Holt, Tom: For Two Nights Only

A welcome chance for some quality re-reading

I’ve been reading Tom Holt’s inventive and hilarious fantasy writing for years now, but I’m surprised to realise I rarely re-read his books. Then I realise this is mostly because I lend them out and so often don’t get them back. Because when you’re enthusing about his work to someone and they say, ‘oh, comic fantasy, like Terry Pratchett?’ the only thing to do after saying ‘no, not really’ is to give them the book so they can see for themselves.

Tom Holt was not writing cosy fantasy a decade ago, any more than he is now. Overtime starts with a dead body talking to our hapless hero Guy Goodlet, who looks in imminent danger of death himself as a crashing World War Two pilot. He is bizarrely rescued by John de Nesle, also known as Blondel, legendary minstrel to Richard the Lionheart, who is struggling to complete his quest to find his master, a situation complicated by the fact that his agents have got him well and truly stitched up with a contract requiring pop concerts played in a surprising number of venues and time periods. Other people, ranging from the Pope to the Anti-Pope to the Time Wardens would very much like to stop Blondell dodging backwards and forwards in time to do all this. As with so many of Tom Holt’s heroes, Guy is an Everyman figure that we can whole-heartedly identify with as he tries to make sense of the wild absurdities he’s caught up in as he is initially dragged along with Blondel and increasingly comes to helping him. At times, the reader may feel as bemused as Guy but one advantage of reading this a second time around is I know from past experience I’m in safe writing hands.

As is customary with Tom Holt’s work, the jokes at history’s expense come thick and fast and range from broad farce to subtle sniggers that assume some quite abstruse knowledge. SF&F staples like the Grandfather Paradox are niftily reworked for comic effect and you’ll be interested to learn where all those songs attributed to Trad come from. We also see earlier manifestations of the hatred of malign technology that’s still a recurrent theme in his work, here personified in the Hyperfax, and also the bloody-mindedness of bureaucracies, though here BureauSpace does offer interesting routes around time and space. I’m inclined to think that his more recent books have less of the sometimes dizzying shifting of scene and digressions with not-hugely-relevant minor characters for the sake of a good gag, and a quick flick through the bookshelf tends to confirm that impression. That said, these often diverse threads are wound up to a satisfying conclusion that more than pays off the concentration occasionally needed to follow them.

Grailblazers definitely has less of the rapid scene-shifting, not least because it is a quest which is necessarily a far more linear plot. Boamund of Northgales starts out trying to rescue an authentically pre-Raphaelite princess, only to find she doesn’t actually want to be rescued by him. He’s still trying to make sense of this when he runs into a helpful dwarf whose not-so-helpful offer of a drink leaves Boamund asleep for 40 centuries until he wakes up, armour rusted solid, in a cave in what is now West Yorkshire. He has awoken in fine heroic style to be a hero once again, in time of England’s need. Only England has changed. The Knights of the Round Table are still around but have rather given up on the whole grail business and make ends meet with jobs ranging from selling insurance to, more respectably, flogging dodgy merchandize at street markets out of the back of a van.

Boamund is not discouraged. His overwhelming sense of destiny brooks no obstacles, not even the dreariest of meals offered by motorway services. After all, he is a man who, when he orders roast swan stuffed with quails and boar’s chine in honey, that’s what he gets. Even in this debased age, true chivalry takes a lot of stopping. He manages to re-instill some of the old Round Table spirit in his erstwhile companions and the quest for the Grail is on again in a rapid-fire plot too intricate to try summarising. Never mind that the clash of high heroic ideals (which bear more than a passing resemblance to a traditional public school ethos) keep coming unstuck in the face of disobliging modernity. For instance, where does one go looking for a sage these days? As it turns out, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

Again we see themes that recur in Tom Holt’s later work getting an airing. Here the malevolent possibilities of financial shenanigans are pursued to ultimately absurd conclusions involving Atlantis and Lyonesse. As in other books where he deals with an established mythology, here grail lore and the whole Arthurian business gets a cannily amusing drubbing, with a few sideswipes at Wagner for good measure and an original take on Father Christmas. As with Overtime the various plot elements, no matter how initially absurd the byways they may lead down, are ultimately brought together a satisfying conclusion.

It’s interesting as well as entertaining to look back ten years and see how Overtime and Grailblazers compare with Tom Holt’s more recent work. Themes definitely recur, yet I didn’t find any sense of familiarity breeding repetition or staleness. Rather I am impressed with just how much mileage he has got over the years with new explorations of similar topics. This series of omnibus editions published by Orbit gives those of us who’ve been reading and lending out Tom’s books a welcome chance to replenish our plundered shelves and are excellent value for new fans looking to cover his backlist.

This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.

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