The Drawing of the Dark

The Tim Powers series continues while I work on new stuff.

This one is a look at his third novel.

Raw Feed (2002): The Drawing of the Dark, Tim Powers, 1979.Drawing of the Dark

This is the most humorous Powers’ novel I’ve read, a delightful placing of the Arthur myth into the 1529 Siege of Vienna. (Powers said in an interview that the book started out as part of a series placing King Arthur in various historic settings. However, the project was cancelled, and Powers used his notes to produce this novel.)

Like other historical fantasies I’ve read by Powers, The Anubis Gates and On Stranger Tides, Powers manages, at times, in his unornate prose, to create a sense of place and time.  Here, it was in the battle scenes outside of Vienna. (All of the Powers novels I’ve read are, in some sense, historical. The Fisher King trilogy may take place in modern times, but history and historical personages are important.)

I liked how the humorous book progressively got darker with Brian Duffy finding himself possessed (body switching and possession are archetypal Powers’ themes) by Arthur, a player in schemes not to his liking, manipulated by fate and Aurelianus/Merlin to be the champion of the West and the Fisher King. (Powers is a master at knowing when to be explicit and when to be, for maximum effect, strategically vague.  Aurelianus tells him that the battle for Vienna is the battle between East and West without telling us exactly what that means, what philosophies and moralities are at stake. Powers leaves that up to the reader’s imagination, perhaps informed by his reader’s cultural background.) Continue reading

On Pirates

The Tim Powers series continues with a little chapbook from William Ashbless, the shadowy figure who shows up in show many of Tim Powers’ and James Blaylock’s novels.

Raw Feed (2002): On Pirates, William Ashbless, 2001.On Pirates

Introduction“, Tim Powers — William Ashbless is the semi-legendary character originally created by Tim Powers and James Blaylock as a name for some parodies of modern poetry they submitted — and had accepted — to literary magazines. Since then the Romantic Poet Ashbless has shown up in several of Powers’ and Blaylock’s works (and others), most notably in Powers’ The Anubis Gates whose protagonist, Brendan Doyle, starts out as a would be biographer of Ashbless and, via time travel and bodyswitching, actually becomes Ashbless and writes the poet’s work from memory. Here Powers plays with the notion that Doyle aka Ashbless (and this is a supposition only a reader of The Anubis Gates would make) was somehow made immortal and really is the same Ashbless that is the ostensible friend of Powers and Blaylock in the twentieth century, an Ashbless who claims to not just share the name of the poet but be the Romantic Poet. Of course, Powers plays this straight and just mentions the latest disappearance and rumor of death of his friend Ashbless, scribbler and salt-and-pepper shaker collector. He doesn’t bring up the implicit suggestion that Ashbless here might be Ashbless of The Anubis Gates. Powers does describe Ashbless’ work as “crude . . . implausibly motivated, badly-rhymed, defective in craft”.

William Ashbless: A Clarification“, James P. Blaylock — The joke continues as Blaylock, friend of the vanished Ashbless, sets the record straight on Ashbless, who he thinks was too kindly treated by Tim Powers in his preceding “Introduction”. Blaylocks blasts Ashbless’ obvious plagiarism. Ashbless, claiming he’s the famous William Ashbless, claims Coleridge and Matthew Arnold stole from him. Also mentioned is Ashbless’ poverty and failure to repay loans, and the bribery attempts to get Ashbless’ poetry collection a Pulitzer. Blaylock starts his piece with several mingled clichés to good effect. Continue reading

Earthquake Weather

The Tim Powers series continues with the conclusion of his Fault Lines (so dubbed by publishers) trilogy.

Raw Feed (2002): Earthquake Weather, Tim Powers, 1997.Earthquake Weather

The conclusion of Powers’ Fisher King trilogy exhibits many of the same traits as the first two books — Last Call and Expiration Date. Like those books, it features Powers’ characteristic mélange of myth and secret history (though less compelling and resonant than the gambling of Last Call and the eccentric mixture of electricity and Thomas Edison and Harry Houdini that is Expiration Date:  the bloodthirsty fertility cult of Dionysus, secret cults of vintners, San Francisco history (including the Winchester house and a local voodoo doctor), a secret Zinfandel (and Powers uses a variant of the Holy Blood and Holy Grail theory by having the Merovingians and Dagobert be part of a long line of Dionysus worshippers), and the occult meanings of some of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Troilus and Cressida. (Though here Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities gets quoted a lot and, in a moment reminiscent of Powers’ friend Philip K. Dick, protagonist Scant Cochran remembers reading a different version of the novel.)

All of the surviving characters of Last Call and Expiration Date show up here, however briefly. Scott Crane, the protagonist of Last Call, seems different, more regal and distant but, then, he only shows up as a talking character at novel’s end since the whole plot of the novel involves resurrecting him after Plumtree kills him. (And, thus, Powers gives a slight hint as to how being a Fisher King has changed Crane.) Continue reading

Last Call

This is actually the first book in Tim Powers so-called Fault Lines trilogy. The next books in the trilogy are Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather.

An added reminder that Raw Feeds are full of spoilers.

Raw Feed (2002): Last Call, Tim Powers, 1992.Last Call

There are few obvious links between the novels. Neal Obstadt shows up in both books as sort of an occult underworld figure. In Expiration Date, he is a dealer and user of ghosts to inhale.  Here he is one of those hunting for protagonist Scott Crane.  The issue of ghosts does show up here with the creepy ghost of Susan Crane, Scott Crane’s dead wife who is not only a creepy ghost hanging around his house and later haunting him but also a representative of Death who tries to lure Scott into giving up and dying rather than struggling to reclaim his soul.

Another connection is not evident from reading the book but is mentioned in Earthquake Weather (which I’ve read approximately 70 pages of before writing this). The “Mexican” who gives Kootie a ride and five dollars in Expiration Date is none other than Archimedes Mavranos from Last Call (which takes place around Easter 1989 as to Expiration Date‘s setting of Halloween 1992).

Both books exhibit what seems to be Powers’ characteristic blend of history, science, literary allusion, and myth, all in the service of a secret history plot wedged into the interstices of historical fact. Here Powers’ blends the history and present of Las Vegas, chaos physics, Arthurian lore, the legend of the Fisher King, pagan myth, gambling, and Tarot lore to produce a compelling plot.  Continue reading

Expiration Date

The Tim Powers’ series continues. This is, incidentally, the second book in Powers’ Fault Lines trilogy, but you can read it first as I did.

Raw Feed (2002): Expiration Date, Tim Powers, 1996.Expiration Date

Powers’ specialty is creating a secret, fantastical, occult history from disparate elements, a process so cunningly done that, as one review blurb remarks, you conclude, at story’s end, “Of course.  Everything fits.  I can see that now.”

Here Powers plots his story in the interstices of (as near as I can tell without further research) historical facts about Harry Houdini and Thomas Alva Edison’s lives, the permanently docked Queen Mary, early motion picture history, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books (the ghosts love to quote the books, at least the older ones, and the quotes from the books that head each chapter line up with the plot) and the electrical “medical” devices of Wilshire (of Wilshire Boulevard fame). Powers also puts in some convincing details about electrical work, particularly that associated with movies, and his gun stuff was brief but accurate. And, of course, Powers, being a native of Los Angeles, convincingly presents the city. We also have a bit of Theosophy and early spiritualism.

I liked the idea of sucking up, for reasons of immortality and connoisseurship, the ghosts of dead people and a whole network of ghost junkies inhabiting Los Angeles, a city where many of the street people are ghosts who have sucked up garbage to give them a corporeal, if obsessive and simple-minded, existence.  I also liked Nicholas Bradshaw, the dead man, who, unlike almost all ghosts, has retained his mental faculties and is still attached to his old body and lives a rather pathetic existence in which he is denied sleep and dreams. Continue reading

On Stranger Tides

Since I brought up his The Anubis Gates recently, I’m going to do a series on Tim Powers.

I admit we’re not off to the most scintillating start with this one though I think you get some sense of the novel and its differences from the movie it lent it’s name to.

Raw Feed (1988): On Stranger Tides, Tim Powers, 1987.On Stranger Tides

A formula story — hero rescues beautiful maiden in peril — but told with verve, skill and wit. Powers characters are quirky (“I am not a dog!”) and realistic. The action was good, the locale excellent and a very original pirate story. Powers had a stroke of genius in combining a classic pirate story with very technical, almost scientific vodoo. The story avoided the trap of Jack Shandy becoming a master at vodoo just a master of it. His progression in a career of piracy was well done. Liked the Davies character and his relationship with Shandy. Fantasy was clear, crisp and fast moving. Liked multi-levels of story as Shandy, ex-puppeteer, stops being a puppet himself and again becomes a master of events. Powers has a flair for action that doesn’t sacrifice humor (of a dry, ironical sort — infinitely preferable to wise-cracking heroes). I liked his use of real characters like Blackbeard (wonderfully transformed into an ambitious dark sorcerer) and especially Juan Ponce de Leon who gives our hero some handy advice.


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The steampunk series continues because I can’t seem to get to writing any new stuff lately.

Raw Feed (2002): Homunculus, James P. Blaylock, 1986.Homunculus

I can see, after reading this book, why Tim Powers says many of the funny bits of his books are just notes from his talks with his friend Blaylock.

Blaylock is funny. He gives many of his characters endearing quirks. Captain Powers, no doubt named for Tim Powers who, in his The Anubis Gates, had a ship named the Blaylock, has a fondness for objects which double as flasks, including his peg leg. His friend William Keeble, a toymaker, despises the Utilitarian notions of philosopher Jeremy Benthem, in marked contrast to evil industrialist Drake, symbol of rapacious practicality. Langdon St. Ives is a brilliant scientist with a rocket ship in his silo. However, he can’t get into the Royal Academy of Sciences and likes the whimsy of poetry over the stiff requirements of science. Hasbro is his unflappable, practical gentleman’s gentleman. Bill Kraken is a lowborn man of a criminal past who now helps the Trismegistus Club, and he is sort of self-educated though his readings in science and philosophy, including a work by William Ashbless which stops a bullet from killing him, has left him with some strange notions. Willis Pule is a hapless, acne plagued villain who harbors constant fantasies of revenge and destruction against those who offend his dignity though none of his plans come out right. Hunchback Ignacio Narbondo is his boss. Shiloh the New Messiah is the putative son of Joanna Southcote, a real religious figure of the late 18th and early 19th century who, when she died, claimed she was pregnant with Shiloh who would rule nations with a rod of iron. (The modern Panacea Society, according to the Fortean Times, continues her teachings.)

I liked some of the plot elements of this novel: stealing carps from a public aquarium to use their glands in immortality and reanimation experiments; reanimating the dead and using them as followers for Shiloh, the attempted reanimation of Joanna Southcote’s skeleton, feeding the resurrected dead with literal blood pudding, Maxwell’s Demon turning out not to be an analogy but a literal being — in this case the stranded alien homunculus. Continue reading

The Anubis Gates

For no particular reason, I’m going to do a series on steampunk starting with some Raw Feeds on proto-steampunk, works written before Tim Powers’  friend K. W. Jeter jokingly created the very term “steampunk”.

Raw Feed (2002): The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers, 1983.Anubis Gates

This was an elaborate, intricate, action-packed mélange of Byron and Coleridge’s poetry, secret societies in Jacobean and Georgian London, time travel, lycanthropy, transvestism (the typical young girl disguised as a boy though, here, engaged in the atypical quest for vengeance for her dead boyfriend, killed by a werewolf), Egyptian mythology, literary studies, beggars, and gypsies.

From what I’ve read, this is the second of Powers’ secret histories (the first being The Drawing of the Dark) where he mixes history — cultural and political — with mythology to reveal the real story and motives behind famous events. The opening epigraphs of some chapters show this: a letter from Byron, where he remarks about how some thought they saw him in London when he was, in fact, in Greece; another epigraph has mention of the Italian physician, here the Egyptian sorcerer Romanelli, who talked the Pashah into massacring the Mamelukes — an event our hero Brendan Doyle aka William Ashbless barely escapes in his Mameluke disguise.

Standard Powers’ elements show up: magic described in physics terms, particularly in electromagnetic terms since the Anateus Brotherhood ground their boots to negate Romany and Fife’s spells; bodyswitching — a lot of bodyswitching here with Fife in his Dog-Face Joe incarnation forcing a lot of personalities to be evicted from their body; criminal undergrounds engaged in occult pursuits much like the hideous Horrabin clown here who mutilates people in his underground caverns; beggars; imbecilic immortals, and maiming. He uses a thriller format with scenes using not only his protagonist as a point of view character but also scenes built around his villains and minor characters. He often describes a startling or strange scene and then backtracks to give the setup for it. Humor shows up frequently, particularly, here, the ghastly dialogues with Horriban’s Mistakes in the basement of the Rat’s Castle. Continue reading

Alif the Unseen

Little time today for reading or blogging today, so you get another retro review. This one from June 21, 2012. (This review does come with spoilers.)

I will snarkily add two things.

How did that whole “Arab Spring” work out?

And at least Wilson’s political fantasies didn’t get anyone killed.

Review: Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson, 2012.Alif the Unseen

Do not doubt this is a fantasy novel however much its marketing blurs that genre identity with talk of it being a metaphysical thriller, full of religious mystery, and a hacker adventure. It is those things and more.

Do not think that you will get an easy lesson in the realities of the “Arab Spring” though Wilson has some things to say about that.

There’s nothing wrong with being a genre fantasy novel – and an enjoyable one for about two-thirds of it.

But Wilson also wants this to be something else, a platform for some serious observations on Islam and freedom. It is not an unthinking novel. But it is a fantasy, I maintain, of hope over reality and experience. I suspect Wilson might agree with that but values that hope more than me.

For those looking for Arab tinged fantasy and science fiction, I think you will find it here. The metaphorical correlations between jinn legend, Islamic theology, and information theory as manifested in computer coding does, indeed, remind one of Neal Stephenson. The jinns are the most interesting characters here, particularly one Vikram the Vampire, a fearsome, cunning, sometimes noble member of the race that aids Alif. And Wilson doesn’t make you wait for them either. They and the Alif Yeom, a mystical book of the stories jinns tell about themselves, are introduced in the first chapter. The book this most strongly reminded me of, though it came from a different religious perspective, was Tim Powers’ Declare. Both take their religious contexts seriously and weave esoteric bits of legend into their stories. Continue reading

The Bible Repairman

I read this Tim Powers’ story in a chapbook edition which is now something of an expensive collector’s item.

You can get it cheaply now as part of The Bible Repairman and Other Stories.

I suppose I should add that, absent the annoying Amazon star system, I’m recommending this one.

Review: The Bible Repairman, Tim Powers, 2005.Bible Repairman

In California, a secret magical underground exists. Souls of the dead haunt electronic equipment. Bibles are cleansed of offending verses, and the blood of murderers stills the whispers of the dead.

But, as always in Powers, magic comes at a price. Wizard Torrez, the bible repairman, has a soul tainted by murder, a dead child, a broken marriage, and an intellect leaking away. And a new client wants to take away what little he has left.

While taking place in a world reminiscent of his novel Expiration Date, there is no secret history here, no grand conspiracies — just a subtle tale of loss, sin, and sacrifice.


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