In the land of cartoons, everything stays the same. Sylvester will never catch Tweety. Wile E. Coyote will never catch the roadrunner. Elmer will never catch Bugs. It's comfortable, and we like it that way. But what do they think? Is Sylvester happy chasing Tweety all the time? Does Daffy like constantly being blown up, only to come back as good as new? Do we ever think to ask? Of course not. These are cartoons. They don't have feelings. Right?
The Crooked World, by Steve Lyons, takes us to a world where cartoons are real. Not only real, but stuck in the same motions again and again. Nothing ever changes here, and the inhabitants don't know any better. Cats chase birds and mice because that's just the way it is. Everything works like it does in the cartoons that you and I grew up with. Until the Doctor and his companions show up. Streaky Bacon, a hunter after the Whatchamacallit (a fast-running bird) to protect his crops, accidentally ends up shooting the Doctor in the chest. As the Doctor lies bleeding, Streaky realizes that he's not going to just get up again and run away like has always happened before. This sparks a virus that spreads like wildfire throughout the Crooked World. This isn't a medical virus. Instead, it's a free will virus. All of a sudden, toons are starting to actually think about their circumstances. Why should the cat never get the mouse? Why should the villains always fail but get away to scheme another day?
Having introduced these thoughts to the residents, the Doctor, Fitz & Anji decide they should stay to help the toons through the transition. Once the toons start to think, there is no going back. The only question is: how much bloodshed and real violence will occur while they come to terms with what's happened to them? What's the secret of Spooky Manor, and why can't anyone approach it? Does it hold the secret of what created this world? Or is it just a place for "those meddling kids" to operate?
I love this book. I have not seen a book that works comedy in with a poignancy that's unequaled in any Who book I've read recently. These are just cartoons, but Lyons gives them character beyond that, making you really care about what happens to them. He balances the superficiality of the cartoon with the richness of three-dimensional characters so superbly that I have to shake my head. He is able to make points about free will even as he demonstrates the absurdity of the situation. He's even able to get jokes in there which will make you laugh hard if you're familiar with the cartoons at all (the Scooby Doo parody is spot-on, with them having to take a long, winding route to get where they have to go because the van would break down if they get anywhere near a place that's even remotely spooky).
Even as you recognize where most of the main toon characters came from (Sylvester, Tom & Jerry, the Scooby Doo gang, Elmer Fudd/Porky Pig, Scrappy Doo and other recognizable faces, all with different names of course), Lyons is able to give them their own personality, shining especially bright as they slowly start to realize that there's more to life then what they've constantly been doing for who knows how long. Boss Dogg, the sheriff, is determined that things will go back to the way they were, and everybody should just "get over" all this free thinking stuff. Especially touching, however, is Jasper. He's "Tom" from the Tom & Jerry cartoons, so he can't talk. But he's desperate to find out what he's been missing once he's able to think, and he looks to Fitz for guidance. Not being able to speak, he tries to do the only thing he can do, scratch out four little words: WHAT SHOULD I DO? He's also the first one to have to face the consequences of what free will gives them. Streaky also falls to the depths of despair over what he's done and his confusion over what to do. Some of the scenes involving him brought a tear to my eye, especially when he hits rock bottom but can't do anything about it.
The regulars are handled competently, though they act more as catalysts in this story then anything else. Fitz fall for Angel Falls (Penelope Pitstop) and tries to show her other things you can do with free will, though he finds out more (or, I guess, less) than he's looking for once he gets her to accept it. Anji hooks up with the Skeleton Crew and becomes another "meddling kid." The Doctor, however, is wonderful. He knows that they are the cause of everything and he feels nothing but compassion for these toons. He brings the entire free will issue into perspective.
The book only has a couple of problems, and one of them isn't even the author's fault, instead caused by the way these books are produced. In The Book of the Still, Anji makes a lot of Scooby Doo comparisons. Yet in The Crooked World, she joins up with something that is so obviously a parody of the whole Scooby Doo concept and she acts like she's never heard of such a thing. Obviously, Lyons didn't know that the previous author was going to put Scooby references in and thus he didn't think he needed to explain it. The other fault is an ongoing joke about wrapped sticks of dynamite never going off, but it really doesn't lead anywhere.
Other than that, though, I found this book perfect. I have never laughed and teared up so much at the same time as I did with this book. Steve Lyons has written a classic Who book, one that even non-Who fans can enjoy. It is just that good.