Theo Burnstein is, to put it mildly, down on his luck.
“You blew up—”
“A mountain, yes.” He shrugged. “And the Very Very Large Hadron Collider, and very nearly Switzerland. Like I said, one mistake. I moved the decimal point one place left instead of one place right. Could’ve happened to anyone.”
Once a respected and fantastically wealthy physicist, Theo now counts himself lucky when he finds a cardboard box to make his nights on the streets a bit cosier. Following his career-ending catastrophe, Theo’s fourth wife divorced him and took everything he owned with her. He would have been fine if he hadn’t lost his $20-million inheritance when the investment company went bust, and then lost all his friends, who apparently liked his money more than they liked him. Things kept going downhill from there, and he found himself completely unemployable, not only because the world in general now hates him, but also because the accident turned his hand invisible in a quirk of quantum physics, and employers find that creepy. Eventually he finds a job carting guts in a slaughterhouse, where his boss kindly allows him to sleep until he finds a place to stay.
Theo is saved by his ludicrous downward spiral by the death of his good friend and teacher Pieter van Goyen. Pieter leaves gives him $5000, and the seemingly useless contents of a safe deposit box – a small bottle, a manila envelope, a powder compact and an apple. He also tells him where to find a job – a massive and decidedly weird hotel that always claims that they are fully booked even though there are only two people staying there. With almost nothing to do all day, Theo eventually discovers the purpose of his strange inheritance – they are the means for entering and navigating custom-made alternate realities. It’s meant to be a dream come true, but Theo loathes every moment as he tumbles into worlds he cannot control and is almost killed by aliens or cute, shotgun-toting Disney animals. The only way he can return to the real world, is to find a doughnut and look through the hole in the centre.
Why did Pieter leave all this to him? And what are the strange people at the hotel up to? Why does it seem like someone wants him to do a set of calculations that may destroy the universe? Theo puts his scientific mind to the problem, and tries not to get killed in the process.
Like all of the Tom Holt novels I’ve read, Doughnut is thoroughly kooky and a bit chaotic. And like all the other Tom Holt novels I’ve read, it’s not really laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s amusing with a few clever moments – a decent option if you’re looking for light or humorous speculative fiction. One of the reasons I keep reading Holt, even though his novels are never quite as exciting as I’d like them to be, is that he writes about so many different things that he’s become a bit of a go-to author when I need to finish a reading challenge about, for example, werewolves or Norse mythology. And his plots always sound like a lot of fun.
Doughnut brings together sci fi and fantasy by combining quantum physics with alternative realities that draw on genre tropes. The first world Theo finds himself in is straight out of an epic fantasy novel. Another is a western, then a western with aliens. There’s a peaceful post-apocalyptic world where everyone lives in the sky on glass platforms. There’s even a reality where Theo is the Pope.
It’s fun and it’s entwined with the mystery of why this is all happening, but it’s not as good as it could be. The middle of the novel drags a bit because Theo is trapped in the hotel with no escape except for the other worlds, which are accessed through an empty bottle. They’re enjoyable, but they don’t really help him figure out what’s going on. The other people in the hotel could certainly enlighten Theo and the reader, but they don’t want to. As a result, the plot doesn’t move much for a good portion of the book. It takes Theo a while to gather a few scraps of useful information about the conspiracy he’s caught up in. Towards the end he suddenly figures everything out in one bright moment, after which he explains it all in a few conversations and quickly wraps up the story. It’s rather clumsy.
Still, I enjoyed it as a light read. The odd little worlds Theo ends up in are amusing, and I highlighted a couple of funny or snarky lines. The lack of information about what’s really going isn’t irritating in the way that I normally find these unecessarily prolonged mysteries to be. Like many of the Holt protagonists I’ve come across, Theo is nerdy and likeable, a bit of a loser in some ways but smart enough (a genius, in his case) to figure everything out at the end and give us a satisfying conclusion. The other characters tend to be forgettable, but I liked Theo’s insane sister Janine, who keeps trying to call him despite the fact that she’s got a restraining order legally forbidding Theo to ever call her back.
So, all in all, it’s nice if not great, and I’ll continue reading Tom Holt.