Snuff Fiction, by Robert Rankin – While Rankin often employs dark humor, this one is even darker than most, focusing on the narrator’s unfortunate friendship with tobacco magnate, terrorist, and generally underhanded guy Doveston. He’s constantly helping out Doveston with some scheme or other, pretty much always resulting in Doveston coming out ahead and his getting screwed over. These schemes range from running a tobacco plantation in Brentford to bringing back snuff in the late twentieth century to the abolition of income tax and secret legalization of all drugs. Written in 1999, it also makes use of the then-current Y2K panic, presenting a worst-case scenario that allows Doveston to pretty much take control of the world. Of course, there are also plenty of running gags and references to Rankin’s other books. Norman Hartnell, the local shopkeeper who builds seemingly impossible machines from common household parts, is a significant character; and many other recurring characters and ideas receive mentions. I did think that, while the sentient plants grown by Doveston’s mentor towards the beginning of the book did return, it wasn’t as much of a payoff as I would have hoped. But then, a large part of Rankin’s style is that you can never really guess what’s going to become important and what isn’t.
The Enchanter Reborn, by L. Sprague de Camp and Christopher Stasheff – I’d read an earlier collection of Harold Shea stories before, and the ones here are follow-ups written well after the death of co-author Fletcher Pratt. I actually first heard of this series from a review in The Baum Bugle of “Sir Harold and the Gnome King,” which brings Shea into Oz. That story is in here, although I believe it was slightly rewritten from the earlier publication in order to fit it in better with the other tales. Sprague de Camp shows a thorough familiarity with Oz, or at least the L. Frank Baum and Ruth Plumly Thompson books, including references to some more obscure characters (Shoofenwaller and Potaroo are both mentioned) and expressions straight out of the series. There is a twist, however, as an amateur magician named Dranol Drabbo managed to undo the anti-aging enchantment, so characters like Dorothy and Ozma are now grown up. Dorothy is married to a farmer, and Ozma to King Evardo of Ev. In order to use the Magic Belt, Harold has to rescue Ozma and Evardo’s son from Kaliko, bringing a disenchanted Ruggedo along as a guide. It’s an enjoyable story, with the old Nome King quite true to form. Also in this volume, Shea and his colleague Reed Chambers visit the worlds of Journey to the West, Don Quixote, and Virgil’s Aeneid, trying to rescue Chalmers’ wife Florimel from an evil enchanter. There are some new takes on the nature of these alternate worlds, with Quixote’s world being the one he imagines where he’s actually a heroic knight instead of Cervantes’ lunatic, and the Aeneid not having Dido commit suicide. The latter is explained as a possible early draft of the poem, which was never really completed to Virgil’s satisfaction. The enchanters also learn the perils of practicing magic in worlds where gods and demons are real.
The Management Style of the Supreme Beings, by Tom Holt – We’ve all heard the ridiculous notion that the government should be run like a business. Well, this is essentially proposing the idea of the metaphysical being run like a business, a frequently recurring concept in Holt’s books. Here, the premise is that God and Jesus decide to retire and sell the Earth, which is purchased by two Martian brothers who decide to do away with good and evil as we know them, and instead simply demand cash payments for sins. It actually does decrease the crime rate and make things run more smoothly in many ways, but it also removes most of the hope and joy from the world. The protagonists here include an Indiana Jones parody, the man who runs the business side of Hell, and God’s second son Kevin. The latter character, introduced in Only Human as generally incompetent, here is allowed to come into his own. Also playing a major role is Santa Claus, who comes along with the planet and is a dangerous anomaly to the Venturi Brothers. I think Holt did a better job with the supernatural characters than the humans in this one; Kevin is sympathetic, God demonstrates the paradoxes inherent in a being who’s omnipotent and omniscient but shows signs of a human personality (it turns out that He really DID make a rock so heavy He couldn’t lift it, and the angels Michael and Gabriel had to turn it into a fireplace), Santa is bad-ass without being the villain he was in Grailblazers, Lucifer is a guy just doing his job, and even the Venturis are developed enough that we can at least somewhat see why they’re so intent on owning as much of the universe as they can. Jersey Thorpe’s exploits are amusing enough, but he’s not that interesting as a character, and I didn’t really buy his relationship with Lucy. It seems like pretty much every Holt fantasy has to have a romantic subplot, and while he does keep them flawed, they still generally involve two people who just met quickly falling in love.