The Anubis GatesAce Science Fiction, TPB, © 1983, 387 pp, ISBN #0-441-00401-6
Reviewed October 1998
Read the back cover of The Anubis Gates and you'll think Powers has written an "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" novel, a book with so many disparate elements it couldn't possibly hang together. Instead, what you've really got is an exquisitely tightly-plotted modern fantasy novel in which every element relates to every other element and all makes sense at the end.
The basic thrust of the story is this: A pair of near-immortal sorcerers, who worship the Egyptian god Anubis, want to bring their god's influence to the fore once more. The powers of magic are dwindling over time, being replaced by science and reason, so in 1802 they cast one great spell to try to bring back the Egyptian gods. It doesn't work, but what it does do is opens holes in time for three hundred years on either side of 1802, through which people can travel.
In 1983, this is just what an aging millionaire does: He assembles a group of people to go back in time to see Samuel Taylor Coleridge speak in London in 1810, including Professor Brendan Doyle, who gives a brief lecture on Coleridge before accompanying the group back in time. Alas for Doyle, before he can return, he's kidnapped by one of the sorcerers and is stranded in 1810.
Doyle manages to escape, but is penniless and alone in 1810 London. There he encounters a criminal mastermind dressed as a stilt-walking clown; Dog-Face Joe, who can change bodies with other people; a plague of hairy apes appearing around London; a brainwashed Lord Byron; his own handwriting in a book from 1684; and the enigma of poet William Ashbless, whom Doyle knows more about than almost anyone, but whose biography appears fictional when he fails to appear in his documented locations. Meanwhile he's being pursued by the Egyptians (among others), and trying to stay alive and healthy while searching for a way back to his own time.
The Anubis Gates is obviously a "counter-history" novel occurring within the gaps of what we know occurred. Powers plays with the details of some established history by using his fantastic devices to make things turn out to be something other than what they appear. All is eventually revealed, but with new elements thrown in every few chapters to keep the reader (and characters) on his toes.
Yes, it's basically a terrific adventure story, a good-vs-evil struggle, but it's so well-told and carefully crafted that it's a joy to read. Doyle is not the prototypical hero, and he flails about in his situation as much as any of us might, and he and his comrades are endearing people you come to root for. And the magic is kept to a minimum and (save for one or two moments) is restrained and obeys some fairly clear rules.
I am not, as a rule, much of a fan of fantasy, but this is a neat book rooted more in history than in traditional fantasy. And (as I learned in early 2003) it's an even better re-read, since knowing things the characters don't lends the story a portentousness you don't have the first time through. It's one of my favorite novels.
Dinner at Deviant's PalaceAce Science Fiction, PB, © 1985, 294 pp, ISBN #0-441-14879-4
Reviewed June 2003
An unusual novel for Powers in that it occurs in the future. Some time (perhaps centuries) after what was apparently a nuclear war, the city of Ellay is a rare bastion of civilization along the American west coast. Gregorio Rivas is a "pelican" player, one of the most popular minstrels in the city. Rivas has a checkered past: Once the beloved of Urania Barrows, daughter of a powerful magnate, he was turned away by her father, at which point he joined the Jaybush cult, which indoctrinates its recruits mercilessly. Able to escape from the cult, Rivas for a time became a redeemer, rescuing a few Jaybush captives for pay, before settling down into his current profession.
Rivas' life changes when Irwin Barrows visits a performance to tell Rivas that Urania's been captured by the "birdy" cult, and Rivas embarks on one last redemption mission. Naturally, it all goes wrong in short order (or there wouldn't be a story) and Rivas - still in love with Urania after over a decade - is forced on a path into the heart of the Jaybush cult's power base to learn their innermost secrets. Along the way he befriends a Jaybird recruit, accidentally creates a doppleganger of himself, and revisits various pieces of his past.
Dinner at Deviant's Palace is a fairly straightforward quest novel, with Rivas undergoing a difficult rite of passage. Much as in The Anubis Gates, the story starts slowly, with various pieces being thrown out during the first half, and finally starting to resolve themselves into a clear picture in the middle. However, the essential ideas of Dinner are much less surprising or dramatic than in Anubis.
The biggest problem with Dinner is that there's little emotional grounding in the story. Rivas' love for Urania is abstract at best, since she's hardly a character in the book. It's hard to understand why he keeps soldiering on, and Powers doesn't effectively make us feel Rivas' motivation. Likewise, the motivations behind the Jaybush cult, although they make sense, feel pretty pedestrian.
The book lives and dies by the character Rivas, and ultimately he's just not a terribly compelling character, and his world is not hugely original. The end result is a pretty good adventure yarn, but ultimately a disappointing story.
Last CallAce Science Fiction, PB, © 1992, 535 pp, ISBN #0-380-71557-0
Reviewed June 2003
In the 1940s, a small-time hood named Georges Leon hit the big time by overthrowing the Fisher King in the west - Ben "Bugsy" Siegel - and ascending to his throne in Las Vegas. This position carried with it great mystical power and the material benefits gained therefrom. However, his plans to extend his power through his sons was cut short in 1948 when his wife shot him in the groin and managed to send his younger son, Scott, away.
21 years later, Scott Crane is a proficient poker player, but one night - against his foster father Ozzie's advice - he plays a game called Assumption on a yacht owned by a man named Ricky Leroy and played with tarot cards. Scott wins a game, but in doing so wills his soul to Leroy 20 years down the line, and as a result Ozzie leaves him with his foster sister Diana.
Another 20 years pass and Scott's wife has died. He's drinking irrepressibly, and his friend Arky Mavranos can't help. Arky himself is dying of cancer and used the guidance of pure luck to find Crane, who he thinks might be able to somehow help him beat the odds. But when Scott resumes his poker career he learns that he's one fish in a pond of fish who are both hooked by the game of Assumption, and themselves trying to ascend to the throne of the Fisher King. The resulting danger sends him, Arky, Ozzie and Diana into Las Vegas to play a very high-stakes game against some mysterious and powerful (and more than a little bit insane) individuals.
With Last Call Tim Powers presents a tale no less complicated than The Anubis Gates, but works more with themes and meanings than with straight plot. Some of it I know comes from legends and stories with which I have only a passing familiarity (the Fisher King, for instance), but it's still a great read. It's even the first of a trilogy, but stands well enough on its own (albeit with a somewhat rushed-feeling ending).
At its core are individuals each trying to fight a battle that seems lost: Scott having sold his body to Ricky Leroy, Arky and his cancer, Ozzie trying to do right by his foster son after abandoning him 20 years earlier, and Diana trying to find her own place in a puzzle that seems not to have space for her, even as she tries to protect her children.
While the "solutions" to all of these matters involve magic, Powers drapes the magic in the structure of games of chance and the mystique of Las Vegas: Cards can describe who a person is, the structure of a game can affect the lives of the people playing it, you can buy and sell luck at a game, and so forth. And Scott having been hooked by the game of Assumption in 1969, playing cards or drinking alcohol push him closer to the edge of becoming fully the property of Leroy. Although Powers sometimes plays a little loose with the established rules (some of the phenomena Diana encounters are little more than the intervention of gods, and she's either going to make it through or she isn't), by and large he keeps close to the path and delivers a satisfying and clever solution to the book's dilemmas.
Thematically, Last Call is about responsibility to one's friends: Scott's responsibility to resist temptations so he can help himself and his family. Ozzie's responsibility as a parent. Diana's responsibility to not just her children but to Ozzie and Scott. Arky's responsibility to his friends, having come with them as far as he has. Each of them has at least one moment of ultimate temptation, and several of them suffer losses along the way. The book is at its best in portraying the abject despair each of them faces at times - particularly Scott - and how they don't give in and work their way to a better place.
It's also packed with clever ideas, such as the Assumption game, the powers Ricky Leroy has at his disposal, and the line of succession in Las Vegas since its founding. And it's populated with some truly off-the-wall characters whose quirks serve to make them more than hired guns or faceless heavies.
Overall, I don't find it as successful a book as The Anubis Gates, largely because of the rushed feel to the ending, but it's still an engaging romp and one of the better fantasy novels out there.
Expiration DateTor, HC, © 1996, 381 pp, ISBN #0-312-86086-2
Reviewed October 2003
The premise of Expiration Date is that the death of an individual (and, sometimes, other traumatic events) cause the person to throw off a "ghost" image of themselves. Perhaps not really their soul, a ghost is nonetheless representative of their personality at the time, and can "live" on independently. But, ghosts often lack drive, and begin to break down and become nonpersons over time. They might accrete some physical substance - perhaps becoming a grubby street person - and eventually fall apart.
On the other hand, they might be "inhaled" by a living person who eats ghosts for the lift that the ghost gives them, and perhaps also the ghost's memories.
Koot Hoomie Parganas ("Kootie") is a young man kept apart from the world by his parents, who want him to grow up to become a great mystic. Kootie hates his life and runs away, but first he shatters the imposing bust of Dante on his parents' mantle and steals the vial inside. It turns out that the vial contains the ghost of Thomas Edison, dormant for some 60 years, which sets off a red alert for all the ghost-eaters in the Los Angeles area. One such man converges on Kootie's home and kills his parents, sending Kootie on his own as he tries to escape, with only Edison's cantankerous ghost as an ally.
Meanwhile, Pete Sullivan is an electrician who used to work - with his twin sister - for documentary directory Loretta DeLarava. Exiled from LA for years, he returns when his sister calls to warn him that DeLarava has found them and then apparently commits suicide. Similarly, psychiatrist Angelica Anthem Elizalde returns to LA to try to make up for the lives ruined when a seance she's conducted years ago went wrong.
All tied up in a web of pursuit and secrets, our heroes gradually converge on each other even as they try to escape from their pursuers.
Although the premise is tantalizing, the narrative doesn't fully succeed, and Expiration Date is not among Powers' best novels. The interplay between Kootie and Edison is often entertaining and his plight is desperate, as is that of Pete, but Angelica's story feels tacked on and non-essential, and she's not a very sympathetic character.
It's really the lack of resolution which kills the book, though. While the reader is on the edge of his seat wondering if our heroes will manage to get out of their predicament, simply surviving doesn't feel like enough, since all of them are in a place where they don't really have a future even if they make it through the week. And it's not clear where they're going after the book ends, unlike, say, Last Call where the hero's successful saga puts him in a clear-cut position for his future.
And while the nature of the ghosts is interesting, Powers doesn't really take the premise to another level. The identities of the ghost-eaters remain fairly mundane, and the reason they eat ghosts is left fairly nebulous (as if it's just a peculiar designer drug). The ghosts themselves don't evidence any fancy properties beyond what we learn fairly early on. I kept hoping for another layer of the onion to be peeled back, but it wasn't to be.
Even as a meditation on the nature of existence and death, Expiration Date doesn't have a whole lot to offer. While there are some themes of family and helping your fellow, in the end the book is basically just a lively adventure story, and, ultimately, something of a disappointment.
DeclareWilliam Morrow, HC, © 2001, 512 pp, ISBN #0-380-97652-8
Reviewed December 2004
After reading Charles Stross' novel The Atrocity Archives, I moved Declare to the top of my to-read stack, as Stross notes in the afterward to his book that the two are similar in many ways. The two are substantially similar, in that both deal with espionage agencies grappling with supernatural phenomena, and both are rewarding books.
Declare is built around the life of Kim Philby, a British agent who doubled as an agent for the Soviet Union from the 1940s through the early 1960s. The novel's protagonist, though, is the fictional Andrew Hale, who is portrayed as Philby's opposite number: Hale is recruited to service of the crown at age 7 and is fanatically loyal to England - it's his defining characteristic. The story is told elliptically, as Hale is summoned by the man who recruited him - James Theodora - in 1963 to help finish Project Declare, which has been in the works for decades and has involved individuals such as TE Lawrence (of Arabia). As he's given his mission and departs for the Middle East undercover, Hale recalls the key moments in his life.
First is his initial foray as an agent, at age 20 in 1941, to occupied France. There he infiltrates a Soviet cell spying on the Nazis, and is paired with the equally young Elena, a Spaniard who has fully committed to the Communist ideal. The two fall in love during their three months there, and Hale has his first experience with supernatural forces. Back in England, he has an unpleasant encounter with Philby - who is unaware that Hale is a spy - and is then set to several years of obscure research by Theodora.
In 1945, Hale is sent to occupied Berlin, in the process of being partitioned by east and west, to observe the initial stages of laying the Berlin Wall. He encounters Elena and Philby there again, and learns about the forces against which Declare is set. Then, in 1948, Hale leads the mission which is supposed to finish Declare's purpose, as he takes a highly-trained team by Mount Ararat in Turkey to intercept a Soviet team also scaling the mountain. It ends disastrously (as stated in the prologue, although without details), Hale is the only one of his team to escape, and he returns to England to apparently retire to the countryside, until summoned again by Theodora in 1963.
Like The Atrocity Archives, Declare is mainly a spy novel, with fantastic overtones. The writing is low-key, with much attention paid to the nuts and bolts of agent-running: Code phrases, gestures, hidden agendas, reading the opposition (and, for that matter, the friendlies), getting in and getting out and hopefully staying alive. The supernatural elements are, in some ways, peripheral to the story. They serve as the mcguffin for Hale, but only in the general sense that He Has A Job To Do (one that's older than he is). There is a kicker to the plan which ties Hale, Mount Ararat, the Soviet Union and Philby together which certainly wouldn't work without the supernatural and which is pretty clever, though.
The book's pace is what I have the biggest problem with. The spy elements are interesting, but not in quite this much detail, and at several points I wished the book would get on with it. Which it eventually does, but the premise didn't to me feel like it really justified the length (it's a long 512 pages). Fortunately, Hale and Philby are engaging characters and kept me reading.
The Hale/Elena romance is also something of a side-issue. Elena is a mercurial individual (not surprising given what she goes through), and Hale is too preoccupied with his life's work for his feelings for her to truly shine through. Only in the final 40 or so pages does this part really come to the forefront.
As Stross notes in Atrocity, Declare is mostly about trying to get out and put your past commitments behind you - a tough job when they refuse to let you go even when you've discharged them. So the reader feels for Hale since he was recruited to the cause really against his will, and this is clear even though Hale is fully committed to the cause. It's an unusual dynamic, and of course eventually one (or both) sides have to give. This gives the story an ongoing feeling of melancholy, realizing that Hale is missing out on his life because he has to put it on hold - for years - for his cause. When does duty ask you to sacrifice too much?
Despite some tantalizing fantasy moments, Declare is likely to disappoint those who approach it expecting Powers has written another imaginative urban fantasy, because it's really more of an espionage novel. It's a pretty good one, though.
hits since 13 August 2000.
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