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You Don't Have to be Evil to Work Here, But it Helps

by Tom Holt

(Orbit, 12.99, 346 pages, hardback, published February 2006.)

Review by Simeon Shoul

cover scanTom Holt is, probably, the second biggest name in Fantasy Humour these days. Been around almost as long as Terry Prachett, has almost as many titles in print, and presumably has stacked up almost as much moolah.

However, his approach to humour is not the same.

Prachett's method: take a conventional fantasy setting and characters and plot, and blow them up and outwards until they becomes a ludicrous lampoon of the genre; that's to say, he parodies fantasy.

Holt's method: take the real world, or a good big slice of it, complete with all its banalities and trivialities and petty irritations (especially its petty irritations) and inject a big slice of the supernatural, magical, and fantastical into it thus pointing up the banality, triviality, and irritation; that's to say, he satirises real life.

Thus, in his latest novel we have the firm of J. W. Wells & Co., a small private concern in the City of London (definitely inside the Square Mile), complete with all the standard elements of such a company; the dishy receptionist, the angst-ridden senior partners, the ambitious juniors, the faceless functionaries, the middle-ranking solidly competent sorts who really keep the whole thing ticking over.

Except what Wells & Co. actually do isn't conveyancing, or accountancy, or architecture, or even software design. They do magic. Got a problem with a Balrog in your Nuclear Reactor? Call Wells & Co. and they'll despatch Benny Shumway from their Pest Control department. Want a genuine, certified Castle in the Clouds? Cas Suslowicz in Civil Engineering is your man. Want to sell your soul to the Devil? Well... they can sort that for you too, but mind you read the small print.

In You Don't Have To Be Evil selling one's soul is very much to the point, as it's what Colin Hollinghurst's dad, owner of a wretched little widget-manufacturing concern, seems to be intent on doing (much to Colin's dismay--though why is anyone's guess as Hollinghurst senior is a cast-iron git who deserves nothing more than a permanent brimstone-basting assignment). This dilemma interacts with a serious case of serial-frustrated-true-love, a very mysterious and topographically impossible tree, a major threat to the existence of the universe and the great conundrum of who has recently purchased Wells & Co?

Now, credit where credit is due. After a great many pages, and some really bizarre plot loops, these various questions and elements actually do resolve in a series of quite clear, neat answers that interconnect convincingly (or at least logically). Elegant origami-style plotting does not, however, a good novel make. There are some problems here.

The big one, the one that sours the reading experience very thoroughly, is the abiding cynicism with which the story is told. For a sheer, unadulterated blast of pessimistic disdain for life and its troubles try page 299. Alright, it's just the reflections of a character in a fantasy novel, but it may send a shiver down your spine nonetheless, because the underlying mindset is bleak indeed. What is Holt trying to do here? Demonstrate that even in a universe with Dragons, love-philtres, and sub-contracting Goblins people can feel thoroughly put-upon and end up pissed-off and bolshy?

If that's the intention it's working a treat.

Other problems? Well, there's that plot. It really does wriggle about, like the proverbial snake swallowing its own tail. For much of the story the reader (unless they're monumentally clever, or perhaps a very seasoned Tom Holt fan) is going to be scratching their head, grumbling "hang on, what does that mean! I don't get it... Surely that doesn't connect to the business with the widget factory..." This feeling is not helped by the fact that there are several characters who have a much better idea of what's going on than the reader, who are actually working to try and sort out the apparent paradoxes and problems, but who quite deliberately refrain from sharing their conclusions until the last 30 pages or so (hint: Tom, try giving it to the readers one bite at a time, nicely spaced out, gives them a satisfying sense of forward progress).

Then there are the moments (not many of them, but they do pop up) when some of the characters go and do something stupid. Not simply dumb, but deliberately self-destructive, and knowingly so, and to no possible gain (and they know that too). Frankly, in a cold, psychological light, there's something just a tad suicidal in some of the characters (remember what I said about the cynical tone?). This does not sit well in what is supposed to be a light fantasy novel. Even in such a book there are 'credibility limits' and Holt strains them badly here.

In the end (happy or at least satisfactory denouement notwithstanding) You Don't Have To Be Evil is a dark piece of work. Satire with a deeply bitter undertone. A story told by someone looking at life with a very jaundiced eye. I surfaced at the end of it with considerable admiration for the book's ingenuity, a few wry smiles at the way modern society was being pinched and tweaked and pulled about, and a profound sense of relief that I could close the book and put it away.

Clever. Very clever in fact. But not much fun.

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