Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Despite some early success in the United States, most of Tom Holt's work has only been published in the United Kingdom. This, unfortunately, means that most American readers remain unaware of his writing, except, perhaps, to vaguely remember his early novels, Expecting Someone Taller or Who's Afraid of Beowulf? However, Holt has continued to write humorous fantasies which use mythology and religion as their starting point.
His most recent novel, Only Human, is a look at what happens when Jesus and God go on a fishing trip leaving Heaven in the hands of God's other son, the eighteen-year-old Kevin. When Kevin begins to play with God's computer, he inadvertantly switches the life essences of several inanimate objects with nearby humans. The rest of the novel deals with the consequences of this, and other mistakes Kevin makes.
Unlike many humorists, Holt does not write jokes. The humor in his novels is based on the absurd situations he sets up and the manner in which people respond. Perhaps this humor is a little too subtle for American tastes, or perhaps it requires a more extensive knowledge of day-to-day life in Britain. In Only Human, Holt has set up five situations on which to base his humor and they work to varying degrees. Perhaps the most successful are the Lord of Hell who finds himself in the body of a vicar, the English Prime Minister who suddenly inhabits a lemming, and Kevin, himself, who is trying to right his own wrongs. Working less well are the story lines which follow the bad Renaissance suddenly in an accountant's body and the machine which takes over the body of a maintenance man.
In this book, Holt uses the various mentalities of the Lord of Hell, the painting and the machine to examine what exactly is meant by the human condition and what the purpose of humans are. Initially seeing their possession of human bodies to grant them a greater degree of freedom and mobility, the misplaced souls eventually discover that being human also includes responsibilities and quirks which they had not realised. Added to this is the strange alien, Zxprxp, who occasionally interacts with the major characters in his quest for (mis-)understanding the human race.
In addition to Kevin's mistakes in Heaven, several fiends from Hell have decided to use the absence of God as an opportunity to take control of the world. Despite this, Only Human lacks the epic qualities which appear in so many of Holt's novels in which he deals with mythological gods and their half-human offspring.
While not uproariously funny, Only Human is a humorous satire on life at the end of the twentieth century. Many of the conclusions Holt comes to seem to be tenuous, but he gives the reader a reason to read Only Human besides the laugh factor. While not the very best of his novels, Only Human does provide insight into Holt's style and humor.