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Barking cover

Tom Holt has written some very funny books. For years he was an undiscovered treasure, a Terry Pratchett waiting to happen. Expecting Someone Taller (1991), for example, begins when an ordinary guy named Malcolm Fisher runs over a badger who turns out to be the last of the Frost-Giants. With his last breath the badger bequeaths Malcolm two valuable items: Siegfried's Ring, which confers inexhaustible wealth, and the Tarnhelm, which allows the wearer to change shape. Unfortunately for Malcolm, it turns out that there are others after these treasures as well, among them gods and dwarfs out of Norse mythology.

This is a pretty stock comic situation, of course; put some powerful godlike beings together with the more prosaic present and the contrast between them will give you at least some humor. But Holt has a lightness of touch, an eye for the comic scene, that sets him apart: the Rhinemaidens at a horse show, for example, or Wotan forced more or less into retirement with his daughters the Valkyries.

Barking is also about an ordinary guy, Duncan Hughes, who gets involved with supernatural beings, in this case werewolves and vampires. Duncan, like Malcolm, is hopelessly in love with someone who doesn't love him back, but as the story progresses he, like Malcolm, meets someone more sympathetic. Duncan has to learn to stop being such a wimp and use his gifts to stand up for himself, just like ... well, you know.

You see the problem. Barking is funny in places, sometimes very funny, but it isn't as fresh as some of the earlier books. Duncan is a lawyer, but, as people keep telling him, he lacks the killer instinct. He spends his days filling out forms and figuring out taxes, and his evenings alone in his flat doing not very much. Then an old schoolmate, Luke Ferris, contacts him, and suddenly he finds himself part of Ferris's gang again, and part of Ferris's law firm as well.

He's glad to get away from his old firm, of course. But he also remembers how suffocating it was to be part of a group, and to have to take orders from Ferris, the alpha male. Fifteen years ago he solved the problem by leaving the gang and cutting off all ties with them; now, though, he has to find new ways to assert his independence.

These struggles make Duncan a sympathetic character, and Holt has some entertaining observations about wolf packs and human corporations. But Holt gets entirely too serious about his werewolves for such an otherwise light book; instead of showing them interacting with ordinary people, like the gods and dwarfs of Expecting Someone Taller, he spends a lot of time telling us about their feuds and attributes and hunting habits and pack etiquette.

That just leaves the lawyers to carry the humor, and unfortunately lawyers aren't all that funny. As Holt himself says about lawyer jokes, "There are only sixteen, and he'd [Duncan] heard them all, so very many times" (p. 5). You have to wonder, then, why Holt decided to write a novel that's one long lawyer joke. And these are jokes about lawyers and werewolves, lawyers and vampires, comparisons that have been made before—made so often, in fact, that they might even qualify as joke numbers 12 and 13.

But Holt, as I said, can be very funny, even with this unpromising material. When Duncan first meets Ferris's gang at school, he is a vegetarian and the other boys are emphatically meat-eaters, and Ferris insists they share their lunches. "Duncan hesitates. 'That's murdered pig, isn't it?' ... 'There's murdered cow and murdered sheep, too,' he [one of the boys] says. 'My mum does me murdered cow on Thursdays—you can try some.' ... 'And corned murdered cow. You want to try some of that, it's amazing'" (pp. 37-38).

Much of the humor relies on funny or unusual metaphors, the kind of thing Terry Pratchett can do so brilliantly. Neil Gaiman sometimes does it as well, and it reached its pinnacle and apogee in Pratchett and Gaiman's Good Omens. But it's harder to do than it looks, and Holt seems to strain at times. There are a lot of comparisons to Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings; great for us Star Trek and LOTR geeks, but they get a bit repetitive after a while. "Luke turned to the barman (who'd materialized out of nowhere like a Romulan battlecruiser)" or " ... then you come across someone who makes you realise you're merely a slightly elongated hobbit"—that sort of thing (both p. 14). On the other hand, you occasionally get a gem like this one: "All in all, it was an inopportune moment for a sudden blinding insight. But intuition is a bit like your mother, it always tends to call when you're in the middle of something else" (p. 297).

There's a lot to like in Barking, even if it's a bit uneven. And it's unfair, I know, to complain that you got a merely good book instead of a great one. Perhaps if the other books hadn't been so much fun I would have liked this one better.

Lisa Goldstein's latest novel is The Divided Crown, written under the name Isabel Glass. Her novel The Red Magician won the American Book Award for Best Paperback. She has worked as a proofreader, library aide, bookseller, and reviewer, and she lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their cute dog Spark.



Bio to come.
2 comments on “Barking by Tom Holt”
Rich Horton

I've mentioned this before at other forums -- I hope not too tiresomely. But it seems worthwhile to reiterate that while Tom Holt has indeed done some brilliant comic fantasy -- and, as you say, some just OK comic fantasy -- he has also done some historical fiction, set in Ancient Greece. And this, to my mind, is where he truly shines. In particular, a diptych (later published in one volume as The Walled Orchard): Goat Song and The Walled Orchard. These are very dark comedies, blackly funny but ultimately heartbreaking, truly wonderful work, Holt's masterpieces without a doubt. There is a loose sequel about Alexander the Great, Alexander at the World's End, and a novel about the first Olympics, Olympiad, and at least one other Greek novel -- none of these quite as good as The Walled Orchard, but all worth looking at.
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Rich Horton

I think Barking may fall a millimetre more flat than Holt's other comics because it is based on a subject that hits a little close to home, given Holt's previous line of work. I personally found the book to be much darker and serious than any other Holt piece. Some bits I found downright depressing. Still, good but it doesn't beat the JW Wells series or Expecting Someone Taller.

 

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