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Nobody’s Home by Tim Powers

November 15, 2014 4 comments

Nobodys Home by Tim POwers

In the land before time forgot (that’s when my health and strength were good, and memory was still working properly), I could actually recall what happened yesterday. On such a day, I went out of my then home to the Andromeda Book Company in Birmingham and bought a copy of The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. This proved to be a good buy both in terms of enjoyment when I read it, and in terms of investment when I later sold it along with the rest of my collection. This sad tale of a collector forced to sell his books through force of circumstance (I was relocating to a different country) is a way of introducing a new novelette called Nobody’s Home (Subterranean Press, 2014) set in the same universe.

It features a young woman from the source novel called Jacky, an ambiguous name which suggests to her that moving through London’s less salubrious quarters would be less dangerous if she was a man. So she arms herself with a false moustache, cuts her hair short, and affects a deeper voice. Somewhat surprisingly, this enables her to duck and dive her way through London in pursuit of Dog-Face Joe. Now this is a fascinating creature. It’s one of these body-hopping beings that, after the transfer, begins to sprout body hair. In one sense, this makes it somewhat like a werewolf except that the process of transformation continues regardless as to the phases of the moon. Over time, this increased hairiness becomes somewhat conspicuous, so it takes a slow-acting poison in the current body and transfers to a new body. This makes it very difficult to track. But our young Jacky is determined. Her fiancé was one of those occupied by Dog-Face Joe and, after ingesting the poison and being released by Joe, he went to the home of the young woman he loved. She saw only a monster and, as is the way of young women who feel threatened, she shot him through the heart. When she realises the terrible crime she has committed, she wants revenge. Hence her search for the Dog-Faced beast that deprived her of her life-partner.

Tim Powers

Tim Powers

During this pursuit, she rescues a young woman called Harriet. She’s haunted by the ghost of her husband. Under normal circumstances, this would not be too serious but, in life, he was an Indian national and now he wants her to follow him into death through sutee. The fact she’s missed out on the funeral pyre to throw herself on is not something the ghost cares about. He comes armed with his own pyrotechnic skills and aims to finish off the job himself. The rest of this elegantly atmospheric tale takes us through this dark and dangerous version of London in search of a way to rid herself of this ghost. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, nobody’s prepared to help.

It’s not actually necessary for you to know the original novel to enjoy this novelette. It reads well as a standalone. But it’s a richer experience if you can remember what happened in the source novel. So my advice, should you not have read The Anubis Gates, is to read it immediately. It was and remains a highly successful time travel novel with Gothic overtones. This will set you up to read this very enjoyable backstory element for Jacky.

For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
The Drawing of the Dark
Hide Me Among the Graves
Salvage and Demolition
and for a review of the film adaptation: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers

July 23, 2014 5 comments

The_Drawing_of_the_Dark_by_Tim_Powers

The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers (Subterranean Press, 2014) is a reprint of a book that first appeared in 1979 (yes this author is beginning to get a little long in the tooth). So while you can expect some of the writing style and flourishes that have become trademarks, this is the third book by an author of just twenty-five summers. It’s reasonably good, but don’t expect it to be one of the greatest books by Powers. As you might expect, we’re in an alternate version of Europe in the sixteenth century with Brian Duffy, an Irish mercenary, who’s been trudging from one fight to another for many a year. After minor difficulty in Venice, he accepts a job from Aurelianus as a “bouncer” (an interesting anachronism) in the Vienna inn where the famous Nertzwesten Beer is brewed. Unfortunately, this job coincides with the arrival of Suleiman the Magnificent accompanied by the pick of the Ottoman Empire’s army. This gives us our theme of West vs. East with physical forces and magical powers (pun intended) ranged against each other with the fate of Europe in the balance. For those of you interested in the history, Vienna did come under siege in 1529 and the failure to win decisively produced a loss of momentum. Had Vienna fallen, the Ottoman forces could probably have overrun the major European armies and produced an empire of vassal states.

Using the history as an excuse, Powers has both sides pulling out the best (and worst) of their magical weaponry. For the West, the defence hinges on the the ability of Merlin, acting on the instructions of the Fisher King, to find the reincarnated Arthur and let him lead the fight for the future of the West. During the course of the book, it becomes obvious that several other “heroes” have been reincarnated, or are guided by their supernatural abilities, to spend a few months in Vienna to help in the fight. However, as is always the case once you open the mythic box, the lineage of heroes has centuries to draw on and we also get a brief view of the Norse gods as well. As the physical battle reaches its climax, the magical forces also lock horns (and anything else they can fight with). It’s not a spoiler to reveal the book stays true to the historical outcome to this siege.

Tim Powers in the light against the dark

Tim Powers in the light against the dark

As linear narrative historical fantasies go, this is reasonably well constructed and the plot dynamics all come together well in the climatic battle. There’s also some humour — the description of the hunchback’s funeral is a gem to treasure. But there are one of two fairly major flaws. As everyone will quickly realise, our hero Brian Duffy is the reincarnated Arthur but, to prolong the suspense, this is not revealed to him until quite a way through the book. The problem for the reader, therefore, is to reconcile the character we first meet with with occasional glimpses of the Arthur legend tells us to expect. Since he’s profoundly stubborn, Brian lives in denial of his “heritage” and mostly manages to keep his own personality and fighting abilities to the fore. I’m not sure this is managed successfully, particularly because we have a doomed love affair with the Guinevere reincarnation. To my jaded eyes, this is not handled well. And compounding all the problems with character, I’m still not quite sure what the effect of the dark is supposed to be. The brewery in Vienna which is the real target for the invaders, not the city, produces three varieties of beer. Needless to say, the dark is the most potent and needs a long time to complete its “fermentation”. But having arrived at the end, there are two issues left unexplained. First, the production process for all three beers seems almost entirely supernatural. I was expecting a real brewery but this is completely unreal without any hint of how it’s supposed to produce enough beer to keep the city and its troops supplied throughout the siege. Second, the book finishes before the dark is ready to be drunk and we therefore have no understanding of who gets to drink it, why they would drink it, and what the results are. Unless its only function is to keep the Fisher King alive which, in turn, will keep the spirits of the West high. But that would not explain why others have drunk it before and are now pestering Merlin for more of it now. Since the beer features in the title, you would think the author would have condescended to explain it a little better.

So here comes the short summary. I read The Skies Discrowned when it first came out and didn’t bother picking up the next two books by Powers. Fortunately, I did buy a copy of The Anubis Gates and, for the most part, I’ve been a fan of Powers ever since. The Drawing of the Dark has its moments, but it’s fairly generic historical fiction by modern standards. If you’re a Powers completist, you will buy this to get a sight of the early writer at work. If you have not yet tried Powers, this is not the right place to start. Read The Anubis Gate first to see whether you like his approach.

For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
Hide Me Among the Graves
Nobody’s Home
Salvage and Demolition
and for a review of the film adaptation: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers

December 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Salvage_and_Demlolition_by_Tim_Powers-200x321

Time travel is one of the more commonly used science fiction tropes. For some reason, writers of all hues seem to believe such stories are easy to write whereas the reality is rather different. This year has seen a high point in The Coldest War and a low point in Looper. No doubt future years will contain similar extremes but, for once, it seems 2013 is going to start off with a high in the shape of Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers (Subterranean Press, 2013). In terms of tone, I’m reminded of Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson which is a wonderfully melancholic story of a man dying because of a brain tumour. He becomes fascinated by an old photograph of a woman and finds romance with her in the past. The evocation of the Hotel del Coronado is delightfully detailed with the woman readily accepting this stranger as a lover because two psychics have foretold his arrival. If you have not read this book, you should. It deservedly won the 1976 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

Tim Powers participating in a real world not an alternate history event

Tim Powers participating in a real world not an alternate history event

Moving to this new novella by Tim Powers, we have a dealer in rare books who receives three boxes of books and manuscripts to sell on consignment. It’s the third box that proves the trigger for travel back from modern times to the San Francisco of 1957. When he touches a manuscript and begins to read the first pages, the first disorienting harbinger comes in the form of a sudden physical and auditory illusion that he’s out of doors in the rain. He can also hear some music playing. Seconds later, he realises the walls and ceiling of the room he uses as an office are still securely in place and everything is reassuringly dry. Without spoilers, we then have various shuttle movements between the two times. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what the mechanism is. Unlike both Time and Again by Jack Finney and Bid Time Return which rely on a form of self-hypnosis, the force for this movement has its roots in ancient magic. But how this works is irrelevant. There are neither marvellous machines with flashing lights to impress nor ancient spells to chant in suitably declamatory style. We’re intended to focus on the people involved. Suffice it to say, there are physical and personal relationships at both ends of the time loop that entwine in a carefully choreographed way. Indeed, the particular magic of this plot is how meticulously the detail is introduced and then dovetails together as we watch the key players in their respective times.

Then there are some enticing questions to ponder. For example, when in 1957, why should our traveller give his name as Vader (aka Darth) and explain his “profession” as dealing in salvage and demolition, when he’s actually Richard Blanzac, a rare book dealer? In a contemporary setting, there can be innumerable reasons for concealing identity, but when our hero goes into the past. . . And then we have the following lines in the opening verses of the manuscript he reads,

To Express
His own will, print himself on this world!
He chose — and bit — and dimmed each future dawn.

Does this suggest our hero can manipulate the world in some way but, if he does so, that the outcomes will be bad? Obviously dimming the future dawns leaves everything in darkness. If taken literally that would be a disconcerting outcome. It might make Matheson and Finney’s movement by self-hypnosis sound rather safer. Then there are the following lines,

Two Streams: one flowing South, the other North,
As if from mirror’d Springs they issu’d forth. . .

Perhaps these words are somehow a metaphorical reference to the publishing practices of Ace Books. The series termed Ace Doubles sold two novels in tête-bêche format, i.e. bound so that each novel is presented head-to-tail and vice versa. Or it suggests everything should be in pairs as in the original and its reflected image. This could, of course, mean there must be a return for every going through time, or it could mean there should always be an even, not an odd, number of journeys to preserve symmetry and balance. Such uncertainties are a source of real delight.

As we’ve come to expect from Subterranean Press, this is a beautifully produced book and it’s delivering what looks to be one of the novellas to beat in the 2013 race to the awards. More importantly, Tim Powers has written another of his genre-defying stories. Salvage and Demolition is for everyone who enjoys science fiction mixed into fantasy with real world historical figures dotted across the fictional landscape in a not quite alternate history. No matter how you try to classify it by genre, it’s tremendous fun!

The dust jacket and impressive interior illustrations are by J. K. Potter.

For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
The Drawing of the Dark
Hide Me Among the Graves
Nobody’s Home.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

March 12, 2012 2 comments

Hide Me Among the Graves

Well, with Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers (William Morrow, 2012), we’re back in alternate history territory with a cast of well-known characters encountering the supernatural. In this case, we’re deep into Victorian times and embedded into the world of the poets from the Prologue in 1845 to the Epilogue in 1882. In that it has the Rossetti family as central characters and involves the Nephilim, it may properly be considered a form of sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, a novel published in 1989 and much celebrated. But, before we actually set off with the review of this most recent addition to the Tim Powers canon, we need to spend a little while thinking about the creative process.

Both in what are now called steampunk and mashup novels, there are emerging clichés with anachronistic technology and various supernatural beasties arbitrarily released into eras approximating the Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian. In many cases, there’s no particular purpose to be served except to produce a different backdrop against which to slaughter vampires, zombies and assorted other creatures. The formula is the same no matter whether the genre label is steampunk or contemporary urban fantasy. A hero(ine) is confronted by dangerous thingies selected from the supernatural/horror back-catalogue and, at the end of the book, he or she has won the day, or the night depending on the beasties. The level of collateral damage among the humans also increases of decreases in line with the intended readership. Mashup novels are more pretentious because they ape the writing style of classic authors like Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Louisa May Alcott, et al. A part of the supposed interest is the incongruity of supposedly dainty figures like Fanny in Mansfield Park confronting Egyptian mummies, whereas the identity of the heroic figure is largely irrelevant to the readers who only want blood spilled in the most graphic way possible. Indeed, apart from the initial inspiration to deliberately introduce anachronisms and supernatural creatures, I see little creativity in any of these books.

Alternate history, however, is a far more exciting, not to say, respectable subgenre, particularly when it plays the game of a secret history. The idea is simple, but the execution is challenging. You take real-world events and, by introducing previously unknown facts, suggest a different interpretation. For example, F Paul Wilson runs a complete secret history behind his Adversary Cycle, even explaining in Ground Zero, what really happened on 9/11. For the most part, these extensive revisionist fictionalisations are interesting, but not technically demanding. In other words, once the author formulates the fictional “secrets”, the actual events are rewritten to fit the backstory. The better work is done by authors like Tim Powers who take the historical record and fit the fiction around it. This involves genuine research to find the cracks in the historical record through which new “information” could leak.

Tim Powers in the light against the dark

So here we are with the Polidori family. We should all know John Polidori because, in 1819, he wrote The Vampyre and this gives him the credit as the inventor of the blood-sucking trope that survives into modern times. He died in 1821. His sister, Frances, married Gabriele Rossetti, their children being Maria Francesca (author), Dante Gabriel (poet, painter and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), William Michael (writer and critic) and Christina (poet). Also involved in this book are Edward John Trelawny, a novelist and adventurer who was a member of different political and artistic groups including Byron, Swinburne and Shelley; a veterinarian, John Crawford who’s the son of Michael Crawford from The Stress of Her Regard, and Adelaide McKee, a reformed prostitute. This could have been a routine mashup in which our cast of famous poets take on and defeat John Polidori who, ironically, has become a vampire — a kind of literary infighting in a salon of the day. Except we’re cast into a fascinating alternate version of London in which ghosts, including a powerful revenant of Queen Boadicea, and now vampire-like creatures, are abroad. There are some beautiful ideas on display as ghosts infest the Thames and walk the waves of the North Sea. Birds are recruited into the fight, the Mud Larks stand by and over the Thames and, in the catacombs, the Hail Mary people find ways to keep the people of London as safe as possible. Yet, if John Polidori and the Queen can come together in the right way, the Queen may finally realise her dream of destroying London.

In all forms of art, there’s a mythology surrounding muses — often depicted as supernatural creatures who inspire the best work in the creative. Tim Powers produces an ironic difficulty for this artistic group to confront. It seems they also produce their best work when under the influence of these “vampires”. To fight and destroy these “muses” may also mean the writing and painting returns to a mediocre level — a neat intellectual and emotional trap for these people who live for the respect of their peers and the adulation of their readers. Indeed, poets might steal these muses, despite the known risks. Anyway, the two key events to set the ball rolling are that Christina is tempted into inviting her dead uncle John Polidori into the family home. And seven years before the main action begins, John Crawford and Adelaide McKee conceive a daughter, Johanna, who has disappeared from Adelaide’s care and is thought dead. Now the couple are drawn together again by the news their daughter did not die. Rather she’s being used by the Nephilim. In such circumstances, all interested parties must combine to see what can be done to save all the children who prove at risk. As in The Stress of Her Regard, we also have the link between statues and what they represent. For Trelawny, this is rather more personal, making him a literal bridge. It sticks in the craw to say it, but the Polidori link may have been buried.

Hide Me Among the Graves is a completely fascinating historical novel set in a beautifully realised alternate London where supernatural forces are threatening the lives of both the talented and the ordinary folk in cataclysmic destruction. Although I think it’s slightly longer than necessary, Tim Powers holds interest through the inventiveness of the developing plot and produces an entirely satisfactory outcome that is entirely consistent with the historical facts as we know them. In an alternate history novel, you can’t ask for a better result.

For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
The Drawing of the Dark
Nobody’s Home
Salvage and Demolition.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature.

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

The question, I suppose, is what we should expect from yet another runner from the Pirates of the Caribbean stable? If it’s simply going to rerun the same tired plot, we’ll have Jack on a quest of some kind. There’ll be ships sailing, cutlasses cuttling and general mayhem as required. And soaring above it all, as if high on magic mushrooms, comes Mister Pirate himself, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s weirdly disconnected from everything happening around him and yet benignly interested in how it’s all going to turn out. You get the feeling he’s as much a spectator as those of us on the other side of the screen, forced to go through fantastic manoeuvres in the spirit of the moment, supremely confident it will all come out right (sooner or later). Well, On Stranger Tides is your average curate’s egg. For those of you not into idioms, that now means there are some good bits and some bad bits. If you’re prepared to enter a different dimension while the boring bits are on screen, the whole experience is not unpleasing. If you expect a taut and exciting narrative that’s going to pick you up at the beginning and sweep you through to the end, find another film to see. Although, if you’re a Pirates fan, there’s more than enough of Johnny Depp doing his usual schtik to keep you happy. No matter what anyone may tell you to the contrary, Penélope Cruz is just there to help sell the film outside the US, contributing little to hold our interest. Her lack of impact is explained by her wooden English accent which kills any life in the intended banter with Johnny Depp.

Ian McShane reminding us the size of a man's sword is directly proportional to. . .

 

Looking back, director Rob Marshall has done an unnervingly good job of recreating everything that’s so characteristic of a Pirates film (including the boring bits). This is a missed opportunity. There’s a wonderful story buried in the middle of this complicated excess. If we sent Jack and no more than one villain off to chase down the fountain of youth, we would potentially have economy and tension. Let’s just see what elements we have to play with here. The mermaids are wonderful and by far the best thing in the film, but the zombies are woefully underused. There could be lots of magic and, of course, we’re all going to end up at the fountain of youth where someone may get young all over again.

Geoffrey Rush all dolled up for the royal garden party

 

I suppose On Stranger Tides pulls all its punches on the supernatural side to keep the film children friendly. Everything on Blackbeard’s ship could have been genuinely scary. The fact he can raise the dead (and may even have raised himself), manipulate the rigging, summon wind, and belch fire from the bows of the ship makes him one badass pirate. Even better that he can capture the ships he fights and put them in bottles. Now that’s high class magic and this could have been exploited as a serious threat to all and sundry. Yet the zombies are not at all frightening. Rather, they’re quite chatty for dead folk and, even when spitted on swords, seem remarkably even tempered, being prepared to accept a little bondage rather than bite, claw and generally maim any of the living within reach. And Ian McShane. . . Well, let’s say he’s just a big teddybear. This is the least menacing pirate captain of all time. You can see him laughing at the thought, “evil is my middle name” as he stomps around doing bad stuff. It’s a sad reflection that Geoffrey Rush as a reformed Barbossa is more interesting, although perhaps only because he’s lost a leg and has a bad case of sunburn.

Sam Claffin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey enjoying a quiet moment

 

So what are the good bits? I liked the opening sequences in London. Individual scenes threatened to go on too long — inside the court with the King and incompetent guards, and the redundant scene with Keith Richard being the prime examples. There’s the usual sword play, recreating the fight with Will in the smithy. But getting Jack on to the ship and away is all done with reasonable pace. Thereafter the failed mutiny is unconvincing and we have everything on hold until the magnificent sequence to capture a mermaid. Then we drag around the jungle, have a couple of fights and end up in a cave repeating the idea of Jack switching the goblet just as he stole a gold coin at the end of the first race against Barbossa.

 

Except as a mechanism for ensuring no-one will ever return to the fountain, the inclusion of the Spaniards is a waste of time. There’s too much exposition early on, too much talk in the middle and a redundant epilogue at the end. The highlight is the central relationship between Sam Claffin as a man of firm religious convictions and Astrid Berges-Frisbey who plumbs tragic depths as an abused mermaid. This gave emotional heart to an otherwise dead landscape (allowing for the zombies). It’s a shame this one shining thread gets lost in the drab tapestry formed by the rest of the tired plot devices and acting by the numbers.

 

So if you enjoyed the last two Pirates films, this positively zips along, being far shorter at a mere 137 minutes running time. But if you were bored to tears by the last two outings, this is only marginally better and a classic example of how to take a really good story and throw it away. If you want a better overall experience, try the source book, On Stranger Tides by the impressive Tim Powers. Now that really is a good story about pirates and the fountain of youth. If only Hollywood could have made a film based on this rather than trying to shoehorn everything into the Pirate‘s formula.

 

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