I was honoured to share a panel with Tim Powers at Gaslight Gathering last month and was very impressed by both his insight and his playfulness. I took the opportunity of his presence to buy a bunch of his books.
Powers is one of the three authors, along with James P. Blaylock and K W Jeter, who effectively founded the genre of steampunk back in the eighties, but for some reason he was hard to find in England. Jeter was everywhere and Blaylock was findable but Powers' books were notable mostly for their absence. In a couple of decades of buying every secondhand sci-fi and horror book I could from market stalls and bookstores, I only managed to find this one and hadn't got round to reading it until now.
While the subject matter wasn't remotely what I had expected from the title, I wasn't surprised by the author's approach. The tone fits him perfectly and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
We're not in Victorian London this time out; we're in Vienna in 1529, where we discover that the most important place in the entirety of the western world is the Zimmermann Inn where they brew Herzwesten beer. Clearly we're soon going to be let in on historical, fantastic and mystical reasons why, but we're kept completely in the dark (pun not intended but I'll take it) for a while.
Brian Duffy is also kept in the dark, even though he's hired, in Venice no less, to be the bouncer at the Zimmermann, by a mysterious man by the name of Aurelianus. An Irishman by birth, Duffy is an experienced fighting man who might have expected to be caught up in the battle against Suleiman's Turks, who are advancing on Vienna, but hardly to be hired in one country for a job as a bouncer in another.
Clearly there's a bigger explanation to Aurelianus's very deliberate choice than the one he's let in on, but little snippets of information here and there gradually fill both him and us in on the big picture. What's clear very quickly is that the big picture is a fantastic one. Even before Duffy leaves Venice, he stumbles into a bar where he shares a drink with Bacchus. As he strolls over the mountains to Austria, he finds himself accompanied by a weird cavalcade of creatures, who are apparently there to keep him safe. He's clearly in need of such help because a number of attempts are made on his life, an observation that also demands an explanation that isn't forthcoming.
Of course, as the hero of the story, he makes it to Vienna and takes up his new position at the Zimmermann, a position that mostly appears to involve him drinking lots of very good beer and rekindling a relationship with a former girlfriend at whose wedding he disgraced himself. He even finds a place for himself in the fight against the Turks, but he never forgets his inquisitiveness as to what's really going on. The one time we get ahead of him is when he starts to dream of a lake, a sword and an arm rising out of the water to take it.
For a novel set in Austria in the sixteenth century, 'The Drawing of the Dark' needed a solid historic footing and Powers delivers that without any apparent effort. Like the patrons of Zimmermann's Inn, we find ourselves surrounded by earthiness, entertainment and beer and can easily take the bigger historical picture for granted as we concentrate on the pint of Herzwesten in front of us. However, like Brian Duffy, we're intrigued by what's going on, an intrigue that can only grow as anachronistic characters start showing up to join the fray. The boatload of drunken Vikings who sail out of time and into Vienna are mentioned on the back cover of my paperback edition, so I'll see them as an example rather than a spoiler.
It's easy to see why Powers and Blaylock get on so well. My favourite books by Blaylock aren't straight fantasy but fabulism, a mixture of historical background with elements of myth, folklore and fantasy, and this is another great example of that approach. While this one is set half a millennium ago, it still carries that underlying message that the world in which we live is a stranger and more magical place than most would give it credit for. I see that as a message to live by and reading fabulist novels makes me happy.
As I discovered here, reading fabulist novels with a strong focus on good beer also makes me thirsty. Every time Duffy, the Vikings or anyone else in the story sinks another Herzwesten, I wanted to raid the fridge for a good stout. The title of the book does triple duty: not only does it cover the drawing near of the armies of Suleiman, but also of the dark forces brought into play by the wizards working behind the scenes on either side; the third meaning is the best beer at Zimmermann's, the one precious few know about: a dark ale which takes 700 years to brew and is served on a very special date.
At Gaslight Gathering, I was able to chat away a fabulous hour with Powers. Next time we meet, I should clearly arrive in the company of a six pack or three of fantastic stout, in bottles re-labelled to be Herzwesten Dark. Is there a better way to experience the magic that is the smaller convention?
I'll be watching out for alcohol in the other Powers novels I picked up. The only other one I know anything about is 'On Stranger Tides', which was sort of adapted into the fourth 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movie. If 'The Drawing of the Dark' is soaked in beer, surely that's equally soaked in rum. I guess I should read that one next, to see just how much damage Disney did to it, then, if I'm still sober, move on to one of the others. Now, finally, I have a stack of them to work through and I need to catch up, clearly devouring them in six packs.
While Jeter was the one who actually coined the term 'steampunk', in that famous letter to 'Locus' magazine, he wasn't only referring to his own books, but others by the Philip K Dick-mentored triumvirate completed by Blaylock and Powers. Generally speaking, I prefer Blaylock to Jeter, who I've found too inconsistent, but this memorable trip to 1529 Vienna does suggest that Powers' work may sit well with Blaylock's in my affections. Only time will tell and it'll surely be no hardship to find out. ~~ Hal C F Astell