Tom Holt,
Paint Your Dragon
(Orbit, 1996)

The British people revere St. George with an unshakeable devotion. Right?

Well, someone forgot to tell Tom Holt, the British funnyman for whom nothing is truly sacred. Over a decade of writing he's lampooned as many gods, convictions and societal standards as he could wrap his pen around, and in Paint Your Dragon, it's no different. This time, however, the target of his barbed wit is his holiness, St. George.

George, we learn, was a right royal prat who cheated in his long-ago bout with the dragon. And now George and the dragon are both back, mucking about England as they play out their endless grudge match for a second time. Now inhabiting stolen and animated statues (and imbibing vast quantities of alcohol), they take no prisoners in their efforts to deal the other a fatal blow.

Also playing their parts in this little passion play are Bianca Wilson, the brilliant artist whose grand statue of George and the dragon provides bodies for the reincarnated pair, and who isn't at all happy to see her greatest work suddenly vanish; Chubby Stevenson, a wealthy timebroker, and Nosher, his evil dragonspirit in a box; David, the famous statue, who suddenly decides that standing starkers in a public venue isn't the career choice for him; and Kurt Lundqvist, assassin at large who was, until very recently, dead.

There is also a small herd of Hell's own demons, maliciously left behind at a rest stop during a coach tour to Nashville (Hey, even hellspawn deserve an occasional holiday, don't they?), who are trying their best to get back to Hell without being too damaged in the crossfire between George (representing Good) and the dragon (representing Evil). Of course, it doesn't help matters that neither character in the fight is living up to the standards expected of them, leaving demons and clergy alike a bit confused about who's actually on whose side.

The book includes one of history's funniest chase scenes, involving one frightened saint, two animated statues, an outraged sculptor, several policemen of the Keystone Kopps variety, an unlucky barmaid, a quick-thinking cook and a hapless, well-meaning but misguided priest. There's one of the highest body counts ever posted in modern fiction -- and yet, very few fatalities. And then there's the prize fight to end all prize fights....

Paint Your Dragon is perhaps the most confusing of Holt's numerous novels, but don't assume that makes this any less of a dandy ride. Holt juggles dozens of characters and several diverging plot lines with mad abandon, maintaining throughout the book a wild, frenetic pace which makes it hard to put down. While he doesn't develop any of this book's characters to the same depth as his usual comedic and lore-saturated protagonists, he flings so many different characters into this one that they achieve an odd sort of shared depth.

OK, that last bit wouldn't fly on a college-level English lit essay test, but read the book and I think you'll see what I mean. Even if you disagree by the end, you'll laugh a lot along the way.

[ by Tom Knapp ]