The Portable Door by Tom Holt was recommended to me by several followers on my Twitter account as a good fun fantasy novel, and a good introduction to Holt himself a writer these followers liked.
In The Portable Door, following what appears to be the world's oddest and most disastrous job interviews Paul and Sophie are appointed as junior clerks to J.W Wells & Co. From the start, their office is odd, and they can't really quite make out what it is that the company does....
I think I need to say again, that fantasy isn't really my thing, I've never been into Pratchett or his peers, and the closest I've come to really loving a fantasy novel is Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which, in theory, I loved more for its interesting philosophical questions than any fantasy element. Anyone I've ever recommended that book to has likewise been very impressed with it.
However, Jen recently recommended me the 'A Song Of Ice And Fire' Series which I read in April and are reviewed in this blog. I now consider myself a massive fan of the series. So, when the TV series began in the States, and a review in the New York Times by Ginia Bellafante said :
The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.I was INCENSED by what I saw as horrifying sexism, and also by its implication that the incest subplot was particularly attractive to women, whereas I have known women to cease reading the novel because of the storyline. I hated the implication that women, or rather normal women, could not or should not enjoy A Song Of Ice And Fire or fantasy novels in general.
Therefore it pains me to say that to a certain degree I felt that The Portable Door was a decidedly male novel. In my head, its average reader, is a man, possibly spotty, who does a mundane day job, probably in computing, has difficulties socially, and potentially lives with his parents and/or has a large collection of comics. I've been involved with a man not unlike that, and it's him I see as the target audience for this novel. On the other hand, I am a woman who owns a Spiderman hoodie, loves superhero movies and knows far more about computers than I do about either make up or shoes. So, this leaves me a bit torn, I am possibly guilty of as big a sin as Miss Bellafante by considering this book "male". In the end I have to say that there's something in the narrative voice that makes me feel that way, something that isn't present in A Song Of Ice And Fire, like Holt, in his mind, has a solely male audience too.
I didn't particularly like either awkward, slightly neurotic Paul, or rude, abrasive Sophie and that's a problem, considering they are the 'leads' in the novel. I think it also suffers from my having read it in too close a proximity to Rivers Of London and Moon Over Soho. Those books deal with a magic department within the Metropolitan Police and The Portable Door is about a company dealing in magic, so there is some similarity, but the former are just better books.
Where I DID like it though, was really, when it got going, and Paul and Sophie discover more and more about the organisation in which they work. There's magic, and goblins and a pretty decent mystery going on. Paul gets sexually harrassed by his boss's Mum, and that's quite a fun subplot.
Another criticism is that I wondered why it always seems necessary in some novels to have a romance between the protagonists, a man and a woman never seem able to be just mates with a really great friendship or working partnership. It sort of leaves you thinking : "You're going to get together anyway, so just get together now and let's have done and get on with the rest of the story".
When reviewing Moon Over Soho, I mentioned that its "current" vibe may inevitably date it. In this novel Holt references Esther Rantzen's chat show and "Cilla's Blind Date" neither of which have been broadcast in about ten years, the references aren't strictly necessary either and I think its something writers need to consider. Although, there is nothing worse than what Sebastian Faulks did in 'A Week In December' where he invents new names for things you recognise from popular culture such as calling the Costa Award by some other name or calling MySpace "YourPlace", so you know what he's actually referring to but the name is all wrong, terribly annoying and pointless. That's a terrible book anyway avoid it like the plague.
In the end, I warmed to The Portable Door, after say the first third, once the action got underway. At the end of the day, I'm a sucker for magic, and that's what saved it, but I am incredibly torn in my overall opinion. Ultimately, there are two further books in The Portable Door story, 'In Your Dreams' and 'Earth, Air, Fire and Custard'. As with Shikasta and The Crystal Cave, I'm interested enough to eventually read the follow ups to see how it all turns out but not so interested that I'll be rushing immediately to do so, the way that I did with A Song Of Ice And Fire.
There was one quote I particularly liked regarding the perils of dealing with people who know magic and that was:
The very worst your kind can do to each other is kill someone. That's practically Vegan when you consider what we get up to sometimes.
Overall my reaction to the book was mixed and I think I'll only give it a 6/10