There has been a recent trend with many of the New Series Adventures, and that trend is emphasizing how poorly the characters have been written on New Who. Don't get me wrong, they haven't necessarily been poorly performed, but it seems to me that with Freema Agyeman and Catherine Tate, the strength of the characters are in the actors, not necessarily the writing. There are exceptions to this rule, generally Russell T. Davies understand his creations and knows how to write them (well, some of the time), and Paul Cornell turned in a wonderful story with Martha, and Steven Moffatt did a good story with Donna, but for the most part these characters have suffered from a lack of characterization in other scripts, forcing the actors to bring any depth to the part themselves. Many of the writers seemed to treat Martha as Rose 2: The Unrequitted, and Donna as, well, a large sight gag with catch phrases added in from time to time. Thus, when it was time for novels written starring these characters, these deficiencies became glaring. Most of the novels with Martha don't seem to give her much more to do than react. Take any companion from the worst of the Target novelizations, and you could substitute them for Martha and have the same book. But Donna has suffered the worst. "The Doctor Trap", an otherwise decent read, had some of the worst characterization of Donna that I have seen. If the author of "The Doctor Trap" had created his own character instead of using Donna, he may have gotten away with it, but the Donna on the page in no way resembles the Donna from the show. It is with all this in mind that I say that Gary Russell has, with "Beautiful Chaos", done a decent, nay, excellent job of providing depth to Donna. In fact, he does the same with Donna's family.
There has been debate in the Doctor Who community over how much time should be devoted to the companion's family. Spending multiple episodes on Mickey and Jackie in series one, showing how those left behind when Rose went off with The Doctor, was something new in Doctor Who. I'll say that again, Russell T. Davies added something NEW to Doctor Who. In a show with a 40 year history, this is an accomplishment. However, this is something that RTD is skilled in: character moments. And while Mickey and Jackie are both loved and hated, they were at least a tool to see something new and there was genuine character growth. I personally wish we had seen more scenes being critical of Rose, for I personally found her to be a shallow and often selfish character. But that's neither here nor there at the moment. There were attempts to imitate this with Martha's family, but she wasn't a companion long enough to see real growth and change with her family, most of that change occurred in a questionable series finale. But with Donna's family, apart from her wonderful grandfather (is it the script or Bernard Cribbins that make the character work so well?) Donna AND her mother are rather hit and miss. In fact, more than Martha and more than Rose, there was so much wasted potential in their characters (wasted potential being a theme for Series Four, in my opinion). "Partners in Crime" did some good set-up, but so much of the season and the development seemed a vehicle for the Really Big Amazing Stuff at the end of the season. We sacrificed stories and characters so we could get Rose and the Doctor back together . . . sort of.
What Gary Russell does in "Beautiful Chaos" is fill in the gaps, and these were gaps that desperately needed to be filled. In this new age of Doctor Who, character has became as important as the stories of old, and even in the episodes that are weak, we need good characters. What is shameful is that it took a novel to get inside the Noble family and expose the heartache and pain that lurked beneath the surface of each character, and that this novel is essentially a flashback to something that happened shortly after "Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead". It has a post-"Journey's End" framing narration, before heading back to an incident involving the Mandragora Helix. But while the old-series fan in me gets all giddy about the return of an entity from one of my favorite Tom Baker stories, the writer and artist in me loves getting to see the Noble family, and that is something I never thought I would say. Gary Russell is picking up the characterizations from "Turn Left" and going deeper, showing how Donna has grown, making Sylvia Noble more sympathetic (and infuriating), and showing Wilf's weakness. This is a hurting, broken family because it is a family haunted by death. This isn't the vague and mysterious death that follows and haunts the Doctor (according to the new series), but a very real and painful death. The death of both Wilf's wife and Donna's dad in the span of a year. These are the rocks upon which the Noble family shattered. Wilf had to bury his pain to be strong for his daughter (despite still hurting), Donna lost her father, and what girl doesn't have a special relationship with a father who is loving and gentle, and Sylvia lost her mother and her husband, and she sees her father as fragile and broken, and her daughter as irresponsible and courting death. The Doctor, therefore, represents everything she fears . . . more death in her family.
So all in all, Gary Russell effectively raises both Sylvia and Donna above being the charicatures they were in the show and makes them into genuine characters. This is a great feat. Wonderful. What about the story?
While being well-paced and well-written, I'm sorry to say that the story itself is perfectly average. With New Who's tendency (especially on the part of RTD) to repeat itself I couldn't help but see elements in this novel that I had seen on the show. The return of the Mandragora Helix has a bit of a Sontaran Strategem feel to it. The story of Dara Morgan borrows from how The Master created Harold Saxon. In fact, the whole M-TEK aspect of the plot is quite reminescent of how Cybus industries created the Cybermen AND how the Archangel network enabled humanity to accept Mr. Saxon. Perhaps these are merely sci-fi tropes that are repeated so often as to be included in any given book at any given time. Perhaps they are a reflection of a social consciousness and love-hate relationship with identity theft and modern technology. Or perhaps intentionally or unintentionally Gary Russell is borrowing from the show. It is interesting how in the 1970s the Third Doctor fought off an alien invasion every week. Now, as the first decade of the millennium draws to a close we have aliens manipulating our technology and essentially invading from within. This idea was probably best (and most casually) seen in "The Story of Martha" in which we find an alien race that doesn't invade, but slowly takes over the world economy through business. At least, it was interesting until The Master showed up and killed them. A good idea, quickly quashed by the need to advance the story and end the book. Yet another wasted opportunity.
When you get down to it, the portrayal of The Mandragora Helix leaves me wondering if another alien threat would have been better. Yes, more books will be sold if we bring back a villain, but much as the alien plot in "The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky" fit the Zygons more than the Sontarans, I don't know that using technology to enslave humanity fits with an alien that derives its power from belief in astrology and the zodiac. Reasons were given in the story, but it could have been any other alien and it wouldn't have been any different.
A great many of the Doctor Who books I have read have been boring or forgettable (or books that you desperately WANT to forget). Despite the criticisms of the overall story, particularly it's choice in villain, I don't believe this book to be one of the boring, forgettable ones. Quite the contrary, I rather enjoyed it. It wasn't particularly challenging, but it was good for an afternoon of escape. So, if you are looking for an entertaining Doctor Who book, one that at the very least is a fun ride, then you could do far worse than "Beautiful Chaos".