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'In Your Dreams'

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page BW15


By Tom Holt. Orbit. 474 pp. $22.99

Tom Holt has been writing since the 1970s and has produced some 30 or so novels, even though he was born only in 1961. The precocious son of Hazel Holt, the friend and biographer of Barbara Pym, he brought out a book of poems when he was 11 and was naturally compared to Daisy Ashford, who scribbled her classic The Young Visiters at the age of 9. Ashford never repeated her youthful success (though she published other books), but in his early twenties Holt amazed again with a pair of excellent sequels to the comic Lucia masterpieces of E.F. Benson. Since then he has established himself as a reliable purveyor of light entertainment, a member of that English company of humorous fantasists that includes Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde.

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In his early novels Holt generally took some ancient myth or legend, then set down its heroes and villains in modern, corporate England. More often than not, his protagonist would be a well-meaning but rather shy or bumbling young man who finds himself helping a troupe of Vikings or the pantheon of Greek gods while trying to forestall the end of the world and still keep his job and win the girl. The tone throughout is reminiscent of low-keyed 1930s screwball comedy or of those fizzy 1920s romps of Thorne Smith (e.g., Topper, The Night Life of the Gods). In Expecting Someone Taller, for instance, Holt's feckless hero finds himself in possession of the all-powerful ring of the Nibelungen -- and the invisibility-granting Tarnhelm, as well.

Holt's early novels were taken up by American trade publishers, but most of his recent books have been available mainly as imports distributed by Trafalgar Square, an estimable firm situated in Vermont that brings over superb British titles. I read Holt's first four or five books with pleasure but missed the later ones, several with punning titles like Grailblazers, Faust Among Equals and Djinn Rummy. The Portable Door, I realized after starting In Your Dreams, provides some backstory for this current novel, but it isn't absolutely necessary to have read it.

Paul Carpenter -- gangly, unsure of himself, in his early twenties -- works for J.W. Wells, a money-hungry global multinational. His life, Paul feels, has been "a rolling sequence of disasters because he was an unsatisfactory mess, and if only he'd been better-looking/smarter/cooler/more tanned/better dressed, things would have been entirely different. He hadn't objected to the system particularly, once he'd figured out how it seemed to work. On the contrary, knowing he'd never really stood a chance had been a comfort, an excuse for not trying." But, as nearly all light fantasies are variants on the tale of the brave little tailor, Paul turns out to be quite other than he imagines.

And why not? To the world, J.W. Wells itself may appear just another one of those vague corporations with headquarters in London, but it in fact specializes in various forms of magic, and its employees include wizards, goblins, giants and dragon-slaying heroes (one of whom is a retired lieutenant colonel of Tolkien's Riders of Rohan. In The Portable Door, Paul rescues the firm's founder (who has been turned into a stapler) and thus finds himself a part of the company, whether he wants to be or not. In that same novel he also manages to win the love of Sophie, with whom he now works in overseeing the firm's tedious paperwork.

In Your Dreams begins with Paul being asked to spend time with the various divisions of J.W. Wells, so as to learn more about the company's unusual services. Thus he joins its dwarf cashier, who makes daily payments to the Bank of the Dead, which is just what it sounds like; then later finds himself an apprentice hero, sent out to eliminate a vexatious wyvern -- a small dragon -- nesting in an ATM machine. All this sounds pretty silly -- reminiscent of "Men in Black" and "Ghostbusters" -- but Holt keeps you turning the pages, especially after Sophie abruptly leaves Paul, various top managers of J.W. Wells are kidnapped by the Fey (whose power depends on human dreams), and Paul discovers that his late Uncle Ernie was a very powerful sorcerer. Ernie has left him a box of oddly random items: a Sea-Scout badge, a broken watch, some colored chalks, an old screwdriver and three photograph albums. Obviously, none of these is what it appears to be.

In Your Dreams moves along at a steady clip, but Holt keeps piling on the complications until the novel has clocked in at 474 loose and shambolic pages. Still, it remains an enjoyable diversion, a kind of fantasy equivalent to a chick lit novel, flowing smoothly along, with a gurgle or two on every page for a joke or surprise. For example, Rosie Tanner, the mother of the firm's managing director, is actually a nymphomaniacal goblin who transforms herself daily into one voluptuous bombshell after another. She fancies Paul, to his discomfort (and eventual gratitude), and he has to keep reminding himself that this gorgeous platinum blonde in stiletto heels is really a fur-covered monster with gigantic tusks. In perhaps the neatest joke in the book, still another shape-shifter is said "to have an honest face, among others."

That last sentence may determine one's taste for Tom Holt, for the true test of such weekend entertainment is the likeableness of its characters and the tone of the storytelling. Paul dines at an expensive restaurant with a fellow employee. "She looked up, and at once the waiter materialized, like a Romulan cruiser decloaking, and handed her the bill." When Paul reads the office procedures -- an ineffably boring manual -- he finds entries like "Mountains, Movement of," with all the attendant regulatory and environmental impact exactly detailed: "Any buried treasure, abandoned dragon hoards, lost dwarf cities, petroleum, natural gas and other mineral resources uncovered during the removal process remain the property of JWW, not the individual practitioner. In the event that mountain removal awakes a nameless evil from its slumber in the bowels of the earth, it is your responsibility to ensure that the firm's insurers are informed at the earliest possible opportunity."

In every way an unimportant novel, In Your Dreams might still be just the thing for a January evening. After all, it's not often one finds a comedy in which the hero dies twice, visits the lair of Grendel's Aunt, drives a car that used to be a German sorceress named Monika, and gradually comes to trust Rosie Tanner, the mouth-wateringly sexy goblin. "Take people as you find 'em," she kindly tells Paul, "that's our way," then adds, "or just occasionally with salt and vinegar." •

Michael Dirda's online discussion of books takes place on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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