Book Review: The Management Style of the Supreme Beings
I last read Tom Holt several years ago, when a few of his novels were published in omnibuses. I enjoyed them, but they didn't strike me as anything exceptional, so he fell off my radar. But when I saw The Management Style of the Supreme Beings in the store and found myself laughing at its ridiculously on-point cover (even before I read the blurb), I knew I had to read it.
God and Jesus are done with the family business of ruling Earth, so they sell it to the Venturi Brothers. The Venturis quickly implement a new system, doing away with good and evil and inviting everyone to sin - for a fee, of course. But the Venturis haven't counted on the people God and Jesus left behind: God's other Son Kevin, the denizens of Hell (including one highly competent secretary) and a certain former god who wears red and rules over elves and reindeer...
Comic fantasy can be really tricky to write, not least because humor sometimes doesn't come off in writing when it's bereft of visual and audio cues. But there are still a few acknowledged masters of the genre, and Tom Holt is one. He writes with a delightful, irreverent sense of whimsy which is very much on display here as he tramples all over the tenets of Christianity. He takes pleasure in turning tightly-held notions on their heads (such as God having only one Son or the denizens of Hell being particularly evil). If you enjoy humorous SFF, then this will definitely make you laugh.
The characters are fun to read and bring humor to their interaction; they're often flat caricatures of common stereotypes, but it largely works because these stereotypes become the source of the novel's comedy. The Venturis feel like they came right off Wall Street. Bernie, the secretary of Hell, is the undervalued but highly competent bureaucrat. Jersey is a cross between Indiana Jones and James Bond, all action fluff.
The only character who really exhibits a lot of growth is Kevin, God's other Son, who starts out as a bumbling but well-intentioned good-for-nothing and matures as he realizes what he's actually good at. With newfound confidence, he sets out to help the people of Earth cope with the boredom and nihilism taking hold under the Venturis. By the time he reunites with God and Jesus (aka "Jay"), his family are forced to acknowledge that he's actually been doing a pretty good job of things.
The plot is solid, but it spins its wheels a lot in the middle, which is doubly frustrating because it telegraphs where it's going in a highly amusing way and I wanted it to just get a move on. A few characters also drop out of the narrative toward the end and don't play any part in the climax, with Kevin and Bernie being the most noticeable ones to get benched. (This frustrated me even more because Bernie's beset-upon brand of exasperated competence generated some of the book's best moments in my opinion).
The world-building is good, where it comes into play. Much of the story takes place within the confines of everyday Earth, but the moments that don't are often captivating (particularly the scenes in Hell and doubly so after Bernie basically turns Hell into a theme park). Holt takes existing concepts and adds his own unique twist, and his work with the Red Lord has a gleeful sense of mischief to it.
In short, I'm pleased with my return to Tom Holt's work. Plot quibbles aside, it's a blast to read and had me chuckling every few pages - and that's exactly what I wanted when I picked it up.