Book Talk: 'The Drawing of the Dark' by Tim Powers - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'The Drawing of the Dark' by Tim Powers

Alexander Wallace samples Herzwesten beer.
Even at the best of times, history can be hard to parse. People are only so comprehensible and only so rational. More often than not, the documents that would have helped us understand the past are lost, or were never written to begin with. Exploring what our ancestors did can be confusing and leave us with more questions than answers.

It is understandable, then, when writers seek to fill the gap. Sometimes, they look to explain things with reason, using only that which is historically plausible. Others seek to insert the supernatural into the mix; these are the sort that argue that the Tunguska Event was the result of a crashing alien ship, for example. One author who excels at such a thing is Tim Powers, in his 1979 book The Drawing of the Dark.

The book opens in 1529 among the serene canals of that most serene republic of Venice. Brian Duffy, an Irish soldier of fortune, has come across hard times and financial stress. Almost by accident, he is offered a job by a strange man named Aurelianus: a bouncer at the Zimmerman Inn in Vienna, a former monastery where a famous beer is brewed. Duffy, seeing no better option and having unfinished business in the City of Dreams, takes Aurelianus up on his offer and begins the long trek to the north.

But something is clearly happening behind closed doors at the Zimmerman; a number of people, Duffy notices quickly, act strangely. The whole plot revolves around these happenings, which involve a number of European mythologies, mostly pre-Christian in nature. Such gives the events of the plot an epic feeling, even as Duffy gets center stage, a grandeur that is almost akin to that of James Michener or Edward Rutherfurd despite the book being but a fraction of the doorstoppers that either wrote.

Brian Duffy is the main character that this sort of book needs; he is involved enough to be party to all sorts of strange and interesting happenings, but skeptical enough to always keep asking questions, driving the plot along in the process. He is a rogue in the traditional sense, deeply flawed and with a fair share of hubris, but also with a very real sense of honor. He is likeable because of his flaws, and you keep waiting to see how he responds to the next bizarre occurrence and to the next strange interlocutor.

But Brian Duffy is but one man in the great conflagration that is about to unfold in that great city on the Danube, for the Ottomans are on the march. The climax of this book (which is not at all hidden in anything written about the book) is the Siege of Vienna. Powers writes action in an exhilarating manner, proving, much as Assassin’s Creed and Bernard Cornwell have, that pre-20th century combat can be absolutely incredible to behold. Those looking for good action will have to wait until the last third or so of the book, but their patience will be well-rewarded.

I will not spoil much about the supernatural of The Drawing of the Dark, but like the other book of Powers’ that I’ve read, 2001’s Declare, it is there in the shadows, looking to shape the course of human events. It is vividly rendered and hauntingly visualized, and I certainly won’t forget it any time soon.

Tim Powers can write. This is undeniable. He has the prose and the imagination to make all I have discussed feel real and plausible, and never allow either to overwhelm the plot that moves like a well-oiled machine. Powers gives you a masterclass in how to meld history with the speculative; many authors could take notes.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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