Jack's characterisation and development.
That said, this is a book in its own right. The characterisation is good and there is little time spent dwelling on the series back-story so it really can be picked up by anyone looking for a well-written light read as the winter months close in. Torchwood has always drifted quite close to the horror genre as well as science fiction, the two seem to hold hands very comfortably, and THTJB is a very good example of how this works, but really this is a haunted house story and a good one at that.
In this novel, Guy Adams has done credit to the series, to the fan base and to the art of writing more importantly. It's not going to win any fiction prizes, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will ever call THTJB their favourite book. But it is nevertheless a really good example of what TV tie-in novels can achieve when the writer takes the process of writing them seriously. If you are a fan of Torchwood buy this at once, maybe we'll get another helping from Adams all the sooner. If not, well you could still do worse.