August 29th, 2006

belzoni

Seven Days After Finally

So I loved Ropecon. Loved it, loved it. Wouldn't have missed it for worlds.

And yet, as though to bolster my innate sense that They have it in for me, going to Finland did mean missing not only three days (at least) of John Tynes but the delivery date of my pre-ordered copy of Three Days to Never. That, for those who somehow missed out, is Tim Powers' new novel. The agony of New Powers Novel I Haven't Read was at times palpable.

But when I got back last week I scampered down to the mailbox, and wrenched it from the hands of Not Me, and read it in two nights.

The basic story: During the Harmonic Convergence, Frank Marrity's grandmother dies. She, it turns out, was Einstein's illegitimate daughter, and had access to his other discoveries, involving the kabbalah and time-travel. Now both the sorcerous op team within Mossad (who very much recall the sorcerous op team in MI-6 in Declare) and the American agents of a vaguely Gnostic secret society (who seem more like Powers' villains from the Last Call cycle) are after those discoveries, and hence, after Frank and his twelve-year-old daughter Daphne. Increasingly occult hijinks ensue.

Now, there's a lot of good stuff in here. Oren Lepidopt's curse is one of the most haunting and astonishing consequences of "stepping off the sidewalk" in all of Powers' fiction. The sense of vast alien forces, so well conveyed in Declare and Stress of Her Regard, is here in precisely right amounts. The Shakespeare influence in this case is from The Tempest, which I think is my second favorite of the plays. I love, and will always love, the way Powers writes his villains -- they're often flawed, with blind spots and short tempers when things inevitably Go Wrong -- and he writes a good one here in Rascasse. Charlotte, the blind remote viewer, is even better, at least at first, when her distance from humanity is being stressed. And who doesn't love a mystical back-story involving Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein?

But said mystical back-story is conveyed in a seance that might as well have been an invocation of the loa St.-Exposition. Charlotte goes through a screeching personality change that makes Nardie Dinh in Last Call look positively serene. And the whole book -- with the exception of Lepidopt's curse, and the general high-concept brilliance of the plot itself -- has been done better, specifically by Tim Powers. Powers' books often scintillate by hinting at another world of stories just over the horizon, but the main action is (usually) what compels you. In this book, I found myself wanting to read the Powers book about Lepidopt's unit in the Six-Day War, or the Powers book about Charlie Chaplin's attempts at magic, rather than this relatively conventional thriller. Perhaps the book it's closest to is Expiration Date, which likewise concerned a pre-adolescent protagonist caught up in a shadowy occult underground backstopped by (perhaps more interesting) high historical weirdness. And like Expiration Date, my first reading found me, perhaps unfairly, disappointed.

Admittedly, both Expiration Date and Three Days to Never followed absolute masterpieces -- Last Call and Declare, specifically. There's going to be a letdown -- I'm sure that fans going to see Romeo and Juliet in 1595 found it likewise disappointingly conventional, coming as it did right after A Midsummer Night's Dream. And also, upon re-reading Expiration Date, I found much, much more there than I had at first, which makes unfair comparisons to this book particularly unfair. So take my ambivalence in this case cum salus granis, or words to that effect.

And even Okay Powers is vastly better than almost anyone else. Buy this book, read it, enjoy it, mine it for games. Just don't feel bad about going to Finland first.