The Art of Darkness

Author Review: Tim Powers

April 6th, 2010 by Cobwebs

I was digging through some SF book reviews I wrote a while back, and it occurred to me that one of the authors would probably be of interest to gothier sensibilities as well. Here’s the review of Tim Powers I did for the Other*Worlds*Cafe:

Tim Powers! Whee! Tim Powers tips perilously close into straight fantasy, and…I don’t care. To be perfectly honest, the only real science fiction novel that Powers has written, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, really, really sucks. Really, really hard. All of his good stuff–and it really is amazingly good–involves vampires, the last “inspiration” of Thomas Edison, or the reincarnation of King Arthur.

Now that that ugly truth is out of the way, I can talk about how much Powers’ work feels like SF without actually being it.

Powers–along with Blaylock and Jeter–was a disciple of P.K. Dick, and it shows in some of his work. There’s a strong undercurrent of weird running through his novels. He also has some of the most labyrinthine plots, which draw together–in what seems like an entirely rational fashion–some of the most disparate elements, that I’ve ever encountered. Powers’ great strength is to take real historical facts–the Turkish attack on Vienna, the death of Lord Byron, World War II espionage, amongst others–and string them together with entirely plausible behind-the-scenes supposition that neatly “explains” everything that happened against a context of pure fantasy.

Books to look for include:

  • The Drawing of the Dark – A down-at-heels adventurer discovers that he is the highly-unwilling reincarnation of King Arthur, brought back to save the West from obliteration by attack from the East. This is the book that introduced me to Powers, and the fact that beer turns out to have a large part in the salvation of civilization certainly doesn’t do any less to endear it to me.
  • The Stress of Her Regard – If pressed really hard, I’d probably have to name this one as my favorite Powers novel. Described by the publisher as a “horror-adventure,” it follows the travels of a man who has unwittingly proposed marriage to a lamia (a rather specific type of malignant female spirit). It manages to shoehorn Byron, Shelley, Polidori, all kinds of vampire literature, the founding of Venice, European folklore, and homunculi into one novel, and tie them all together. I think DaVinci’s in there somewhere, too. This is a creepy, atmospheric novel, hard to read alone at night but even harder to put down.
  • Expiration Date – The essences of the dead are breathed out in their last exhalation, and can be kept in little jars, to be snorted by “ghost junkies.” Powers took the curious fact that Henry Ford captured Thomas Edison’s dying breath in a glass vial, and managed to hang an entire novel on it (actually two, since there’s a sequel, Earthquake Weather). An 11-year-old boy accidentally becomes possessed by the spirit of Edison, and becomes the center of a feeding frenzy of ghost eaters trying to absorb the late inventor’s genius. As with other Powers works, a really ridiculous amount of seemingly-unconnected things all tie together so seamlessly and plausibly that you halfway wonder if they aren’t actually linked.

I haven’t got ’round to Powers’ more recent stuff, such as Declare and Three Days to Never, but from reviews it seems that his novels just keep getting better and more complex. I mean, really complex. Take a look at the Amazon review of Declare:

This supernatural suspense thriller crosses several genres–espionage, geopolitics, religion, fantasy. But like the chicken crossing the road, it takes quite a while to get to the other side. En route, Tim Powers covers a lot of territory: Turkey, Armenia, the Saudi Arabian desert, Beirut, London, Paris, Berlin, and Moscow. Andrew Hale, an Oxford lecturer who first entered Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service as an 18-year-old schoolboy, is called back to finish a job that culminated in a deadly mission on Mount Ararat after the end of World War II. Now it’s 1963, and cold war politics are behind the decision to activate Hale for another attempt to complete Operation Declare and bring down the Communist government before Moscow can harness the powerful, other-worldly forces concentrated on the summit of the mountain, supposed site of the landing of Noah’s ark. James Theodora is the ├╝ber-spymaster whose internecine rivalry with other branches of the Secret Intelligence Service traps Hale between a rock and a hard place, literally and figuratively. There’s plenty of mountain and desert survival stuff here, a plethora of geopolitical and theological history, and a big serving of A Thousand and One Nights, which is Hale’s guide to the meteorites, drogue stones, and amonon plant, which figure in this complicated tale. There’s a love story, too, and a bizarre twist on the Kim Philby legend that posits both Philby and Hale as the only humans who can tame the powers of the djinns who populate Mount Ararat.

Whoa, Nelly.

Anyway. Powers. Good author, highly recommended.

If you have to pick just one book mentioned above to read, I’d recommend The Stress of Her Regard. It’s full of vampiry goodness, and the “secret history” aspect is very well done.

Incidentally, another of Powers’ books, On Stranger Tides, was optioned by Disney as part of the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Good stuff.

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