When a book opens with three characters trying to build an ark, you know you're in for a particular kind of magical storytelling. Of course, the picture on the front cover of a goldfish/dragon holding an umbrella while trapped in a goldfish bowl will probably be the first clue for many. Tom Holt has been rightly compared to Douglas Adams for his comic style, although at times his satire seems fiercer, since Adams tended to sacrifice the bigger picture to the amusing details. (Of course, some may feel that Holt does this, too.) As a writer with a reasonable back catalogue (several of his novels are now available in omnibus editions), Holt is a well known name in comic fiction, whose publishers obviously feel confident enough in his writing ability to avoid stuffing the first few pages of the book full of glorifying quotations. (Personally, I tend to find anything more than a few glowing quotations off-putting; surely if the writer is that much of a genius then the publishers shouldn't need 300 quotations to prove it?) Having never read anything by Holt before, but enjoyed a lot of Adams' writing, I approached this book with enthusiasm and waited to be transported to a magical place where dragons fly and goldfish may be something rather more deadly.
'Nothing But Blue Skies' revolves around the very British obsession with the weather. Casually dismissing centuries of accumulated scientific knowledge, the narrator asserts that, of course, the real reason it rains is because of irritable Chinese Water Dragons. Unfortunately, some weather forecasters have become aware of these ancient creatures and are furious at the way in which the great beasts 'deliberately' undermine their weather predictions and make the forecasters look like fools. Now, Meteorologists Against Dragons (MAD) are set to fight back, by capturing one of these mythical creatures. However, they're not the only people who could find a use for a dragon, and a certain young dragon's infatuation with a human could put her whole species at risk...
Karen has become almost human - she's working as an estate agent - in a quest to ensnare Paul, a quiet young man who she rather fears is developing feelings for Susan, The Bitch who works in their small office. However, problems soon start piling up as various characters are abducted by a nefarious schemer who just happens to control a vast media empire. Karen is determined to hand herself in, but things don't go entirely to plan; when she's stressed, odd things happen in the electromagnetic currents around her. Can this young dragon/woman rescue them without unintentionally destroying a whole military platoon?
Meanwhile, alcoholic weatherman, Gordan Smelt, takes a break from passing out so predictably that his local pub's regulars can set their watches by it and gets himself tangled up in MAD. However, it quickly becomes clear that there are people about who are far madder than MAD, and Gordan's soon in grave danger of being sacrificed by a very polite young man offering tea and biscuits. Escape hovers tantalisingly close as Gordan puts his experience as a weatherman to good use, but can he ever believe in dragons?
== My thoughts ==
The whole story is a madcap adventure that seems to be veering insanely from side to side, but eventually draws to a close with a sense that most things have been neatly tied together. In fact, there are some developments that leave you thinking 'of course!' (Or, if you're a rather more active reader than I am, thinking slightly smugly 'as I suspected'.) I always feel it is quite pleasant if a book manages to achieve this, without you feeling the need to go back and reread sections to check that the development 'works'. In fact, there was only one truly unaccountable development, but even that isn't really a problem, since this isn't a story that depends upon plausibility. After all, hands up if you believe that the British weather is controlled by irritable Chinese Water Dragons? Hands up if you believe that there will be a National Goldfish Register? Hands up if you believe that scientists work in secret laboratories on projects that the members of the British public would be killed for discovering? Hm, well...
The madness works so well because it is firmly rooted in everyday British life and captures a lot of telling details: the compulsion some people experience to be honest to policemen; the unfailing politeness of everyday exchanges, even when they become surreal instead of everyday; bickering between cousins of a similar age. By securing his tale in everyday experience, Holt is able to make the oddest episodes unfold in a manner that seems quite logical.
That said, there were a few things which didn't quite gel. Karen's determination to give herself up, for example, felt odd, possibly because Holt doesn't really spend much time on his characters. We learn that Karen is angry and miserable, but mostly because then there is the comic effect of all the rain she unintentionally creates. We learn about her relationship with an old cousin so that we can laugh at the things they got up to in school. In this fast paced short story, the focus is very much on comedy and plot, not characterisation. For me, this wasn't a problem: I was happy to sit back and enjoy the adventure without needing to care about any of the characters; it's just not that kind of book.
My biggest criticism is the extended nature of some episodes that left me cold. For example, there are several pages devoted to Karen's effect on the men trying to arrest her. Despite Holt's attempt to include an array of amusing details, the whole episode could and perhaps should have been concluded much more swiftly. Once her effect had been established, it actually became quite dull to read about her impact on each individual man. It felt like filler rather than story, which is a shame because generally everything seemed to be moving nicely towards the conclusion.
There are some mildly entertaining side avenues that recur occasionally throughout the story, like the men building the ark, which do fit comfortably beside the main story without ever having an impact on it. In fact, the whole story could be encapsulated by the phrase 'mildly entertaining': sometimes I smiled, sometimes I chuckled, but nothing moved me so much that I had to read it again or experienced an urge to share it with a friend. There are books that have that effect, but this is a much more placid read. In fact, despite the occasionally rollercoaster-like action and multiplying dragons, this book is the fairground equivalent of the house of mirrors: some sections leave you unmoved, some cause a titter, but nothing makes a serious impact and you wander off soon enough to find some candyfloss or a ride that will turn you upside down.
== Conclusions ==
Personally, I felt that the dialogue is where Holt's comic strength lies. Whether they are being rude or polite to each other, the conversations between characters are at once convincing and enjoyably surreal. I also really enjoyed his inventive use of similes, something else he has in common with Douglas Adams. This is not a laugh-out-loud book, but it is a gently comic narrative that doesn't require a great deal of effort to read. You won't become attached to the characters or come away with any great insights, but you are very likely to feel pleasantly entertained.