This page contains a running commentary on several books by comic fantasy author Tom Holt, starting with a review of the first Tom Holt book I read a few years ago now. These reviews can partially be taken on a book by book basis, but together form a critique of Holt's work.
Paint Your Dragon by Tom Holt
ĎEvil is innocentí. This is not Holtís first or most recent book but itís as good a place to start as any and capable of converting me at least into a Holt fan. Tom Holtís vibrant characters come to life astoundingly in this comic fantasy tale of the fight between good and evil. This being a well covered topic within fantasy it may be thought this book would reiterate previous ideas but Holtís imagination stretches way past normality. Within the first chapter youíre on the floor in hysterics and the humour continues, unlike some authors who trail off after chapter one. Statues are gateways via which spirits return - a dubious notion; but the bookís theology is crafted beautifully and carries it off with finesse. The plot is complicated and a knowledge of physics would be a handy aid in understanding Holtís calculations concerning time, (which may be considered a little too lengthy for some peopleís liking), but the unorthodox caricatures of Saint George and the Dragon are what take this book into the top 10 of personal favourite novels Iíve read recently.
Nothing But Blue Skies
'There are very many reasons why British summers are either non-existent or, alternatively, held on a Thursday. Many of these reasons are either scientific, mad, or both - but all of them are wrong, especially the scientific ones'.
'The real reason why it rains perpetually from January 1st to December 31st (incl.) is, of course, irritable Chinese Water Dragons'.
I quote the blurb from the cover of the book to easily explain to you how Tom Holt is a genius of humour. This book is yet another example of the most amazing imagination ever gifted to man. So, ok, the weather is governed by Chinese Water Dragons who can turn themselves into Goldfish at will and also occasionally into human form. Hence the premise for this story. Karen is a Water Dragon in love with a human. The similar concept has been seen before in Disney as well as in non-cartoon films but the way Tom Holt can make you laugh is unrivalled. Karen is a character easy to identify with and for Holt books this shows immense skill at comment on female emotion.
However, so far I am only talking about the first half of the book. What I have so far failed to mention is the fact that I rate this as the second worst Holt book I have come across (I never got past chapter 4 of Valhalla). In reading this book, I came across the Holt problem. A very sad fact is that most Holt books start off amazingly and make you laugh and cry and burst your sides with humour but then become so very embroiled in the unbelievable that you lose your way. My theory goes that Holt gets carried away during the writing of the humour and eventually forgets the plot. If you ask me now what happened in this book I would have to say "I have no idea". Yes it made me laugh and the plot could have been incredible, but somewhere among battles with weathermen and FBI agents or some-such, you get very lost. I still recommend this book, if purely for the first half of hilarity, but I suggest if you do start to get lost - give up, don't carry on hoping for it to explain itself, because it doesn't. And here began my search for the Holt book that doesn't lose itself in the humour...
Snow White and the Seven Samurai
In another epic cross between the real-life and the fictional, Holt throws together the Three Little Pigs, Snow White and the Evil Queen, The Big Bad Wolf, The brothers Grimm and three random human teenagers. Comedy ensues. The teenagers accidentally break their way into fairytale land and mess up the Evil Queen's major computer system, Mirrors, which runs on anything that reflects, which for computer geeks like myself equals hilarity ten-fold. Yet again Holt throws in his bubble of unique humour and the story is off to a rollicking good start with the good becoming evil and the evil becoming good and the Big Bad Wolf going through as many personality changes as the Three Little Pigs go through houses. Think Shrek. It is that kind of mad twist on the traditional fairytale worlds. The only thing is Tom Holt didn't write Shrek and so the plot involving Princess Fiona is so much less convoluted than this one surrounding Snow White and the 'Evil' Queen. This yarn yet again falls into the Holt trap of confusability, extending my search into the older Holt novels.....
Wish You Were Here
A Tom Holt book I have overlooked until now, never having seen it on any library or bookshop shelves before, I thought I would give Wish You Were Here a try, seeing as it has an attractive title and a bizarre looking cover. [ In an aside here, I might add that all the Tom Holt covers have recently undergone a face lift and so most of my comments regarding the covers may henceforth be surplus to requirement, as I refer to the old ones. However, the new ones are suitably random for the Tom Holt collection and form an attractive shelf in Waterstones.] I soon realised why that is that I have never seen it on a bookshelf before. That would be because it's awful. The catch quote on the front says 'frothy, fast and funny'. I seriously doubt any one of those words would actually enter my review if I hadn't just already quoted them. This is the most pointless Holt book I have had the misfortune to stumble across. Apparently there is a narrative story in there somewhere, but damned if I can find it. I will read it all the way through, in the spirit of Holt fandom, but it is not a treasure I will subsequently buy, or in fact even add to the mental dictionary of Tom Holt works. I can summarise this in three words: Don't Read It.
Odds and Gods
Having always been a fan of Mythology and having a particular fascination with Egyptian and Norse myths, I was intrigued by this foray of Holt's into the realm of true legend. Osiris and Frey and Thor and friends have now grown old. And are somewhat imprisoned in the nursing home designed for retired gods. Osiris has a godson after his money trying to do him in and Thor is rebuilding a traction engine and getting lost in Italy thinking it is a Channel Island. So as you can see the Holt imagination was going strong yet again. Laughs still abound aplenty and I rank this as one of the easier Holt books to follow. The plot doesn't get so convoluted you can't see your way back along the path, I'd say more than that it merely diminishes until you aren't really very bothered about what happens. The characters could have been so well used with this mythology concept and yet they don't grip you with the same intensity you cared about George and the Dragon or Snow White. The reappearance of standard characters such as Kurt Lundqvist are a welcome anchoring factor in Holt novels except no matter what happens to them they are always the same next time you come across them, which could be a good thing...
This is the reprieve I have been looking for since becoming a Holt reader. This is the one I would lend to anyone and guarantee them laughs.
'There are few excitements to compare with one's first night in a strange new town, and despite her weariness and a deplorable urge to take her tights off and watch 'Cagney and Lacey' on the black and white portable in her room at the Union Hotel, Jane set out to immerse herself completely in the town. After all, she reckoned, she might never come here again; live this precious moment to the full, crush each ripe fruit of sensation against the palate until the appetite is cloyed in intoxicating richness.
The cinema was closed when she eventually found it, what with it being half past September, and since she had no wish to be raped, robbed or murdered she didn't go into the White Hart, the Blue Ball, the Bunch of Grapes, the Prince of Wales, the Peacock, the Catherine Wheel, the Green Dragon, the Four Horseshoes, the Hour Glass, the Half Way House, the Bird in Hand, the Bottle and Glass, the Jolly Sportsman, the Dorsetshire Yeoman, the Boot and Slipper, the Rising Sun, the Crown and Cushion, the Poulteney Arms, the Red Cross Knight, the Two Brewers, the Black Dog, the Temporary Sign, the Duke of Rochester, the Gardeners Arms or the Mississippi Riverboat Night Club. Apart from these, the only place of entertainment open to the public was the bus shelter, and that was a touch too crowded for Jane's taste. She went back to the Union Hotel, had a glass of Orange Juice and some fresh local boiled carpet with gravy in the dining room, and went upstairs to catch the last ten minutes of 'Cagney and Lacey', which had been cancelled and replaced with athletics from Zurich.......
...A Berserk fury came over quiet, tranquil-minded Jane Doland. She pulled on her tights, picked up her room-key and went out into the gloomy corridor. Downstairs, in what was described with cruel irony as the residents' lounge, there might be a week-old newspaper or the July 1956 issue of Women and Home. Or perhaps she might find a reasonably well-written telephone directory, or even a discarded matchbox with a puzzle on the back. There is always hope, so long as life subsists. The beating of the heart and the action of the lungs are a useful prevarication, keeping all options open.
She did find a matchbox, as it happens, but all it said was 'Made in Finland, Average Contents Forty Matches', and after the third reading Jane felt she had sucked all the value out of that one. Disconsolate, she wandered out to the reception desk. The sound of a television commentator joyfully exclaiming that Kevin Bradford from Cark-in-Cartmel had managed to avoid coming last in the six hundred metres drifted through the illuminated crack above the office door. Jane looked down and saw the hotel register. Salvation! She could read that.'
I mean, who hasn't felt like that?! It's not good practise to include such huge excerpts in a 'review' but in this case I don't care. I count that passage as one of the funniest things I have ever read, and the whole chapter extending around it is just as good. However, the joy of this book comes not only from the character of Jane, but also from the wonderful Vanderdecker. As the title may have given away, this book is loosely based on the story of the Flying Dutchman (extraordinarily loosely based), and Vanderdecker is he, becoming hilariously embroiled in the life of poor Jane. This book was one of those where, (as a female) you find yourself falling completely in love with the male lead. I know, I know, it's a book, you can't even see him, nor is he in any way real, but that's what makes such characters so fantastic to read and fall in love with. Holt doesn't often attempt a love story plot but this is a fine effort and for times long to come will have a star place on my bookshelf....
Have you ever been to one of those pantomimes that has a ludicrous modern story set around the characters of a traditional nursery rhyme or children's story? If you have, you may have an idea of the concept governing this great piece of Holt ingenuity. If such a panto were made around this novel, people would come from miles around because it shows amazing comic genius and would have audiences in fits in their seats. Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves is the original premise for this adventure. Rather like 'Paint Your Dragon', Holt tackles the versatility of ideas of good and bad (you can't really call it evil when dealing with pantomimes). I read this book on holiday and was so grateful for the mirth it brought in a boring hotel room. Holt is right on form, and I don't mean in the way of losing the plot, I mean he still places right at the top of comic genius for me, who needs Pratchett when you can read this?!
With this Holt classic we are back on Disney territory. Imagine the genie from the film Aladdin if he'd been a lot thinner and you woke him at an incredibly bad time while he was playing cards. An incredible cranky Djinn is awoken from a paracetamol bottle just as a young woman is about to swallow the entire contents. A lucky coincidence? Well it depends really, seeing as this Djinn is an unhappy sarcastic version who has been out of action for many decades. Holt tackles another quirky love story, in a way, and this is another round of perfected Holt humour. It is debatable whether the plot gets run over by the comedy in this novel - with the re-appearance of the relaxed Australian Dragon King I was possibly too busy laughing. However I do recall thinking this was another one to place in the Holt hall of fame.
Alexander at the World's End and Olympiad
At some recent point I attempted Tom Holt's 'historical novels'. The wacky comedy is somewhat subdued for more traditional humour but Holt shows his versatility of style and continues to break out the laughter despite the new medium. Holt studied 'bar billiards, ancient Greek agriculture and the care and feeding of small, temperamental Japanese motorcycle engines' at Oxford in his early life, and so it is somewhat no surprise that he is very adept at carrying off Ancient Greek and Roman style literature with aplomb. I read these two after having read the third historical novel...but on to that in a moment. In these two fantastic accounts, Holt writes in a diary-like manner of events gone-by being told to a new audience. Olympiad concerns the very convoluted and bizarre tale of the men who tried to organise the very first Olympic games. Alexander details the life of the Great conqueror from the eyes of a one-time tutor of his viewing his life from a distance. The historical factual basis vanishes rapidly but Holt's knowledge of the times grounds the story in very down to earth humour which wonderfully suits the style. In my opinion, this style shows Holt at his best. The books read and finish like true stories of stories being handed down by oral tradition at the time of the ancient Greeks. The only downside to these books is that they are fairly epic with very little resolution at the end of the tales. But that is how they are meant to be. In these two novels, Holt passes along much more wisdom packed in with the humour than one realises and to the relative account of all his other books put together. Which brings me to...
A Song For Nero
The best Holt book my search has lead me to so far? I am not saying it will be to everyone's taste, but to me this was Holt triumphant. This book is the third and most recent historical Holt novel and confused me somewhat on bookshop shelves by being officially authored by 'Thomas Holt'. The story tells of an alternative version of the life of Nero, had he not died as the legend goes. Accompanied by the most trouble-oriented friend ever, the travels of Nero are told from the perspective of same annoying travel partner. I am not sure what makes this book stand out from the other historical novels, as the characters are equally as well built and the ancient world equally as well detailed and accurate, but I was struck by the genius of this tale most and it moves along at a faster pace than the other two, becoming one of those that I couldn't put down until I had reached the final page.
The Portable Door and Falling Sideways
And to finish I suppose I had better make comment on the much more recent Holt novels and come to a conclusion on my favourite of them all.
Falling Sideways is the one about Frogs whose cover leaps at you from the bookshelves in Waterstones. The Raniform creatures provide Holt with another basis for a creative comedic story but it seems Holt is more prone in these later-written books to that Holt problem of overcomplicating the plot for the sake of the humour. I am amazed I actually made it to the end of Falling Sideways. I thought it promised more than what it eventually supplied, I guess this is a case of why not to judge a book by its cover.
On the other hand.....The Portable Door I believe at time of writing is the actual most recent Holt comic fantasy novel. And I have to say congratulations to Holt for coming back to form. After reading this final book I am torn as to whether my overall favourite has to be Flying Dutch, A Song for Nero or this. The Portable Door tells of two misfit young people searching for gainful employment. Holt's commentary of the interview process is alarmingly accurate and hilarious and the fact that these two end up working for a sort of 'magic incorporated' without noticing is besides the point considering the abject humour evinced on every page. I just love Holt's imagination, it is the imagination we all dream of possessing; just as the Portable Door itself is something we have all dreamed of possessing. Holt has a way of moulding the things we all most desire and can't have into his stories in such a way that despite the fantasy elements we can associate with the characters he designs when dealing with real humans. Despite the ingenuity of his earlier attempts playing around with ready set-up fairytale and myth characters, his amazing talents for creating his own should really be what is admired about him most. The Portable Door is the most original and fascinating story I have read in a long time and the fact that it cracks you up at the same time is just a massive added bonus of Holt creativity.