Tom Holt

Orbit (2010)

ISBN 978 1 84149 778 5

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce, June 2010

I have long been a fan of Tom Holt’s humorous novels (and his historical ones too). His titles in themselves have often drawn a giggle – Who’s Afraid of Beowulf, Faust Among Equals, Odds and Gods. There have been gods, magicians, the Underworld, and even Jesus’ younger brother Kevin. Rarely aliens, though, which is one way in which Holt has been differentiated from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

Perhaps this is where Blonde Bombshell goes wrong. Because it does go wrong; not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The fundamental premise: aliens don’t like Earth because our music (reaching them through the ether) is driving them nuts. As a perfectly natural consequence, they send a bomb to destroy the Earth. In fact, they send two bombs, because the first for some reason failed to explode. The second bomb (equipped with an AI, just like the first) needs to figure out what happened to the first, and then decide how best to meet its own mission objective of destroying the planet.

As plots go, this is perfectly acceptable. Alien contact can lend itself to all sorts of mayhem and amusing antics, especially when the aliens look like these ones (no, I won’t spoil it). But unfortunately, with too few exceptions, the reversals, surprises and ta-dah moments in Blonde Bombshell were mostly ones I’d already anticipated, and didn’t think were that clever in the first place. The plot meanders around, skipping between a few different characters – some of whom were interesting enough, and I’ll come back to that – but does not develop at anything like a particularly interesting pace. Lack of pace could be forgiven if it were replaced with depth, or even a whole lot of humour, but sadly Holt does not deliver.

I would never have described Holt as a particularly good character author. That’s not to say his characters are bland, or cardboard cut-outs; instead, they’re often particularly good stereotypes with just the right quirks to make them work. In this instance, the one genuinely interesting character for me was the AI of the second bomb, who – especially after sending an avatar to Earth for reconnaissance purposes – is frequently the focus of the story. As he gets more human, though, he manages to get less interesting. Other than that, on Earth there’s a security consultant, George, who spends more time in bars than out of them and has some of the more interesting experiences overall, and Lucy, founder of Pavsoft, a particularly weak stab at Microsoft. (I can’t help but wonder whether Holt had a really hard time with Microsoft Word or similar before writing this book, and decided to eviscerate the company in print. Sadly, it’s more of a shallow scratch.) Of the aliens, there’s the obligatory Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum pair, who add almost nothing to the story, and a couple of political characters that I kept getting confused, because there seemed to be little to differentiate them.

As a female reader, this novel is particularly disappointing. It fails the Bechdel test – there’s only one named female character, as far as I recall (I write this two days after finishing it). Lucy, although apparently the greatest computer-type on the planet (whether she’s a software engineer, a programmer extraordinaire, or just an all-round genius isn’t clear) and a magnificent entrepreneur, is rarely shown exercising any of those powers. Instead, she’s more often interacting with the men in her employ, and while not as temperamental as Paris Hilton she still often seems more like the heiress than the founder of the company.

Perhaps the thing that disappointed me most, as a long-time reader of Holt, was the weak dialogue. I am accustomed to having a good few chuckles at the witty one-liners in a Holt novel, but this one failed to deliver. And the ones I kept expecting, based on the appearance of the aliens, largely failed to materialise at all.

This novel is not torturously bad. However, a Tom Holt novel is one I would usually expect to zip through in an enjoyable few hours. I really struggled to get through this one because from roughly halfway through, I could guess basically where it was going (I was right), and the journey did not make the destination worthwhile.