Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Outsorcerer's Apprentice

The Outsorcerer's Apprentice
by Tom Holt
Recommended Ages: 14+

Benny Gulbenkian of Orpington, Kent, is a university physics student who, from his Uncle Gordon's affectionate viewpoint, is not just gormless but "a black hole into which gorm falls and is utterly consumed." Yet when he stumbles upon YouSpace - a technology that transforms doughnuts into transdimensional portals - hidden in his uncle's closet, Benny becomes Prince Florizel, the ruler of a fairy-tale kingdom in an entertainment format so immersive that it's actually real.

Somewhere over the doughnut there's a place where knights slay dragons, and woodcutters slay granny-eating wolves, and all the other stock fairy-tale characters live stock fairy-tale lives. But one day a forest maiden named Buttercup awakens to the absurdity of it all. A knight named Turquine gets fed up with dragonslaying. A goblin king realizes after centuries of warfare with the dwarves, something needs to change. The way things have always been done in their world just isn't sustainable - but to realize this, they must begin to think thoughts that should not be thinkable. Somehow their dawning self-awareness is connected with a gormless prince who doesn't really belong. Benny, meanwhile, appreciates too late that in a world that has a taboo against food with holes in it, he has no way to get home.

These and other slightly cracked characters, working from different directions, slowly arrive at a sinister discovery. The mysterious and all-powerful wizard, who has been part of their world for thousands of years, isn't what he seems. More than just another member of the fairy-tale set, the wizard is an outsider with a profit motive for meddling in the affairs of a magic kingdom. He is, in fact, using talking trees, elves, dwarves, knights and woodcutters as cheap labor. It's all about outsorcery: finding fantasy-world solutions to first-world problems. And though Benny just wants to go home, an annoying unicorn somehow convinces him he has a higher duty as the only one who can put things right.

If you're having trouble following all this, you might want to check out some of Tom Holt's previous novels, especially Doughnut and When It's a Jar. I've only read the former and a few other books by Holt, but even allowing for material I may have missed I found this book funny, exciting and brain-stimulating all at once. And I'm starting to suspect this is a pattern in Holt's work. Among science fiction authors who cast hopeless, average people of today's world in great science-fiction and fantasy adventures infused with cutting-edge theories and even sharper humor, there is no one who equals him since the passing of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. It gives me joy to reflect on the long list of his books, because it foretells many hours of richly satisfying reading to come.

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