I heard about this book because of Disney lawyers. More specifically, I try to keep up with happenings in the law, and I happened to catch an entertainment law story about the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which has the title of another Tim Powers novel, On Stranger Tides (and which I have not seen). As far as the adaptation goes it’s got the same title and features Blackbeard as a voodoo magician, but has nothing else to do with Powers’ story. Apparently, the screenwriters thought it was easier to option the rights rather than deal with a possible suit. Common enough in Hollywood, I suppose, but I made a note of this because it was also noted as being the inspiration for the Monkey Island series of games and frankly I liked the idea of Blackbeard as a voodoo magician. At some point I’ll probably get around to reading it, but when I looked up Powers everyone was raving about this one, so it’s where I started.
I came into it with pretty high expectations because of the reviews; there are quite a few people calling it the best time travel story ever written. Perhaps that’s not the best frame of mind to approach anything, since I found the characters to be somewhat two-dimensional and began losing interest pretty quickly. Somewhere around the first third, however, I began to get more involved in all the events and was pretty thoroughly hooked by the end. After all was said and done I ended up liking this book pretty well, although I’m not sure it’s really the best ever.
So here’s the setup: a couple of magicians in the early 1800s are performing a spell near London. The purpose of the spell is to unlock the underworld and allow the deities of ancient Egypt to walk the world again. The magicians don’t really want to do this, since magic as an art apparently hasn’t been working right for some centuries – little everyday spells are fine but big undertakings tend to end badly. But they have to, because they are bound to the will of some super-ancient magician and this is what he wants done. One of the two magicians is actually a ka, or a magical copy of the original guy, who is off doing something else. The one who isn’t a copy does the ritual, which of course goes disastrously wrong. The magician goes a little bit crazy, but gains the ability to switch bodies with other people; as a downside, any body he inhabits quickly sprouts hair over its entire surface so he finds it expedient to steal bodies frequently lest he be caught, which earns him notoriety as “Dog-Faced Joe”. The other thing the ritual does is open a number of discrete portals in time and space.
Enter our (sort-of) hero, Brendan Doyle. Doyle is living in the present (the mid 1980s, anyway, since that’s when the book was written). He’s an expert on B-list early 19th century poet William Ashbless but also is reasonably knowledgeable regarding other literary figures of the period, such as Coleridge, and it is in this capacity that he’s hired by a reclusive millionaire. This individual has discovered how to use the time gates and proposes to charge $1 million to a bunch of literature junkies to go attend a lecture by Coleridge, and he wants Doyle to come along to act as a tour guide and generally class up the process. Doyle wasn’t the millionaire’s first choice, but the other experts turned him down because it sounded silly. However, this is a work of fiction and so it turns out to work fairly well.
Soon Doyle finds himself stranded in the early 1800s in London with no money, no particular skills, no awareness of when the next time gate may appear, and a nasty lung disease. One of the Egyptian magicians wants to capture him because of a misguided belief that Doyle actually knows what is going on, and he recruits yet another magician and his army of beggars for assistance. Besides all the supernatural happenings it quickly becomes apparent that the millionaire’s motives may not have been as benign as originally advertised. In Doyle’s corner – sort of, anyway – is Elizabeth Tichy, whose fiancé was killed by Dog-Faced Joe and is concealing herself as a man to try and get revenge.
What was turning me off this book originally is that none of the characters are really all that well developed. Everyone gets one or two traits; Doyle’s got a sad personal life, Elizabeth Tichy is determined, and so forth. Most of the magicians are more or less interchangeable. All of the body switching makes it hard to tell the characters apart even if you know which body is appearing in a scene, and there’s just a bunch of surreal weirdness generally. Powers obviously did a lot of research of the milieu, which is nice, but at the same time I never really believed that Doyle could adapt as well as he does or that he would really have the skills that he displays.
Nonetheless I kept going and I’m glad that I did, because this novel really manages to keep a whole lot of plot threads in the air like some deranged juggler and still tie it all together. There are a couple of ways that one can approach a time travel narrative. Broadly, you can: 1) change the past, causing the future to change in response; 2) create an alternate timeline; or 3) create a stable time loop. Powers chooses to go through door number 3. In the hands of an unskilled author this can eliminate all the tension involved in a story, but that’s not how it goes here. Rather, it plays like oracles did in the Greek myths. You can cause things to occur by attempting to prevent them from happening, thereby showing that the oracle was right all along.
It’s also pretty funny, not in a laugh-out-loud sense but in a more deeply structural way. The magicians are pretty scary and surrounded by various horrible monsters. (In fact, their only weakness is that once someone decides to practice magic they can no longer touch the Earth without pain, so they all have to wear tall shoes or stilts or similar types of gear.) They assume that Doyle is equally skilled but of course they’re wrong, Doyle is actually mostly a hapless bystander, and so when they go all out to destroy him they inevitably set events in motion which end up causing the ruin of all their own plans. Sometimes retroactively. For his part, Doyle eventually thinks he has figured out what is going on and assumes that since a stable time loop is in effect that he can’t die in a particular situation – then he remembers all the body-switching and magical doppleganging and ends up taking action anyhow, which naturally proves necessary. And there are a lot of little touches that pay off later, especially messages that Doyle leaves and encounters that he has that don't originally make a lot of sense.
So in the end I’m willing to forgive the flat characters because they’re really more plot devices than real people, and the point is to watch Powers end up tying all the various plot threads up into a nice tight bow at the end, which he does in fine style and only just a little cheating. In the hands of a less capable writer this could have been an unhinged mess and so just pulling it off at all earns him great respect from me. I can’t say that this is my new favorite book of 2011, or for that matter that I’m running out to finish his bibliography, but I am happy to have read this and will definitely be reading some of his other works eventually.