Review: 'When It's A Jar' by Tom Holt

This novel is one of the books in the gift bag I received at the Orbit Urban Fantasy evening this week and is the first one of the bunch that I'm reviewing. When deciding which one to read first I settled on this one because of the synopsis and boy am I glad I did. This was a hilarious read that I raced through.
Maurice has just killed a dragon with a breadknife. And had his destiny foretold . . . and had his true love spirited away. That's precisely the sort of stuff that'd bring out the latent heroism in anyone. Unfortunately, Maurice is pretty sure he hasn't got any latent heroism. 
Meanwhile, a man wakes up in a jar in a different kind of pickle (figuratively speaking). He can't get out, of course, but neither can he remember his name, or what gravity is, or what those things on the ends on his legs are called . . . and every time he starts working it all out, someone makes him forget again. Forget everything. Only one thing might help him. The answer to the most baffling question of all.
One of the most important thing to know about this book is that it is incredibly funny. It is a typically British book in the sense that the humour is dry and almost completely relies on sarcasm. In a completely absurd storyline, that works perfectly. However, in a truly great book, humour needs to be contrasted against heart-felt moments, both of which need to be written well. This book lacked that something higher, in the sense that nothing was holy. Everything was open for sarcasm, not even God was safe. In order for a novel to have heart, something has to matter to the main character. There has to be something he believes in and is willing to fight for and unfortunately, upon reflection, I find it hard to think of what that could be for Maurice. Which is why it is good that Holt's writing style is hilarious. Situations that would otherwise just be lackluster are given a spark that light up the book. There's also some delightful social criticism in the book which I really enjoyed.

Since I personally am a very big fan of mythology and the whole idea of the Heroic Journey, I really enjoyed those aspects of the novel that dealt with that and especially how that would work in a contemporary, urban setting. The idea of a hero who just keeps going, mindless of logic and reason, isn't very realistic, so how do you deal with that in a contemporary urban setting? Holt definitely deals with this in an interesting way which I found very enjoyable and makes it a great example of Urban Fantasy.

The plot of the book is at times incredibly confusing. I think I won't be spoiling too much when I say that it concerns itself with the multiverse theory. Similarly to time-travel, I think multiverses can be  a recipe for narrative disaster. At times I found myself slightly lost as to whether we had been universe hopping or not, or whether that was the point at all. Only after doing some research on finish the novel did I realise that When It's A Jar is a sequel to Holt's 2013 novel Doughnut, in which some of the characters are already introduced. Although at times confusing, I am sure that a reread will clear a lot of things up. A bonus is that Holt's writing style, despite the aforementioned humour, is relatively clear and doesn't throw too many adjectives at the reader. However, the ending still leaves the reader slightly unhappy since there are quite some unanswered questions and, for me, there is also no resolution to the moral questions posed by multiverse theory. If a different universe offers you a better life, can you just leave your "own universe" behind without remorse?

And finally there is one thing that ticked me off towards the end of the book and that is Holt's treatment of his only female character, Stephanie/Steve. At the beginning of the novel she is a character with a lot of promise. She works in the army, she is independent, she has decided to go by Steve rather than Stephanie, all of which builds a very interesting character that I would've loved to explore more. However, in order to push Maurice onto his Heroic Path, Holt is only capable of making her a damsel in distress who is, in my opinion, never really saved, either from the author or the "bad guys". It's a shame to see an author who is so capable of creating good characters and put them in interesting situations not do the same for his female character. Although she occasionally appears, she is never quite saved.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Tom Holt's When It's A Jar is an incredibly fun read which you will race through. The plot constantly throws new twists at you and although it sometimes seems to lose itself in those twists it makes for a hell of a ride. Despite some let-downs here and there, I would definitely recommend this book to not just Urban Fantasy fans but to anyone who is looking for a fun and interesting book!


  1. Great review, Juli. Shame about making the only female character a 'damsel in distress' when there was no real need.


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