Ring around Wagner

When I was younger and the world brighter, I had indulged in probably an unhealthy amount of fantasy books: Robert E. Howard’s Conan books, Tanith Lee, Michael Moorcock, “Heavy Metal” magazine, even the “Year’s Best Fantasy” series put out by Tor Books. Among them was this book, and the memory of it stayed with me for so long that, despite giving it away in what my wife and I call The Great Purge, I bought another copy recently.

Expecting Someone Taller book cover by Tom Holt“Expecting Someone Taller” is Holt’s debut work, published in 1987. Holt’s made a career out of creating stories by combining mythological and magical creatures with the real world. A look at his Wikipedia entry shows dozens of such combinations.

In “Taller,” a drip of a man, Malcolm Fisher, runs over a hedgehog that turns out to be Ingolf, the last of the Giants. Before he kicks off, he bestows on Malcolm the Tarnhelm, which turns him into anything he wants, and the Ring, which makes him ruler of the world.

The gifts also comes with a host of enemies eager to get their hands on the prizes. If you’ve read your Wagner, you already know the cast: the Rhinemaidens, Alberich the dwarf who made the Ring, and on top of the list, Woton, ruler of all the Gods.

So “Expecting Someone Taller” deals with the thoroughly English Malcolm adjusting to his new life as ruler of the universe. Being a Nice Guy, the world becomes much nicer as well, with rain where it’s needed, bumper crops to feed everyone, and no natural disasters. Everyone is happy, it seems, except for Malcolm, who has to keep himself on an even keel, because his moods affect the world. This makes it especially difficult when he discovers Love in the form of Ortlinde, who turns out to be one of Woton’s daughters.

Like a watered-down version of Douglas Adams ? or maybe Adams was a more high-power version of Tom Holt? ? Holt is adept at creating amusing one-liners and interesting situations, although Malcolm’s effect on the world doesn’t seem to have been completely thought through. But social satire is not where he wanted to go anyway. Near the end, with Malcolm thoroughly besotted with Ortlinde in that drippy romantic way that 14-year-old girls fall for Justin Beiber, we’re treated to monologues about humanity’s approach to love that, while accurate, feel like great wodges of commentary shoved in.

But all in all, I was glad to reread “Expecting Someone Taller.” Except near the end, it was consistently amusing (and, Lord know, I’m hard to amuse these days, so consider that a compliment). Looking back at my fantasy reading, many of the works don’t age well ? such as swords and sorcery ? or, in the case of the “Gor” series, embarrassing to discuss. “Taller” has put me in the mood to visit Holt’s later works.