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Little People
Tom Holt
Orbit paperback £6.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Little People is narrated by Mike Higgins, who first saw an elf at the bottom of the garden when he was eight. The strength of his stepfather's abhorrence makes him sure that what he saw was both real and unmentionable. Combined with his stepfather's eternal disapproval and his mother's distance, this worms its way into his consciousness making him a more than usually self-conscious teenager. Packed off to boarding school, he meets a girl named Cruella, who feels her life has been wrecked by her "parents' act of thoughtless whimsy." Our narrator gets under her guard by never having seen 101 Dalmatians so he does not recognise the name. He realises that two such losers must be made for each other and tells her about the elf he saw. This soon leads him to try to question whether there are more elves in the garden and his investigation parallels the growing relationship with Cru, who realises that Mike's stepfather is using elves as slave labour. Then the story starts to get complicated as Mike is thrown into the roles of hero and drifter.
   The gymnastics of the plot are dazzling, setting up situations by detailing the obvious and then turning in the most unexpected directions. At times the build up can be frustrating but the payoff is always worthwhile, either in plot terms or as sheer comedy. A fair proportion of the comedy in the novel develops naturally from the plot, which means the book is a comic novel rather than simply a novel with jokes. Most of the straight-out jokes work too, flowing neatly within the narration, which is in a self-deprecating style. This characterisation provides the emotional grounding, allowing flights of fancy and fantasy without losing track. There are some two-dimensional characters in the book but the central figures of Mike and Cru are convincing. Mike's stepfather is played larger than life but this works both as a plot driver and from the perspective of a teen's view of the authority figure. It is this foundation of emotional truthfulness that maintains the novel's credibility in the face of the most unlikely events.
   One direct steal from the history of Microsoft seems too lazy and doesn't even seem to hold enough comedy to make it worthwhile but this minor subplot is the only misstep Holt makes. It also points out a slight shortage of copyediting, where both the corporation and its parallel exist at the same time and the narrator slips from 16 to 15 years old. These are minor sins, easily forgiven when the book is an amusing, entertaining read. The writing is polished and the anecdotal, first-person style flows easily. Most readers probably decided a long time ago whether they liked the work of Tom Holt - he has produced over 20 comic novels in the last 15 years. Fans will certainly enjoy the latest. For those who passed him by, Little People is a good opportunity to (re) visit his work.
Little People

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