2005; 410 pages. New Author? : No. Genre : Contemporary Fantasy; Humor. Overall Rating : 7½*/10.
The title is wrong. Custard has not replaced Water as one of the four elements; it has been added as the fifth element after someone invented it.
Paul Carpenter doesn’t care about that. He just wants to have a normal life. One without goblins and one where he doesn’t make a fool of himself around women. And maybe not getting killed as often. Yeah, that would be nice too.
But Custard has some very interesting elemental properties. And Paul’s destiny is hopelessly intertwined with it. Confused? We hope so.
What’s To Like...
As usual, we’re treated to Tom Holt’s wonderful wit, scrumptious similes, and madcap storylines. As usual, the mayhem threatens to overwhelm the plot, and indeed, I wasn’t sure what the main storyline was until about 40% of the way through the book. But the pacing is fast and there are no slow spots. Your mind may be in a daze, but you're never bored.
The book is written in “English” (as opposed to “American”), which is always a treat for me. At its core, Earth, Air, Fire and Custard is a romance, but fortunately for us male readers, it’s covered up with guy things like action, fighting, time-travel, dimension-travel (think “Inception”), and talking appliances.
You will learn about the stuff legends are made of, such as Audumla, the Great Cow of Heaven, and how Utgarth-Loke stole her from the gods. If you're a scientist-type, you can witness the clinical research into how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I truly appreciated the way the scientific method was used to determine this.
The ending is good, clearing up all the plotlines effectively, even though it required a long, tell-not-show explanation of the temporal anomalies. Wikipedia lists four more J.W. Wells-related stories after this one, but I kinda suspect Paul won’t be in them.
Kewlest New Words. . .
Bolshy (adj.) : Deliberately combative; uncooperative. Naff (adj.) : Stupid; lame. Yomp (v.) : To walk or trek laboriously. Stroppy (adj.) : (see ‘bolshy’). Lilo (n.) : An inflatable air mattress. These are all “Britishisms”.
“It’s Paul,” he said. “Just to let you know I’m not feeling well, so I won’t be coming in today.”
He could picture the stormy crease of her eyebrows. “What’s wrong with you?”
Pause. “You don’t sound very dead to me.”
“I sort of got better,” Paul admitted. “But it’s only temporary. Sooner or later I’ll have a relapse and then that’ll be it, kerboom, finito. So really, there’s not a lot of point me coming in, is there?”
Christine wasn’t the sharpest serpent’s tooth in the kindergarten, but she could spot a rhetorical question when she heard one. “Have you got a doctor’s note?” (pg. 86)
"Of course, it’s easy with hindsight. But I wasn’t around, in fact I was fast asleep; and back then, thirteen centuries ago, nobody’d heard of time travel or alternative realities or trans-dimensional shift. Instead, they had gods; and if a bloke turns up who looks like a god and acts like a god and starts jacking acroprops under the Sun and unscrewing the stars, you aren’t inclined to ask for any ID. Not if you’re sensible." (pg. 356)
Could a Swiss cow possibly have created the universe? (pg. 306)
Earth, Air, Fire and Custard is the third book in Holt's “Paul Carpenter” trilogy, which in turn is a subset of seven books featuring the J.W. Wells Magic Corporation. I read the first book of the trilogy (The Portable Door), but not the second (In Your Dreams). There is a 2-page backstory at the start of this book, but I hesitate to call it a standalone novel. To fully enjoy it, you need to be already familiar with things like the Portable Door, and the eternally-fighting knights from the first book, which I was. But there were also a lot of references to Fey characters from the second book that I was clueless about, and that detracted from the fun to a certain extent.
In the hands of an amateur writer, EAF&C could’ve easily been a complete book-wreck, and no doubt a lot of readers will give up somewhere in the first 180 pages of unexplained craziness. But things start falling into place after that, and Tom Holt’s writing skills guide you happily to the end of the tale.
7½ Stars. Add one star if you’ve read both of the other books in this trilogy. Subtract one star if you haven’t read either one. And no matter what, do not make this your very first Tom Holt book.