Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

The Box of TricksThe Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun read and I think it would make a good movie. The conceit at the bottom of it all, the reason the planet Earth appears to be going to Helena Handbasket, was a nice touch, and something I hadn’t seen before. Similarly, several of the SF/fantasy elements around time, such as unaging, crop enhancement, collecting, etc. are unexpectedly and wittily rendered. Comparisons to Douglas Adams are well deserved. 

I thought it took the action a little too long to get started and too long to finish, although the scene in which our heroes thwart an assassination attempt on the Federation President was excellent and was an exception. More scenes like that one, please!

More to the point, I didn’t find Tom Mathers all that memorable, especially as a viewpoint character, and the secondary characters were a little hit-or-miss as well. I read the book over a couple of weeks and when I picked it back up again after putting it down, I had forgotten who some of the minor characters were and ended up being surprised when they showed up again. Susie, Caroline, and Fanshawe, who are all over 100 years old and have interesting histories, have more developed character arcs than Tom. And the action that set all the rest of the plot in motion, Tom’s reckless decision, didn’t really make sense. Even as it was happening, I was thinking, WTF dude?! Leave it alone!

The descriptive language relies a bit too heavily on cultural references that the reader may or may not know about. For example, London is a fascinating city, but I had to draw on mental images I have from watching James Bond movies and having been a tourist there; the setting did not come alive for me based on the author’s descriptions. As with the assassination scene, there are flashes of brilliant writing that bring the reader up short and make you want more: the scene where Fanshawe is injured and Tom has to rely on his own wits to save them both had me on the edge of my seat. At least one of Susie’s fashionable outfits, and the reactions to it, are hilarious. And some of the descriptions of dead and dying planets hint at a sense of tragedy and something larger than the usual time-travel frolic. These bright spots are islands in the middle of long stretches of more workman-like, serviceable prose. There is nothing really wrong with the writing here, but knowing what the author is capable of, one wishes he could have kept it up more evenly through the whole book.

I’m guessing there may be a sequel in the works. The gadgets and time travel system are too cool to be used in just one book. It will be interesting to learn more about the characters and to see if Tom will be given more of an arc to grow in the next installment.

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