Tom Holt,
Expecting Someone Taller
(MacMillan, 1987; Ace, 1990)

In the great Age of Heroes, everyone and his younger brother was out questing for this or that treasure, this or that magical talisman, that or the other enchanted princess. Today, no one quests for much of anything, much less items of legendary power. And Malcolm Fisher certainly wasn't questing when his aged Renault ran over a too-slow badger on a major highway near Taunton, England. Malcolm, more nerd than hero, was glumly heading home after being dumped by his girlfriend when he hit the hapless beast.

But in the magical, mirthful world of Tom Holt, a dead badger isn't always what it seems. In Expecting Someone Taller, the badger in question is actually the disguised frost giant Ingolf, possessor of Nibelung's Ring and Tarnhelm. (If that doesn't ring a bell, perhaps you should bone up on your Germanic folklore or, if you prefer, epic Wagnerian operas. Suffice it to say, the legend of the Ring was a major inspiration in the writing of a certain J.R.R. Tolkien.) After hiding for 1,000 years from various gods and other Nordic beings seeking power, Ingolf wandered onto the road and ... well, splat.

He retains enough life in him to explain the Ring and Tarnhelm to an extremely confused Malcolm, to force Malcolm to drink his blood and gain the power of bird-speech, and to berate him for not being the heroic figure of a man he'd been expecting. Still, what's done is done, and soon Malcolm is heading home for some much-needed sleep while Ingolf slowly reverts to a heap of highway-blocking rubble.

The next day, Malcolm begins experimenting with his new shapechanging and wealth-creating abilities. He researches his newfound talents by reading a summary of Wagner -- and Holt's summarization alone is worth the cover price of this book. He quickly figures out how to use his powers to conquer and rule the world -- and just as quickly decides the ulcers wouldn't be worth it. So he decides to have fun instead.

And then a little bird ruins it all by telling him that his subconscious and the Ring's wild magic are combining to wreak havoc -- but POLITE havoc -- around the world, and reveals that Malcolm is the least prepossessing but, at the same time, the NICEST person to ever wield the Ring.

And then the gods and other creatures of legend start popping 'round, including a pair of Wotan's ravens to provide comic relief in a book already bursting with laughter. Things get complicated -- and occasionally a tad romantic -- from there.

And, surprisingly enough, we discover that Malcolm, who has never been particularly good at anything, is very good indeed as master of the world.

Tom Holt remains one of the best and brightest of modern humorists, and his novels, steeped in wit on a legendary scale, are always a laugh-riot treat to read. It's a shame only a few of his novels have been released on the States side of the Atlantic, but fortunately Expecting Someone Taller -- one of the best of the lot -- is among those few available to American readers. Find it, read it and then start searching the Internet for overseas distributors. You won't be disappointed, and your funny bone will thank you.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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