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Earth, Air, Fire And Custard
Tom Holt
Orbit paperback £6.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Reading a Tom Holt novel is a unique experience; some authors transport you to far off places or make you consider who you are and what it is you really believe, Tom Holt throws you in the boot of his car and drives round the country forcing you to identify where you've been by sound alone like the blind character in Sneakers. But strangely enough it's not necessarily an unpleasant experience.

This is the third 'Paul Carpenter' novel Holt has written (and about his 30th novel in all) and it follows on directly from The Portable Door and In Your Dreams. Paul Carpenter is a junior clerk in a modern day magician's partnership. The company is run by a goblin and features wizards, ghosts, mermaids, intelligent swords, dwarves and Viking heroes. The plot is immensely complex and so is the setting but despite these facts you don't need to have read the previous parts of this series to enjoy this book, and that's because Holt likes to keep you in the dark.

Holt's style isn't so much a whodunit as a whassgoinon. Frequently, Holt's books take the form of something weird and magical happening and the protagonists running around reacting to things until they finally work out what's going on. This book is a perfect example of Holt's distinctive style as a plot featuring a battle between a god and a wizard is played out over centuries and involves the manipulation of time, space and people's personalities and memories. In the middle of this is Paul Carpenter, the perfect Holtian protagonist. As things happen and people try to kill him he's buffeted around the plot like a pinball until he works out enough to actually take action. The problem is that Holt frequently gives Paul red herrings making him do stupid things that might well result in him being killed... again. The plot moves so quickly that Paul mostly has no idea what's going on and if Paul has no idea what's going on then neither does the reader. In fact, when Paul does work out what's going on he'll say that it's too complicated to explain and will just act. The result is a reading experience where the reader is completely and utterly passive. You can't work out what's going on because you don't have enough information and, even if you did have the right information, you wouldn't know how the facts fit together because it's magic and magic doesn't obey logic, only the decree of the writer.

Whether or not you like Holt's work is ultimately a question of whether you like his style. Charitably viewed, even if you can't work out what's going on it doesn't matter because the thick stream of jokes and mad ideas keep you entertained anyway. Uncharitably viewed, it's lazy writing. Holt is free to have anything happen regardless of how little sense it makes just so long as he can spend the last 50 pages of the book explaining what's going on and plugging all the various plot holes. If you don't look upon Holt's style charitably then you'll hate this book because there are times when dozens of pages go by without it being at all clear what's going. Twists in the plot come so thick and fast that it's disorientating, particularly once they start skipping between timelines, time frames and alternate universes. But if you look upon Holt's style charitably then this book has a lot going for it.

Like Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin, Holt has a slightly cynical attitude towards the fantasy genre and makes a number of jokes about it. One character holds the honorary title of Lieutenant-Colonel in the Riders of Rohan and at one point Holt says of his own plot that to explain it would be long and complicated... like Robert Jordan times three. He also blends the fantastical with the contemporary beautifully, throwing the two worlds together and giving you puns like the typing pool being full of mermaids. But while Holt's humour might lure you in if you're a Pratchett or Rankin fan, at the end of the day it's the strength and number of ideas that make Holt such a joy to read. Holt throws an endless stream of ideas at you from the absurd (custard as one of basic elements of the universe) to the sublime (the description of a world where a progressive Viking King leads his people to colonise Canada seriously and go on to rule the world for thousands of years). Holt's intellectual and creative dexterity is astonishing to behold as he picks up old ideas and puts a new spin on them or crafts completely new ideas either for comic effect or for the sheer joy of creating something new and weird. But that's not all it's got going for it.

Holt's characterisations are fairly broad but are nicely crafted. Paul is a total drip and utterly wretched but only slightly more so than his sort of girlfriend Sophie the archetypal moody girlfriend who sulks and always want's to talk about relationships. The partners are beautifully larger than life and even bit players such as Colin the goblin come across as nicely rounded believable characters. The dialogue is witty and surreal and the prose is not only technically skilled but also nicely evocative.

Earth, Air, Fire And Custard is a great read. It's funny, it's clever and it's even a little bit challenging as you desperately try to work out what's going on. However, your ability to get at all this wonderful content is ultimately dependent upon your ability to put up with a plot that moves so fast and departs in such weird and unexpected directions that you're frequently left stranded without a clue as to what's going on.
Earth, Air, Fire And Custard
Tom Holt
Orbit hardcover £12.99

review by Tony Lee

Promoted to assistant magician, Paul Carpenter finds his new position at the prestigious London offices of J.W. Wells even more baffling and ultimately tedious than his old job. However, his natural aptitude for the bizarre work enables him to acquire 'useful' skills (like counting the angels dancing on a pinhead), and escapades in alternate dimensions inhabited by a sword-fighting doppelganger and a talking fridge make his life interesting despite Paul's chronic misery. A chance to win back the affections of amnesiac soulmate Sophie (also an employee at J.W. Wells) looks very promising for our nominal hero, but that's no compensation for being murdered by goblins...

This sequel to Tom Holt's previous novels, The Portable Door and In Your Dreams (which I have not read), continues the comic fantasy adventures of trainee sorcerer and reluctant adventurer Paul Carpenter. Despite bring a terminally unhappy loser, Paul is an all-too-human contemporary 'hero' we can believe in, whatever his complicated moral predicaments, and eagerly root for, no matter how whimsically idealistic he appears, at times. Basically, Harry Potter meets Ghostbusters, with nearly true romance and happy-ever-after endings (albeit in the bittersweet manner of an Aimee Mann song), Earth Air Fire And Custard offers delightfully humorous and occasionally brilliant entertainment (with one-liners perfectly suited to each character's situations and dilemmas) only undermined by the author's rather clumsy backstory info-dumps and expository dialogues.

These intrusive references to the earlier books are far too numerous here. Plot recaps are a regrettable necessity of sequels, of course, but I fear that Holt has yet to master the technique of making them virtually invisible in the latest narrative, or fully integrating such material into this book's storyline. So, unfortunately, this new episodic adventure concerning the differences between good and evil, and the similarities between right and wrong (and the patent absurdity of Canada as the world's primary superpower!), seems even more fragmented than it needs to be.
Earth, Air, Fire and Custard

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