Holiday Reading

January 8, 2012

A couple of more substantial (in length) books I read over Christmas were Neal Stephenson’s latest and the first of Tim Powers’ Fisher King series. I liked them both.

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

I can’t help feeling that, after Anathem, Neal Stephenson just wanted to write something with lots of guns and stuff blowing up. He does it very entertainingly, although the gun fetishism is a bit weird for someone unused to it1. The plot is up to the usual Stephensonian standards of twistedness, and it’s pretty long, although it feels much less long than any of the Baroque Cycle books, probably as a result of rollicking along at a rather frantic pace from page one onwards. The settings, both real and virtual, are nicely done. My only real complaint is that some of the characterisation is a bit two-dimensional. The hero of the piece is a slightly enigmatic man-with-a-past-but-a-heart-of-gold; we have a taciturn former Spetsnaz man working in “security” (there really should be a place in the world for novels featuring former Spetsnaz operatives who now make balloon animals at children’s birthday parties); we have homicidal Russian gangsters; we have an intellectual super-villian (who happens to be a Muslim terrorist, a little disappointed with the hired help his pals in the U.S. are able to round up). James Bond meets World Of Warcraft via the Washington State Tourist Board, perhaps.

Anyway, it’s a lot of fun and it whiled away a few happy hours, but don’t expect another Cryptonomicon.

Last Call by Tim Powers

The first Tim Powers novel I read was Declare, which is a hard act to follow. Last Call is good, although I enjoyed it less than Declare, mostly I think because the connection to real history (the story of Kim Philby, in Declare) and the slight twisting thereof is where Powers really excels. Last Call isn’t set around any major historical events (that I know of, though I may very well be wrong), but it is connected to some other books by Powers, in particular Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather, which form a sort of loose trilogy with Last Call, and The Drawing Of The Dark, which is also related to the Fisher King myth (and, more importantly, beer and the Turkish siege of Vienna).

One aspect of all of Powers’ novels that I’ve read so far (the other one I’ve finished recently was The Anubis Gates) is “secret history”. Well-known and well-reported historical events are given a new gloss, where the most salient aspects are never known to the general populace, and the characters in the novels live in a parallel world (much like that of spy novels) where minor everyday happenings take on enormous significance. This otherworldliness or extraworldliness is at the forefront of Last Call: in this world, the arcana of the Tarot are real entities, Archetypes that underly all human striving. Since a regular deck of playing cards is basically just a cut-down tarot deck, Las Vegas is a centre of power for the operation of these entities, and for the establishment of the reign of a Fisher King for the West. Powers does a great job of depicting the power of chance and ritual in this world, with some genuinely creepy moments. The climax of the novel is entertaining, although perhaps a little predictable in some ways.

The kind of secret history that Powers writes is very engaging because it offers lots of hooks for a reader to anchor themselves: fantasy written in invented worlds can often leave one adrift, without any points of reference, but once it becomes clear what the rules are, the real history that underlies the secret provides signposts to help keep the reader oriented. The disadvantage, of course, is that it can be difficult not to stretch credibility. Not all of history can be secret history! Some things did happen more or less the way they are reported in the history books, without the intervention of supernatural forces or other strangeness2.

It’s a very tempting approach to fantasy writing though, and I look forward to reading more from Tim Powers. (I’m slightly stalled on Expiration Date at the moment, as it’s not quite grabbing me, but I read The Anubis Gates in about three sittings.)

  1. Stephenson comments that he needed the services of a “ballistics copy editor”. There really are a lot of guns.

  2. This is something that Declare does breathtakingly well: the secret secret history is hidden behind the everyday secret history of espionage and counterintelligence, and the book draws us slowly into the deeper secrets by way of the more mundane ones.