By Tom Holt

Orbit Books


404pp/£6.99/January 2003

The Portable Door
Cover by Tim Holman

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Tom Holt began making references to the Gilbert and Sullivan character of John Wellington Wells early in his writing career, but with the novel The Portable Door, he brought Wells front and center, focusing the action of the novel on the firm of JW Wells, located at 70 St Mary's Axe, as defined in the operetta The Sorcerer in 1877. To make the tie even more obvious, the play is referenced throughout the novel, not just as a theatrical production, but with specifics of the action forming part of the company's history.

To focus of The Portable Door is Paul Carpenter, a slacker who finds himself interviewing for a job at JW Wells that he has no aptitude for and doesn't really understand what he would be doing. Getting the job, whatever it is, however, would allow him to continue to pay rent and buy food. Naturally, Paul is hired by the firm and finds himself working as an intern with Sophie Pettingel, who is similarly clueless about the company's purpose. Their days are spent sorting reports and randomly making marks on maps to indicate where bauxite ore may (or may not) be found. Despite her apparent complete lack of interest in him, Paul develops a crush on Sophie based on her proximity and the fact that their job means she has to talk to him.

The don't spend all their working hours together, however, and when Paul starts to discover some of the weirdness that happens around the office, he doesn't share it with Sophie, which means that he suddenly doesn't have a partner to explore what is happening at JW Wells. It also means that when he discovers a portable door that allows him to travel anywhere, he winds up spending a lot of time alone in some very exotic places. Of course, one secret leads to another and eventually, although Paul still has no idea what is actually happening, he has a lot more questions than Sophie.

As with all of Holt's novels, The Portable Door as a strain of humor running through it, although it is often the humor of the familiar and elicits a smile rather than a laugh. The humor is well interwoven with the plot of the novel and the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. As The Portable Door is the first novel in a series, Holt also must set the stage at JW Wells to make sure the readers have an understanding of how the company works, something that is very well done through the eyes of Paul Carpenter, so future novels have a grounding for the future adventures of the firm and its employees. Of course, this also means that while a couple of character's stories are completed, others are left open to be potentially continued in future novels.

Holt successfully presents his background and introduces his characters in The Portable Door. More importantly, he does so with a well-crafted novel that makes the reader want to return to the offices of JW Wells and the people who inhabit it, from the relatively straightforward Paul to the more offbeat partners in the firm and the employees who have worked there for so much longer than Paul.

Perhaps of note, in 2023, The Portable Door was turned into a film starring Patrick Gibson, Sophie Wilde, and Sam Neill. It may properly be said the the novel suggested the film, for the two diverge significantly quite early on. Both, however, are worth the time.

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