May Contain Traces of Magic by Tom Holt

Rating 8.0/10
A clever, laugh-out-loud book.

May Contain Traces of Magic is one of a long list of comic fantasy books by Tom Holt, published in 2009. It follows sales representative Chris Popham who - with a failing marriage and long hours on the road - comes to form an attachment to his SatNav. And have conversations with it. In a world where weird things are lurking just out of sight, Chris ends up embroiled in a battle between humans and demons, and a demon may look like a garden gnome but it’ll tear you to pieces if you happen to be there when it appears.

This is a world where demons can pass from their dimension to ours to eat humans for their energy, but a split in the demon dimension occurred when some demons decided it would be better to just feed off people’s emotions a little at a time instead. With a threat of civil war, the leader of this group is being hunted down, but integrated itself somehow into the human world, and now Chris is getting mixed up in the assassination plot as the demons think he knows where it is.

I’ve read several of Tom Holt’s books and this is the best so far, though Earth, Air, Fire and Custard is also very good. It starts off so ordinary, you don’t even know that it’s a comic or fantasy book. Chris is driving around living his humdrum life that it so brilliantly painted that when the first odd thing happens, Chris speaking to his SatNav and not being surprised when it talks back, it’s a jolt. And then his clients ask him for their usual supply of powdered water (just add…), which he doesn’t know what it’s used for, and neither does it seem does anybody else, but it sells by the shed-load.

As the story unfolds, things get stranger and stranger with old Norse gods running magic shops, demons kidnapping Chris using one of his own portable driving spaces, and timelines going awry as powerful magic creatures start illegally taking him back in time. It does get very complicated - too complicated really - but the main strength of the book I think is how well the characters are written. Chris is a pathetic whiner who has no charisma whatsoever, is a rubbish husband, and dislikes his job but isn’t going to do anything about it. He should be incredibly annoying, and he is. I want to shake him and tell him to grow a backbone, but this is where Holt’s writing works so well, because although Chris is all of these things, you can also sympathise with him. All he wants to do is live an uncomplicated life, where he quietly yearns for his wife’s best friend and everything is nice and predictable. Unfortunately for him, there are a range of people, mostly very strong-minded women, who proceed to back him into corners to get him to do what they want him to do, whether he likes it or not.

I find it’s best not to read too many of Holt’s books too close together because the weirdness can get a bit draining if you’re not paying attention to the plot, but if you’re looking for a clever, laugh-out-loud book with some really strange stuff going on, this is the one for you.

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