The God Box, by Barry B. Longyear

the-god-box-by-barry-b-longyear coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: iUniverse
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating: three stars
Book Review by David Hart

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Barry Longyear usually writes science fiction; to date this is his only fantasy. It is set in an unnamed world with a rather Arabian Nights flavor, populated with beggars and merchants, wizards and gods. The tale is narrated in the first person by Korvas, a rug merchant of debatable honesty. He tells the story of how his life was changed when he inherited a small box, the god box of the title, which has the property of taking from its owner what is unnecessary, and giving in return what is needed. But what a man needs is seldom what he wants. Why do the gods seem to be involved, and what’s this about the destruction of the world?

The first thing to mention about the book is the foreword, which is very weak. Don’t worry, things improve. The second thing is the book’s weight: this is light fiction, not heavy. Throughout the book the tone is tongue in cheek (keyboard in cheek?), with humor sometimes verging on slapstick. There are also puns. The nearest equivalent I can think of is Terry Pratchett’s first two Discworld books.

What about the characterization? There isn’t that much. Korvas is a likable-rogue type at the beginning; by the end he is more likable and less roguish, but I still wouldn’t buy a second-hand carpet from him. Other characters come and go, and Longyear only makes any sort of effort with three of them. Still, with one of these he manages a rather good cameo of what a truth-teller might be able to accomplish.

If this isn’t a character-driven story, it must be plot-driven. What then about the plot. Because of the nature of the story, that’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. On the surface, the plot is straightforward and appropriate for this sort of book. Our hero gets chased and maneuvered around the world by his enemies and gods, fulfilling bits of prophesy as he goes. On this level the plot is reasonable enough, though the ending becomes rather obscure.

It is when you look deeper that the confusion begins. The god box offers Korvas what he needs, but he is not compelled to accept its offerings. On one occasion he rejects its advice and ends up dead. No problem, the universe just rewinds to allow him to change his mind! In the last quarter of the book this sort of thing starts happening again, until by the end it is impossible to be sure what was dream and what reality.

But I don’t believe Longyear intended the reader to stand back and analyse the plot, looking for deep meanings about the nature of reality (though there is the odd profound idea dotted about). Instead this is fantasy without brakes, where you’re meant to suspend your disbelief and most other critical faculties and just enjoy the roller-coaster ride. Looked at in that way the book is a fun read, worth a few hours of most people’s time.

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