This review was originally written in May 2012 and was edited for upload today.
Although I’ve said I’m reviewing You Don’t Have To Be Evil To Work Here But It Helps, it would be more accurate to say that this is a general recommendation to anybody interested in humorous fantasy that they should check out Tom Holt’s work. I chose that particular book to title the post because it’s got a glorious title.
The first book I read by Tom Holt was Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages. I read it, I enjoyed it, and I put it on a shelf and forgot about it. But when I was going through my books, rereading things I hadn’t read in a while, I stumbled upon it again and realised just how much I liked it. Since I’d never heard of Tom Holt I assumed he was a new author, so I was astonished when I turned to the By The Same Author… page and found that there was an entire list.
A glorious list, full of hilarious titles, shameful puns, and all sorts of parodies of book titles.
It’s no surprise that I went straight to my library’s online catalogue and reserved all the ones they had, working through the meagre supply until they failed me.
What is it I like about Tom Holt? Well, the basic premise of You Don’t Have To Be Evil To Work Here But It Helps is that the protagonist (whose life is hardly normal as it is) discovers that his dad is about to sell his soul to the devil to keep the company afloat, and comes across the company responsible for those particular contracts. Unfortunately, he’s having a few issues himself with reincarnation and the like, and nothing’s really going according to plan.
I’ve never in my life read a book that approaches the idea of selling your soul to the devil in quite that way — in fiction, the only ‘contracts’ involved tend to be the sort of thing written in your own blood on the back of a dodgy bit of parchment — but it works wonderfully. Maybe it’s because Tom Holt used to be a lawyer — a lot of his characters work in law, and you can tell he knows what he’s talking about from the attention to detail even while he’s parodying and mocking the idea of an ordinary workplace.
The freshness of this humour is hugely effective. My love of Terry Pratchett probably indicates that I enjoy reading things which subvert traditional fantasy tropes, so I guess it’s no surprise that Tom Holt’s work appeals to me. One of his other novels, Barking, is about werewolves … who are also lawyers. Oh, and there are vampire lawyers too. And there’s a unicorn wandering around. It’s probably one of the oddest werewolf books I’ve ever read, but it’s still brilliant.
If you think you’re bored of werewolf novels, I recommend checking it out. It’s so wildly different from the type of werewolf YA that dominates the market — hilarity totally outweighs angst.
Then there’s Holt’s actual writing style. His descriptions are classic. Admittedly, when you read a whole load of his books in a row you realise that he occasionally reuses his metaphors and jokes (I’m not sure how many times he’s made a gag about “It would be like saying Swindon was in the Cotswolds”, but it’s at least three), but that doesn’t manage to detract from the general awesome of his narrative style.
How many writers describe an office’s architecture as “early Mordor, with strong Dalek influences” or a surreal situation as being like “a job interview conducted by Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali, wearing silly hats”? The number of times I cracked up and nudged my friends to read them a line reached a frankly ridiculous level.
And finally, there are the plots. When I got to the end and look back, they’re not as mind-boggling as they seem, and I often felt stupid for not figuring out who was behind it all. But when I was actually reading, the sheer complexity of the web being woven around me meant I was sitting there going, “But who is behind this? Seriously?” It’s hard to figure out a mystery when you’re bewildered by the fact that the person whose soul you thought had been sold to the devil is actually walking away while someone else is messing up the system by constantly reincarnating, but that’s just as well or he’d never have been able to leave the Bank of the Dead…
I can’t recommend Tom Holt enough. Some of his books work as mini series; at other times, the same companies (mainly lawyers) pop up over and over again, but you can read them in any order. In that way it’s somewhat akin to the Discworld novels, and similarly it can sometimes be hard to remember which plot goes with which title, but that hardly matters. I suggest picking a title, starting there, and continuing to read until your library throws you out for borrowing all their books, or your bank account is empty and you have Amazon packaging strewn around your room until you can hardly move.
If you want surreal, fantastical hilarity, that’s here. If you want stories about werewolves and vampires that aren’t full of existential angst, that’s here. If you want stories about devil-lawyers and time travel and reincarnation and teleports, he’s written those too.
PS — You don’t have to be weird to read these books, but it helps.