Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Book Review | The Outsorcerer's Apprentice by Tom Holt

A happy workforce, it is said, is a productive workforce.

Try telling that to an army of belligerent goblins. Or the Big Bad Wolf. Or a professional dragons layer. Who is looking after their well-being? Who gives a damn about their intolerable working conditions, lack of adequate health insurance, and terrible coffee in the canteen?

Thankfully, with access to an astonishingly diverse workforce and limitless natural resources, maximizing revenue and improving operating profit has never really been an issue for the one they call "the Wizard." Until now.

Because now a perfectly good business model—based on sound fiscal planning, entrepreneurial flair, and only one or two of the infinite parallel worlds that make up our universe—is about to be disrupted by a young man not entirely aware of what's going on.

There's also a slight risk that the fabric of reality will be torn to shreds. You really do have to be awfully careful with these things.


An affectionate send-up of the fairytale from the author of such sarcastic tracts as Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages and May Contain Traces of MagicThe Outsorcerer's Apprentice features overlords and underlings, self-aware wolves and woodcutters, plus a prince from another world: ours.

Benny isn't a prince of anything hereabouts, however. Point of fact, he's in a bit of a pickle when the book begins. He has his final exams at Uni in a few weeks, and with his whole future before him, all of a sudden he doesn't have a clue what he's been doing. Studying to be a mathematician, maybe? In a moment of inspiration that some might mistake for laziness, he realises what he really needs is a good, long break to take stock of his situation. To that end, he borrows his Uncle's "omniphasic Multiverse portal" (p.137) and travels to a parallel reality where he can pretend to be a powerful person, because of course. Wouldn't you if you could?
The YouSpace XP3000, designed by Professor Pieter van Goyen of Leiden [is] capable of transporting you to any or all of the alternate realities that make up the Multiverse. Intuitive targeting software and state-of-the-art Heisenberg compensators mean that all you have to do is think of where you'd like to go, and you're instantly there. It's as simple as that. 
All you'll need to operate your YouSpace XP3000 personal multiverse interface is a dream—and a doughnut. (pp.136-137)
What Benny—pardon me, Prince Florizel—doesn't yet get, and won't for quite a while, is that his very presence in this innocent kingdom is destined to affect its host of fantastic inhabitants, including, but not limited to, dwarves, dragons, goblins, elves, etc.

Readers come to this conclusion somewhat sooner than fair Florizel; by way of Buttercup, a wily woodcutter's daughter waylaid with increasing frequency by wolves wearing old ladies' clothes. She grows so sick and tired of their charade that she starts worrying she may be single-handedly endangering the population—because of course Buttercup kills all the animals that attack her. She's had a lot of practice, and they'd eat her otherwise.

One day, she tries to explain all this to a prince—once we're already pretty familiar with—only to find that her vocabulary has expanded vastly:
Geopolitical entities, she thought as she walked slowly down the path. Hectares. Sovereign debt. The words had bubbled up in her mind like silt from the bed of a stream, as soon as she'd thought of the idea that needed them to be expressed with. Had they been there all along, she wondered? She couldn't have made them up, because he'd understood them. And his explanation; well, it was so full of holes you could strain soup through it. (p.48-49)
Strangely, the same thing is happening all over the kingdom. After centuries of pointless war, the dwarves declare peace on the goblins, who in turn leave their lives as fighting miners behind to hand-craft beautiful wooden baskets; bored of playing the human muzak we hear when we're on hold on the phone, the ethereal elves grow a bit of a backbone; meanwhile a knight, name of Turquine, decides to stop slaying dragons, the better to make a mint from the free market economy he suddenly understands.

The root cause of all this craziness? Suffice to say he wears a pointy hat and transports the products of the population's labours through a giant doughnut portal, on the other end of which he sells said off for a proper profit. The wicked wizard certainly doesn't concern himself with ethics, either:
"These are not real people, and this isn't a real place. It's got dragons in it, for crying out loud, and goblins, and magic that works, it's make-believe. You can't hurt these people, and nothing that happens to them actually matters. [...] It's a loophole," he said, "it's a mistake made by reality which a clever man like me can exploit so as to make a fortune. None of it actually exists, any more than Amazon actually lives in Luxembourg." (p.311)
Overall, The Outsorcerer's Apprentice is such good fun it feels mean to mention its missteps, but be aware, before you buy the book—as you surely should—that it's more than a little overlong, and it takes an age for the many pieces in play to fall into place. You won't ever be bored—the author offers up more than enough action and distraction to keep readers keen—but you may be frustrated by the wait for characters to catch on to this or that aspect of the satirical scenario.

I doubt you'll be writing home about Tom Holt's heroes, either. Though their banter is brilliantly barbed, their internal monologues variously hilarious, they're ciphers with a sense of humour to start, and not much more than that when the tale is tied off.

That said, the finale is massively satisfying. Rather than hinging on some elaborate magical battle, it takes the shape of a provocative conversation in which the whimsy of The Outsorcerer's Apprentice gives way to some surprisingly thoughtful commentary—concerned with capitalism, the economy, and finally, free will, which Benny frames as follows: "It's a terribly depressing thing, to realise that [...] your destiny is being directed by badly-written Robert Jordan." (p.330)

Familiar in the first, but made distinct from your standard fairytale fare by a modest metafiction, Tom Holt's new novel is almost as engaging as it is entertaining. It's on the silly side, sure, but there are some serious beats that make the whole more meaningful, so though the characters could be better developed, and the first act could have done with a bit of butchering, when The Outsorcerer's Apprentice eventually comes together, it's warm, wolfishly witty and wonderfully funny.


The Outsorcerer's Apprentice
by Tom Holt

UK Publication: July 2014, Orbit

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