Good bad smugThe Good, The Bad and The Smug
Tom Holt
Orbit, 368 pages
Review by Jacob Edwards

What’s in a name?

Book covers of old would sometimes describe Tom Holt’s writing as seriously funny, and because the funny aspect was predominant there was a tendency to assume seriously was being used in the informal sense; to wit, substantially. But it would also be true (if somewhat more demanding on the rolling tongue) to call Holt funnily serious, and over the last umpteen years the tone of his books has been darkening slowly towards this inversion. The words black comedy have come by way of misappropriation elsewhere to indicate a non-comedic work, particularly a flop, trying to shift genres and pass itself off with imperial majesty, but in Holt’s case the term might genuinely be applied. Earlier this year, he came out as the author behind award-winning pseudonymous fantasy writer K. J. Parker — not altogether surprising; the acknowledgments page at the back of Parker’s novel Sharps, where she describes herself as overweight and middle-aged, was clearly a prelude to confession — and if his/her bodies of work are examined in parallel, a certain amount of cross-pollination is indeed discernible.

Tom Holt is both serious and funny, and it is this blend, this melding of authorial attributes, that gives his books their mouth-watering allure. The Good, the Bad and the Smug is the fourth and most recent of Holt’s forays into YouSpace (an operating system that affords its users access to the multiverse, using portals invoked by looking through the eye of a doughnut). Its tagline is a novel beyond good and evil, and though the paronomastic title renders unto this a certain levity, Holt’s exploration takes us outside the box and in fact allows for some atypical, rather sobering perspectives on this not-quite-so-unambiguous tenet of human existence.

The book is still gently uproarious (fair dinkum droll, as we say in Australia), but whether due to subject matter or delivery, it’s also just a tad less accessible than usual. One contributing factor must be that, with the exception of the South Cudworth and District Particle Physics Club (unforgettably hapless in trying to bake a doughnut), the protagonists are all non-human: there’s Mordak, the nominally bad yet progressively enlightened king of the goblins; Efluviel, an elf driven by self-interest but made to detour along the road of ‘doing the right thing’; Archie, a goblin enduring human form; a rogue commodities broker (technically human, but…); and the Dark Lord himself, whose millennia of incorporeal floating have given rise finally to a new body with in-built, not-so-dark motivations.

To a fault these characters either exhibit or experience human foibles, their alien mind-sets giving homo sapien the chance to stand outside looking in; and perhaps at heart this is what makes the book ever so slightly uncomfortable a read: humanity is bad enough when it’s happening to you; to step back and find it’s just happening, and that you’re an inseparable part of it, well, that’s enough to make a person dash for the nearest bakery…

In a multiverse all things are possible, so anything we can imagine, no matter how absurd, must take place; and while the bad news is that it mostly seems to be taking place in our particular universe, the good news is that we have Tom Holt (quoz-finder by royal appointment, somewhere at least) to point it out to us: the film industry; gala awards nights; journalism and bureaucracy; prophesy; quest fantasy; interactive operating systems; grand scale economic policy; good and evil; the whole shebang. If it’s going on and really, by any measure of common sense, shouldn’t be, expect to read about it in a Tom Holt novel. (Or in more sombre tones, distilled down to the essence of human nature, something by K. J. Parker; and if you’ve read one but not the other, you have a lot to catch up on.)

The Good, the Bad and the Smug is Holt’s first book since owning up to the Parker pen name — rarely has a pun waited so long to germinate — and to anybody who might fret as to his ongoing efficacy as a humourist, it should serve to assuage all worry.

Tom Holt remains his usual, vivid, parlously witty self. All told, in fact, he’s now twice as accomplished as you probably thought.

This review was first published in Shoreline of Infinity 1.