Monday, 12 April 1999

Tom Holt: Expecting Someone Taller (1987)

Edition: Orbit, 1991
Review number: 238

The first of Holt's comic fantasy novels, Expecting Someone Taller is based around the ideas of Wagner's Ring operas. The main character, Malcolm Fisher, is basically a failure, someone that has spent his whole life being compared unfavourably with his elder sister. Then, one night, he accidentally runs over a badger on a country road in Devon; going to see if he can do anything, he is rather surprised to hear the badger speak. It turns out to be the giant Ingolf, who took the Ring (which basically controls the universe) and Tarnhelm (which allows the wearer to transform their appearance into any form they like) from Siegfried's funeral pyre. With the Tarnhelm, he turned himself into a badger to hide from the Elder Gods, particularly Wotan, who want to get their hands on the Ring.

The rest of the book is about Malcolm's attempts to understand the power of the Ring and to use it to improve the world, and the attempts of the gods to trick or force him to give it up to them. The comedy Holt generates centres mainly around the relationship of these primeval gods to the twentieth century and its institutions. This is a reasonably rich vein for comedy, used by other writers as well, but it doesn't disguise the soft centre of this novel.

Malcolm is basically a nice guy, who tends to fall in love with any pretty woman who takes an interest in him. What he does with the Ring - putting an end to disasters and wars - is not of such interest as his love life. The Ring is connected to the unconscious of the owner, and disasters reflect anger and such emotions, and this leaves Holt with not a great deal of leeway when it comes to using it as the basis of an interesting plot. (Mind you, in Wagner's Ring operas, the Ring is at least as passive, hardly used at all except as some vague kind of powerful talisman. Its plot purpose is to be the focus of desire, not to actually do anything.)

Expecting Someone Taller is funny and fun, but it is not as good a novel as some of Holt's later stories in the same line.

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