In three of his more recent books, author Tom Holt turned to the idea of virtual reality. Well, not entirely virtual, as these alternate realities, as bizarre as they can be, are actually real. A new program called YouSpace allows hopping through these worlds at will, with a doughnut or any food with a hole in the middle being the key to escape.
The first one, Doughnut, features a physicist named Theo Bernstein who finds himself jobless and broke after accidentally blowing up the Very Very Large Hadron Collider. When his mentor Pieter van Goyen dies, he leaves Theo a collection of strange objects and a job at a mysterious hotel with only two guests. It turns out that the whole thing is linked to Pieter’s pet project YouSpace (although no one much likes that name). Theo visits a world where everyone lives in the sky because the ground is contaminated, one where the Vatican has relocated to Australia and Russia is still a monarchy, and one inhabited by sentient and rather vicious stuffed animals. What’s more, it turns out that Theo’s ne’er-do-well brother might still be alive somewhere. In addition to pondering the nature of the universe and plenty of just plain weirdness, some of the humor is based on the relationships between siblings. Theo resents his brother Max, but spends much of the book trying to find him. It’s typical for Holt’s books to contain a romantic subplot, but while there are hints of mutual interest between Theo and a YouSpace investor’s niece who works with him at the hotel, it never really develops into anything.
When It’s a Jar focuses on a new character named Maurice Katz, with the Bernstein brothers present but relegated to the background. Like Theo, and many of Holt’s protagonists, Maurice is a down-on-his-luck guy who gets a job at a mysterious location where he has no idea what’s going on, in this case a warehouse. And once again, the hero has to search multiple worlds to find someone, in this case Theo as well as Max; and there’s a love story that doesn’t really go much of anywhere. The running gag of the old man and his always-hungry nephew who seem to work every possible job continues as well. There’s somewhat of a new element, albeit not entirely new for Holt, in that Maurice’s adventures play on the basic ideas of the classic heroic journey, with his killing a dragon with a bread knife and receiving a magic letter opener from a lady in a toilet bowl. We also pay a visit to Valhalla and learn what a place where people kill each other and then come back to life every day might actually be like, particularly for someone who does not have a natural proclivity toward fighting. It’s an enjoyable read, but doesn’t really add much to the YouSpace concept.
Finally, The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice completes the trilogy with a quite amusing title, even though there isn’t actually an apprentice in the story. The only alternate world visited is a fantasy one of elves and goblins that was foreshadowed in When It’s a Jar, and a man from our world is using YouSpace to take advantage of its inhabitants for cheap labor. When his nephew Benny finds the YouSpace device, he enters the world as a prince, but is unable to escape due to the taboo on foods with holes in them. His presence begins making the inhabitants question things, like how the model of knights slaying dragons and receiving half the kingdom would be sustainable, why wolves continue to dress as old ladies when the ploy never works, and whether there are other options for goblins than fighting all the time. While largely a party of traditional fairy tales, there are some groan-worthy parodies of Tolkien in particular, like a dwarf leader named Drain son of Dror and a marshmallorn tree.