Drawing of the Dark is an odd story; mixing Powers' acknowledged mastery of the idea of the secret history, the strange and occult reason for events of history that are otherwise hard to explain or simply look like they could be re-explained, with a Merlin-style mythology that also underlies Jeter's novel Morlock Night, published in the same year as Drawing of the Dark.

Powers' characters in Drawing of the Dark are a slightly mixed bunch; whilst Brian Duffy is a damaged, old soldier with regrets and a lifetime behind him, and a well-written, interesting, and wonderfully world-weary character, Aurelianus (among most of the rest, including Bluto the artillerist, Werner, and so on) are thin, basic characters who are far too obvious; although Aurelianus does receive some character development and background, it's not well executed and suffers for it.  Duffy, however, is the story's main character and this does allow it to progress without being too hindered by poor characterisation.

The Drawing of the Dark has a better plot than its characterisation; revolving around the siege of Vienna as a clash of civilisations and positing it as a battle between East and West on a mystical level obscured by the military events, it's an interesting, fun and well-explored idea that brings together a lot of mythology, tradition and ideas in a rather weird way, albeit perhaps at times too obvious (it doesn't really ever bother with subtlety); the dark is, admittedly, a nicely concealed touch revealed about two thirds of the way through the novel to be something far more prosaic than the first thought would imply, and the story rolls along nicely and with a certain inevitability about it to the only end possible.

All in all, this isn't quite up to the standard I have come to expect of Powers' work, but The Drawing of the Dark is enjoyable, fun, and at times serious, with a decent plot bolstering weak characterisation effectively. I wouldn't recommend it for most fans of Powers' work, but it's not all bad.
Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides is both a historical novel, and the basis of a Disney film - an odd combination, to be sure, but one that the author of Declare and Last Call cannot have expected to long avoid with a novel that, first published in 1988, so beautifully channelled the spirit of an increasingly drawn out film saga started in 2003.

As with all Powers' novels, the characters are brilliant.  Jack Shandy, the character we largely follow and our reluctant hero, is a brilliant figure in his own right, a pirate press-ganged into it for heroic actions, who mingles honour and illegality, whose sense of duty and right and wrong are challenged throughout the novel increasingly as he's forced into positions and actions that make his old codes impossible to follow.  Shandy is also a driven man, who as motivations that are, whilst understandable, hardly good; and these traits combine with a clearly portrayed personality to form an interesting, emotionally engaging figure.  Philip Davies is similarly a conflicted character, at one and the same time an honourable man and a pirate, protecting those who he feels deserve it and showing mercy where it's earned but also ruthless.  The other characters - including a brilliant, not evil but yet terrifying Ed Thatch (or Blackbeard) - are drawn with a deft, cunning hand, all with understandable motivations and dark sides to their characters.

The plot, incorporating vodun, the loas, the Fountain of Youth and the end of the Age of Piracy is a brilliant one.  Mixing historical fact with Powers' fantasy, the conflicting motivations and plans of the characters, without any one clearly good - and only one clearly evil - characters, creates a brilliant mixture of elements that come together into a plot that twists and turns, combining the swagger of the pirate with the deadly action at sea and the dark horror of magic (something Powers introduces slowly, and beautifully).  Powers' command of the different strands of the plot is wonderful, and the eventual ending - tidy as it is, but not overly so - is handled with such a brilliant hand that even the most demanding reader will walk away satisfied.

Powers' novel is a perfect mix of action, magic and plot, with a writing style that never lets the reader go and keeps one turning pages to the end, holding one's breath to see how it all falls out.  If Disney manage to adapt this faithfully, a flagging franchise will be powerfully revitalised; otherwise, a fantastic book will have been wasted.  On Stranger Tides should be read by every fan of Pirates of the Caribbean, to see what those films could have been.
Tim Powers' Declare seems to be a combination of John Le Carré's typical spy fiction and Charles Stross' Laundry novels by way of the Bible.  Powers' novel is of the Cold War - though it extends, in terms of its history, rather prior to the Russian Revolution; and it involves a Kiplingesque element (directly with the character of Kim Philby and indirectly through references to Kim).

Powers' characters are really quite strong; Hale, Elena, Philby and the background characters are all excellently portrayed individuals - Elena's conflicted loyalties and her history with both men providing an interesting, if possibly misogynistic, counterpoint to the relative simplicity of the motivations (albeit not doubts, thoughts, and characters) of Hale and Philby.  The set of characters is taken from Le Carré and Fleming, and the fact that they are so very imbued with those traditions and that manner of fiction works well within the context of the novel, with its jumping timescale and the gradual building-up of those personalities; as we move backwards and forwards within each character's personal chronology we see how they got to the positions they are in in the novel.

The plot is not fast-paced, but measured; it moves along with a deliberate tread to its ultimate, damning conclusion, which - in the end - is very twisty-turny.  As a whole it involves plots, counter-plots, plots within plots, right-wing anti-Labour bias, brilliant writing and a view of espionage and the supernatural that are very interesting; the ideas Powers involves in his plot and worldview are fascinating, but nothing next to the interpersonal relationships and conflicts that really drive the novel, with the histories of each character being so entwined in such dark, even horrific, ways that there's no simple solution to the whole affair.  That it comes as it does to a relatively neat climax is well-done, and indeed, interesting in its scope.

The worldbuilding in this is also incredible.  The deep research into history done by Powers - this story could, he says in the afterword, have actually happened, given the movements of some of its key players - and into mythology shows through with a detailed, though not scholarly in tone, use of the events of the time; indeed, there are moments of infodump worked cleverly and well into the story (briefings and debriefings - real-life infodumps!) that do give the reader important information that really couldn't be conveyed in any other way.  That so much thought has gone into this is fascinating, and the elements of the supernatural - a sort of combination of Christianity and folklore - are so well-done that they're almost real to the reader.

Declare, then, is an excellent read, and an incredible spy thriller; Powers once more has proven that the genre community has so much to offer people of every taste.


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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