Tom Holt,
Wish You Were Here
(Orbit,1998)

Lake Chicopee is haunted. If you throw yourself in the lake, Okeewana, Daughter of the West Wind, grants your heart's desire.

"And if you're really lucky, you drown first," adds the yellow-toothed curmudgeon who materializes with his decrepit cabin to entice visitors with the legend.

The four wishful sightseers who come to Iowa and literally stumble into Lake Chicopee aren't lucky. Instead of drowning, they embark on a series of adventures involving Vikings, bears, goblins, eagles and fairy tale royalty as they explore the flipside of the lake, where the mountains as well as character foibles are gloriously reflected.

Author Tom Holt paints a spectacular rural setting and invents colorful mythical characters led by the beautiful shape-shifting Okeewana. But something is missing in Wish You Were Here. In most Holt novels, spirits, genies, knights, mercenaries and improbably paired historical figures come to life on the page. Unfortunately in this ensemble cast, the supposedly realistic characters are not well-developed beyond their specific and very limited purposes, and they're not especially likable.

The most endearing of the newcomers is Brit Wesley Higgins, who read about the legend as a pre-teen, saved his earnings to journey to Iowa, and eagerly plunges toward the water. Unfortunately, Wes suffers from confidence issues and neglects to follow instructions; still, he demonstrates an extraordinary imagination when the sword that should be in the stone has been snatched by the smugglers.

Next in the lake is Janice DeWeese, an unattractive woman who yearns to be adored. While Janice does tend to whine occasionally regarding her granted wish, she also intelligently queries Prince Charming on his less than logical methods for selecting a wife.

The final two customers are lawyer Calvin Dieb, who constantly calculates his $2,000-per-hour fees, and tabloid journalist Linda Lachuk, who creates news -- her most recent project an unlikely conspiracy of arms trading among the U.S., Australia and the Vatican. These two characters were so wanting for redeeming qualities that I found myself hoping the otter would drown them first and explain later.

Despite the character shortcomings, Holt's plot is fast-paced and the dialogue is witty, though lawyers and tabloid journalists may wish to avoid the barrage of insults directed toward their professions. Midway through the book, when the visitors begin to interact with each other and with the locals, the plot turbo thrusts with entertaining and convoluted results.

While Wish You Were Here lacks the dazzlingly developed characters of Holt's previous work, it deftly explores the problematic outcome of achieving your heart's desire. For a glimpse of more friendly, less didactic humor, try Holt's earlier works Expecting Someone Taller, Who's Afraid of Beowulf or Ye Gods!

[ by Julie Bowerman ]