All about Tim Powers

I've been on a Tim Powers bend this month. He’s one of my favorite sf writers, yet I rarely hear about him. So let’s go over what you may have been missing.

Powers has a little sub-genre of his own: his books are about magic intruding into the real world, with a large side dollop of horror. Some all too ordinary people have to learn about it and confront it. Plus, there's a meticulously researched period angle. Powers fits in historical figures, but gives their actions a new, eerie context.

Things you notice after reading several of his books in a row: Powers is very hard on his heroes. They are not, as he says in an interview, the sort of people that dash through a field of bullets without a scratch. He's also really good at villains. They may be malign, but they have understandable motivations and plans— as well as frailties; their plans never go as they want.

His plots tend to be thick and convoluted, as the heroes slowly figure things out, and the parties blunder into each other; both protagonists and villains see their schemes partly fail and have to be revised. As a result, once I get to about page 200, it’s hard to stop for things like sleeping.

I’m surprised none of these books have been made into movies or TV. It’d be hard and probably awful to whittle them down to two hours, but they’d make a great miniseries.

Some of his books:

The Anubis Gates (1983)

This is the best of the lot, and the best time travel book ever. In Justin Rye’s terms— this is technically a spoiler— the book follows strict Type One (deterministic) chronophysics. That is, the timeline is immutable, and part of the pleasure of the plot is seeing just how things click into place.

The engine of the book is a failed magic spell. In England in 1802, a sorceror casts a spell which is intended to invite possession by Anubis and open a gate to the Egyptian Underworld from a time when the old gods and the old magic were strong. The sorceror works for an even more ancient and evil sorcerer, confined to Egypt because, for him, gravity doesn’t work. One of the penalties for using magic, you see, is that you renounce the soil and it renounces you. The Master hopes to destroy Britain by unleashing the old gods— but the spell doesn’t work. No gods appear. But it does something; it creates a series of time gates scattered over the centuries and over all of England.

A rich guy named Darrow discovers the gates in the 1980s, and arranges a nice scheme. He sells ten tickets for a million bucks a head to listen to a lecture given by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1810. For added cachet, he hires a Coleridge expert to give a short talk beforehand. This is our hero, Brendan Doyle. He gives the talk, the party attends the lecture— and Doyle is kidnaped by one of the sorcerors, who noticed the intrusion. The time gate closes and Doyle is trapped in 1810.

The usual time travel story is a power fantasy where the 20th century man quickly leverages his replendent technical knowledge into wealth and influence. This novel nicely deconstructs that: Doyle has no resources or saleable skills, and within a week he’s reduced to begging in the slums. Plus he’s caught pneumonia or something.

He does make a useful ally— Jacky, a young man who’s also a beggar, and who’s far better at it. This is however only a front: Jacky is actually a young woman, who’s living in the slums looking for revenge. Her fiancé was killed by Dog-Face Joe, a creature who can switch bodies— and who leaves his victims full of hair, unable to talk, and near death. Though this adds another sort of magic to the mix, it’s not gratuitous— Joe was created in the same dark ritual that made the time gates. Plus, Darrow has some dark plans that require finding Joe.

Did I mention the evil clown? There’s also an evil clown.

Why does it all work? Some combination of these things:

About the only complaint I have is the sparsity of female characters. Jacky is great, but she’s nearly alone. Fortunately Powers seemed to realize this, and made up for it in other books.

Last Call (1992)

Here the magic is focused on card-playing. Playing cards come from Tarot decks, and the conceit of the books is that both sets (but especially the Tarot) are conduits for the supernatural. Plus there’s a human King and Queen, linked to both Tarot and the Fisher King mythos. The present-day King was, of all people, the mobster Bugsy Siegel, who built the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in 1946— the first of the big hotels/entertainment venues associated with the city. (At the time it was four miles from downtown, but it’s now in the middle of the Strip.)

Siegel was murdered in 1947 by an unknown assailant. In the book, this assailant is Georges Leon, a minor criminal and card shark, who thus becomes the Fisher King. He has a son, Scott, who lost an eye in an Tarot accident, as one does. His wife fled with the boy; she died, but got him safely out of Leon's orbit. He was raised by another card player, but a righteous one, Ozzie Crane.

We’re not quite finished with the setup. As a young stud, Scott Crane gets into a strange poker game with unusual rules, on a houseboat on Lake Mead, run by Georges Leon. You know how sometimes in the middle of a card game, the smoke from everyone’s cigarettes rises unnaturally over the center of the table, and drinks don’t sit level in their glasses? No? Well, when that happens magic is in the air and the wise player will quit the table. Scott doesn’t, and the upshot is that Leon owns him.

What that means soon becomes clear. Leon runs these houseboat games once every 20 years, in order to harvest a new crop of bodies. As soon as the next game is held, he harvests the last crop: the previous souls are ejected and he takes over their bodies, and their lives. As a side project, he has taken over Scott’s brother Richard, and was trying to take over Scott during the ill-fated Tarot session.

So in 1989, when the main story is set, Leon has half a dozen bodies. (The original is still around, but it’s in pretty bad shape and he prefers not to use it.) And he’s about to hold a new series of games, and claim the last crop of bodies— which includes Scott.

It’s not quite the spellbinder Anubis Gates was, maybe because it’s lost the determinism-vs-surprise element, perhaps because it’s mostly present-day, where the battle is fought more with guns than with magic. But it’s compelling enough, and while you’re reading it’s easy to buy into the cards-as-magic thing. (Maybe because the stresses and emotions and compulsions of gambling fit so well with magic.)

There are more female characters this time, including Scott’s sister Diana, and another girl who’s a claimant to the Queendom. For that matter, one of Leon’s stable of bodies is a woman.

Medusa's Web (2015)

This is the only one of these three I haven’t read before. It shows that Powers is still doing his thing, and still a little obsessed with body-swapping.

By this time, perhaps, he’s run out of obvious things to make magical. So he’s invented something called spiders. These are drawings on paper (made of eight radiating lines) that cause you to enter a sort of trance. The biggie, though, is that you then share the experiences of anyone who’s looked at the same spider.

This is hard to grasp without diagrams, so let’s just look at an instance in the first chapter. One Tuesday evening, Ariel and Claimayne, cousins who live together in a creepy old mansion, are greeting Scott and Madeline, their other cousins who are to stay there for a week. Ariel doesn’t like the newcomers, and as they arrive views a spider, apparently as a way to glimpse the future. Her future (Friday) self immediately takes over, and she is (to the others’ surprise) friendly and welcoming. The spider-switch ends, and Tuesday’s Ariel is back to herself. She doesn’t know that Friday Ariel was friendly and is put out to learn it.

Later in the book— on Friday— we see the other side of the exchange: Ariel looks at the spider again, and for a minute is ‘replaced’ by the far more unfriendly Tuesday Ariel.

You could use this in interesting ways, especially if you let far more time elapse. More intriguingly, you can share someone else’s experience. For many people, this is incredibly addictive— though the viewing takes a psychic and eventually a physical toll.

That’s the basic setup, though I’m leaving a lot out. The cast of characters is smaller here, and no one’s trying to overthrow a country or even become the Fisher King. On the other hand, the story is more sophisticated at the human level— e.g., it’s not at all clear, for the first half of the book, who the Big Bad is.

There is, once again, history thrown in: this time, the early screen era. Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova make appearances. They turn out to know a lot about spiders.

It’s a fun read, but I think it suffers a little due to the outlandishness of the central conceit. Now, it’s not like it’s more likely that magic inheres in playing cards than in drawings resembling spiders, but something suffers when it’s not even something we know from the world. Still, everything is built up from this organically: a subculture of addicts, some of which have self-help groups on the dark web; a plot to end the power of the spiders forever; time breaking down in the mansion due to excessive use of spiders.


I’ve also read The Drawing of the Dark (1979), one of the few books that has no modern characters at all; and Expiration Date, which is good Powers but not, if I recall correctly, quite as good as these three.

An obvious comparison is to Neil Gaiman, who also sets stories in the modern world but can’t stop himself from adding in magic, godlings, and Other Realms, and who also has a vein of horror and likes to starts with heroes who are a little too naïve. The difference, I think, is that Powers approaches fantasy like a science fiction writer: the magic may be spiritually suspect and not always work, but it’s treated like technology. Gaiman writes fantasy like a fantasist; his magic is more powerful, and he’s much less interested in explaining how it works.

Anyway, if you’ve never read him, go do it!

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