Saturday, 26 March 2011

Alexander At The World's End

Tom Holt

I've read Tom Holt on and off for nearly a decade. He writes comic fantasy -- hilarious but not cheerful, smart, densely plotted and British. I've always viewed his work as a reliably good read, well-suited to my basic tastes and not needing excessive attention. Not the sort of thing I tend to get excited about, or recommend to a friend, maybe, but worth a thumbs-up if I see you reading it on a train.

When I first saw Alexander at the World's End -- or it might have been the first in the series, The Walled Orchard -- I wasn't sure it was the same Tom Holt. Serious historical fiction? Really? Was Alexander the Great possessed by the spirit of a young English temp who got a job in the wrong office?

When it turned out it was  the same Tom Holt, I still didn't dive in. Historical fiction isn't my favourite flavour, and honestly, I wasn't confident how well Holt would cope outside his unique, meticulously carved niche.

For shame, Benjamin, for shame. Have more faith.

Alexander at the World's End is fantastic. The humour is still there, and perhaps has even reached its zenith, in the voice of con-kid turned Yapping Dog philosopher, Euxenus. This book is his story, not Alexander's, though Alexander casts a shadow across the whole thing. In fact, it is his lurking presence, and his strange ties with Euxenus and his family, that keep the musings and memories of an old Greek man compelling.

That's a plus I didn't expect from the jump to historical fiction. Holt's novels are pretty compelling anyway, in their own way, and surelyThe Past could opnly lessen that. But this, that looks like a thriller in precisely no aspect, had me captivated.

Tom Holt did one thing, that nobody else was doing, and did it very well indeed. What gave him the confidence to step away from it, at least for a while, for something completely different? Or maybe I have this backwards, and he always wanted to write about Ancient Greece. How many times has he approached his agent with this idea, saying thi is what I really want to write?

Who else has changed direction mid-career? Have any thriller writers changed tack and tried to win the Booker? Who has succeeded? Who has failed?

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