Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Powers, Tim

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(1952-    ) US author who first came to serious attention with his third novel, The Drawing of the Dark (1979). Like most of his mature work, this is a Fantasy of History: the first Siege of Vienna in the early 16th century turns out to be merely the symptom of a far greater struggle between light and darkness, between West and East. The ageing mercenary hero, Duffy, a version of the Eternal Champion (see Michael Moorcock) whose past Avatars include both Arthur and Siegfried, is recruited by Merlin to defend a tavern where the beer referred to in the title is made every century or so to renew the life of the Fisher King, the Secret Master of Western Europe. The plot is complicated by much emotional disaster – the personal relationships of TP's protagonists tend always to the chastened if not to the bleak – and by a variety of supernatural meddlers anxious to renew their own "lives" through a taste of the beer; in the casual description of these last, TP demonstrates the off-hand erudition that is one of his hallmarks.

The Anubis Gates (1983; rev 1984 UK) won the 1984 Philip K Dick Award and has, perhaps justifiably, been the most admired of his books, partly because it is the least gloomy. Academic Brendan Doyle, is persuaded by a cancer-ridden millionaire to act as guide to Time-travelling tourists, and soon finds himself marooned in Regency London. His studies of the poet Ashbless have made him acquainted with a London of Urban Legends, and he is caught up with rival guilds of beggars, a theriomorph (see Shapeshifting) and a group of vindictive Egyptian sorcerers; the nightmarish creations TP inflicts on Doyle include Horrabin the Clown, a memorable Magus whose vivisected Monsters and tortures make him the secret ruler of a hidden Underground London. Doyle, already half-mad with grief over the death of his wife, is damaged by privation and then shifted into the muscular body of a treacherous former pupil; he is befriended by Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, survives the massacre of the Mamelukes, and travels further back in time to Restoration England, where he prevents the legitimation of Monmouth.

In the post-Holocaust Dinner at Deviant's Palace (1985) all the fantastic elements are superficially rationalized (see Rationalized Fantasy) in sf terms as mutants or alien intruders; the alien villain, though, is clearly a Dark Lord, a fake Messiah, a Vampire and the Lord of the Underworld. Like all of TP's protagonists, the musician hero Rivas is wounded, in his case in the hand. The same is true of John Shandagnac, the puppeteer hero of On Stranger Tides (1987); the wounds inflicted on TP's protagonists are always to a faculty which is part of their core, in both these cases to the hands crucial to their art. Though Doyle is starved, poisoned, shot at and eventually mutilated to the point of death, the crucial wound inflicted on him is the loss of his original body. Disguises that come close to loss of identity abound in TP; it is only belatedly that Doyle realizes that the "boy" Jackie is the woman Ashbless is destined to marry (see Gender Disguise), and John Shandagnac becomes the famous pirate chieftain Jack Shandy.

Shandagnac's wound makes it possible for him to defeat the Pirate magus Blackbeard, another aspiring Dark Lord, by using the iron in blood to defuse magic. In The Anubis Gates various characters wear chains around their ankles as lightning conductors for a magic that has much in common with energy, while the mental powers of the alien Vampire in Dinner at Deviant's Palace can be disrupted by the humming of particular sorts of Music. Protagony in TP is closely bound up with acquiring not so much magic as the capacity to resist it and to refuse the temptations that it makes possible – Doyle is at one point offered the Resurrection of his dead wife.

There are other strands we can observe tracing their way through TP's work. As he matured as a writer, his heroines become steadily more important; Anna in The Drawing of the Dark is almost entirely peripheral, and Jackie in The Anubis Gates acquires protagony because her gender disguise makes her an honorary man. In Dinner at Deviant's Palace the ex-lover whom Rivas is trying to rescue proves to be little more than a McGuffin, and the real heroine starts the book as an acolyte and dupe of the villain, while Beth in On Stranger Tides spends much of the time under the enchantments of her villainous father before finally awakening to make possible the transformative act of sacred marriage which enables the final defeat of Blackbeard. Josephine, the heroine of TP's next novel – The Stress of Her Regard (1989) – starts off as a vengeful madwoman, convinced her brother-in-law Crawford is responsible for the death of her sister and prepared to form alliances with the Lamias that are the true guilty parties, but makes a hard-won transformation into fully shared protagony. Far more spectacularly even than TP's male principals, she Learns Better through losing an eye; recovering her sanity is also a loss of identity, since she has in the process to abandon not only the delusion that she is her sister but also the delusion that her sister was a nice person.

The Stress of Her Regard is by some way TP's darkest and best novel, since it deals in the loss of illusion and of hope, as well as in the death of children. When the poets Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats make their break with the vampire silicon beings who have given them inspiration while destroying those they love, they lose their gifts and become in a real sense less themselves. Crawford, a dedicated doctor, has to help his friends to their deaths and finally perform a bizarre act of magical obstetrics, separating the realms of silicon and carbon for good – and in the process destroying the Holy Roman Empire of the Hapsburgs and ushering in the modern age.

Rituals of Desecration dominate TP's two next novels, which run their immediate predecessor close for bleakness. Last Call (1992; rev 1992), set in a Las Vegas turned into a Waste Land by the magical death of its Fisher King, the gangster Bugsy Siegel, pits its one-eyed Jack protagonist Crane (whose name indicates that he is potentially the Hidden Monarch) against his malignant Magus father; the father wishes to circumvent fate by tricking him, through magical poker games, into Identity Exchange. Crane is a driven gambler and drunk, haunted by the Ghost of his dead wife; he is also the Fool perpetually failing to ask the right questions and give the right answers. This is, of all TP's novels, the one that comes closest to being an Instauration Fantasy, in that it ends in positive transformation of Las Vegas as a whole rather than in the destruction of Evil.

Expiration Date (1995; rev 1996) is even darker; its picture of contemporary Los Angeles is of a waste land which will never bloom except with mischief. TP's inventiveness with the reversal of tropes (see Revisionist Fantasy) is at its most remarkable here. There is a malignant Wainscot society of those who are addicted to the eating of Ghosts – which are usually the only marginally sentient psychic shells thrown off during death or under stress. TP gives us three principals – Sullivan, wounded by the suicide of his Twin, and sought by his wicked Stepmother as bait for the ghost of his father; Elizalde, a person who Learns Better, a psychiatrist who tried to use folk wisdom therapeutically and had the mortification of finding it works; and Kootie, a boy reared as a Theosophist (see Theosophy) Messiah who is desperately seeking normality after the murder of his parents, and who is possessed (see Possession) by the ghost of Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931). The protagonist's wound in TP's work has always had its Oedipal aspect; here all three principals have their roots planted in both Freud and folklore. Notably, the main body of the novel ends with their self-creation as a family, as Powers relegates the complex double-dealing mayhem of the denouement to an epilogue; this structural trait has grown in his work, emphasizing the relative importances for him of, on the one hand, the emotional plot and, on the other, the mere gaudy incidents.

As always, TP is in this novel profligate in invention and in the relentless use of fantasy tropes: one of the villains is an amnesiac immortal (see Amnesia; Immortality), and the murder of Sullivan's father is yet another ritual of desecration. As so often in TP's writing, the stepmother DeLarava is herself a victim, stripped by her long-lived colleague of psychic energy at birth.

TP was one of the small Affinity Group that clustered around Philip K Dick (see SFE link below) in Dick's latter years; he is closely associated with James P Blaylock and K W Jeter (1950-    ), both as a friend and in their co-creation of what has come to be known as Steampunk. Like Dick, TP has always combined endless ingenuity of plotting, witty and revealing dialogue and an eye for the presentation of detail with a strong moral sense; like Dick also, his plots have on occasion a ramshackle and improvisatory quality which is part of the reason for his constant revision of his texts. He is one of the most original and authoritative voices in the genre. [RK]

other works: The Skies Discrowned (1976 Canada as Timothy Powers; rev vt Forsake the Sky 1986 as TP), fantasy-tinged adventure sf; Epitaph in Rust (1976 Canada as Timothy Powers; text restored vt An Epitaph in Rust 1989 as TP); Night Moves (1986 chap); The Way down the Hill (1986 chap).

further reading: A Checklist of Tim Powers (1991 chap) by Tom Joyce and Christopher P Stephens.

Timothy Powers


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.