Wish You Were Here by Tom Holt (Orbit, £15.99, 252 pages, hardback. Published 2 April 1998.)
The scene: Lake Chicopee, Iowa. The proposition: jump into the lake and the resident ghost, Okeewana, will grant you your greatest desire.
Your greatest desire at that precise moment, that is.
The results can be, shall we say, a little unpredictable...
Wish You Were Here follows four characters as Okeewana leads them through the fantasy world on the Flip-side of the lake in a series of adventures designed to culminate in the aforementioned greatest desires. Sometimes -- the story goes -- when you get what you want, it can be rather more than you bargained for. (And sometimes, as we shall see, the telling of that story can seem just a little mechanical.)
The novel's packed with superb comic writing -- an often jaundiced and cynical humour that's closer to Tom Sharpe than the standard comic fantasy yardstick, Terry Pratchett. A lot of the book's humour is extracted quit mercilessly from the failings of the four central characters: Wesley Higgins, a Brummie with enough shortcomings for anyone; Janice DeWeese, "short and dumpy with a face like a prune" (she wishes she was an egg, because at least they get laid once); Linda Lachuk, a somewhat fanciful tabloid journalist looking for "the furry animal angle" (and Australians selling nuclear weapons to the Vatican, naturally); and Calvin Dieb, a lawyer (says it all, really).
To some extent, the protagonists are too caricatured for any of their tribulations and transformations to really matter. They are too consciously the comic creations of the author for the character developments which take place to be convincing: we watch as Calvin Dieb, the unscrupulous lawyer, confronts his own shortcomings and flirts with goodness before having to choose his future path. Yet we know he must do this because that's quite clearly what his Dickensian subplot demands: his ultimate decision means little (although his adventures are quite simply hilarious along the way).
The mechanics of the plot are rarely far from the surface: the increasingly overlapping adventures of the four protagonists follow the same pattern, so when, say, Wesley has had a particular encounter we just know (chug chug chug, says the plot) that Linda will soon have her own variation of it (chug chug), then Janice (chug) and Calvin (chug). At times, these reworkings of scenes amuse and build the comic tension; elsewhere, they merely get in the way.
Where this novel triumphs is in the brilliance of the comic writing -- it really is a very funny book, even when it doesn't quite deliver as a comic novel.
Arabian Nights with a difference.
Akram the Terrible (bandit, murderer, thief, arch-criminal, voted fifteen times in succession Baghdad's Public Enemy Number One) is trapped in an industry standard medium-sized palm-oil jar as boiling water is poured over his head. His life is flashing before his eyes, in true This Was Your Life style, red book and all.
It's happening again: Akram the Terrible is dying a horrible death. Next time, he vows, it's all going to be different.
Meanwhile, Michelle has inherited a rather plain old ring from her Aunt. She puts it on and things are never the same again...
Those familiar with Tom Holt's superior brand of comic fantasy won't need any encouraging to go out and buy this book. Everyone else has a lot of catching up to do: this is his 12th.
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© Nick Gifford 28 March 1998