Sunday, 16 December 2012

Tim Powers: Hide Me Among the Graves

Hide Me Among the Graves is a sequel to The Stress of her Regard, the first Tim Powers book which really felt to me like heavy going. Stress is a hard book, far more literary than his earlier, simpler works, and far more upsetting in its denouement. Powers has never held back when it came to putting his characters through the grinder, but Stress  kicked it up enough notches that I was almost in tears by the time I reached the end of the book, and I've only read it once since then. I've read most of his books three or four times since I discovered him by chance back in the 1980s, but Stress was always the one I skipped when I went on a Powers jag.

Either I've toughened up, which is unlikely, or Powers has started pulling his punches as he gets older, but Hide Me Among the Graves is nothing like as hard going as its predecessor. It's probably also not quite as good a book, but I've thought for a while now that sometime in the late 1990s Powers lost a step, and so I was not expecting him to be at the same giddy heights that I saw when I was reading him first. It is very well written, and the main characters are solid and memorable, but it lacks the drive and immediacy which made something like The Anubis Gates a page turner. Of course, when I read The Anubis Gates, I had a lot less really good stuff to compare it to, and it was a struggle to find anything by Tim Powers in Ireland in those primitive days when you found rare books by slogging around every bookshop you knew until you found one battered copy in the basement of some tiny shop in London. In contrast, I got Hide Me Among the Graves by downloading it from Took about forty seconds. Took me the best part of three weeks to read it, because I kept getting sidetracked, and it's a tribute to Powers' basic skills that I could keep coming back into the book after several days away from it and never lose track of what was going on; it's a comment on how he's lost some of his younger drive that I didn't just rush through it, ignoring everything else, as I would have back in the day when after months of slogging I would discover yet another Powers book (that was another thing about the good old days - you didn't even know whether a book existed until you came across it by accident).

I've always liked Powers' take on magic, because he makes it capricious and costly, a horrible force which you harness at terrible personal expense and which will only do what you want if it suits it to bother. The magic which runs through Stress and Hide Me is not even magic, but the side effects of unworldly creatures struggling to make a connection with individual humans despite the fact that neither can really understand the other. The theme running through both books is the way that such spirits possess humans who then become great artists, but wreck the lives of everyone around them. Stress played it out with Shelley and Byron's set, and Hide Me picks up the problem with the Rossettis and Swinburne some fifty years later.

Powers always tries to colour within the lines when he sets a book among historical characters, so the historical figures can only do what they did in real life, and somehow they never really come fully to life as much as the fictional characters he puts in among them. John Crawford and Adelaide McKee are much more interesting people than Christina Rossetti and the rest of her family, and it's not just because you can't google them to find out what will happen to them. Hide Me unfolds over such a long period of time (almost twenty years) that half the historical figures in it have met their historical deaths by the time the book's epilogue is over, so in Powers' scheme of things, everyone is at hazard. It's just that somehow he seems better at fleshing out a character when he has free rein over everything than when he has to stay carefully within the limits of what we know from their real lives and writings.

This is, at best, rather weak praise for a good writer, but it's not the book I'd recommend to people who were starting out on the Tim Powers project. The three you're going to come across at the moment (because he's perennially out of print for most of this books) are Stress, Hide Me and Stranger Tides, which as I've noted previously, was given a rather unsatisfactory film adaptation (but is at least back in print because of it). But I'd suggest starting with either his breakout book, The Drawing of the Dark, a magnificently bonkers novel featuring renaissance mercenaries and a mystic plot which depends on beer, or The Anubis Gates, which takes a mad rampage through Georgian London as time travel goes horribly amiss for a guy hired as the expert guide for a literary expedition. They're both rather easier to get into than anything being pushed at the moment, and they will get you bedded in for the full gotta-catch-them-all experience.

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