01/10/2009. Contributed by Ewan Angus
pub: Tachyon. 427 page enlarged paperback. Price: $14.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-892391-79-7).
check out website: www.tachyonpublications.com
Tim Powers is quite well thought of when it comes to writing fantasy and here's why. His books are meticulous pieces of subtle fantasy that blur the line between fiction and reality through perfect research and even better writing.
'The Stress Of Her Regard' is, to put it bluntly, a wonderful piece of modern writing, encompassing historical events, the great European cities of Rome and Venice, alcoholism, anti-religious stances and a brilliant use of vampires. However, this is isn't your silly wee angst filled, sexually frustrated vamps who prattle on about love and its consequences.
Nope, this is fully blown sexual demons who will annihilate any sexual partner you choose to have should you be 'loved' by one of these beasts regardless of the consequences.
On that cheerful premise our story begins. Michael Crawford was a successful London surgeon who specialised in the care of new-born babies. He's a bit of an unlucky chap. His first wife was murdered in a house fire he was blamed for and he wakes up next to his second who has been brutally mutilated in a way that makes it look as if she was hit by a cannonball at close range. Unluckily for him, he also gets the blame for this one as well.
So he does what every good fantasy requires of its protagonist, he runs away. Quickly.
Thus he ends up in a battle of sorts, between the greatest poets of the day and the Lamia, the evil sexually deviant vampires. The overall goal of said hero and the poetical greats is to rid themselves of these soul-sucking, destructive monsters who are a burden on society.
First off, he meets a burgeoning young Keats who, whilst working as a surgeon, begins his career as a poet and helps Crawford flee to Europe. He then makes the acquaintance of a centuries old Francois Villon, the infamous French poet who was quite the rogue in his heyday. He's also famous for coining the phrase, 'where are the snows of yesteryear?' Nope? Didn't think so...
Then our intrepid hero goes onto meet Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. Both of whom, for the literary minded, need no introduction. This leads to the announcement that they are all haunted by the Lamia through the unlucky act of being born on the wrong day, through a creepy child-molesting lord or through a sister who was born inside you. It's also the Lamia who are held accountable for the great works of poetic genius that sprouts from the pens of our demonically bullied heroes. They are in effect the great muses of Greek mythology.
Of course, as this is Powers it all works a lot better than it sounds when I lay it all out for you. The poets are vital characters in themselves and compliment the novel in ways a fictional character could not. The plot is suitably chock-a-block with supernatural behaviour whilst keeping it all grounded solidly in the real world. It's something Powers seems to have an amazing knack for. His love of poetry is evident throughout, each chapter is opened with a short poem or an extract. This makes it seem as if he has taken the story from the poems and just fleshed it all out a bit, as if this is genuinely a re-telling of real history. It does away with the boundary between history and fantasy and you really couldn't careless. This is real to me as it's more exciting than Keats dying of the common cold!
Of course, the dark themes herein aren't just extraordinary, nope there's the metaphorical demons lurking behind the scenes as well. Crawford's hell of a life is so devoid of realism that his sanity is only kept grounded by the hip-flask he carries with him at all times. The alcoholism he suffers from is, to him, almost a godsend in that it can abolish his memories of the dreaded Lamia and allow him a semblance of normalcy in his otherwise insane existence.
The 'love interest' character is almost brilliant enough to be given an immediate greatest character ever award and, if this was a film, has potential Oscar winner written all over her.
Doing what Powers does best, by interspersing a dozen plot lines and characters with a bucket-load of paranormal and tying them up perfectly, he has conjured a tale that could be taken from the history books and taught as fact and no one would even bother to challenge it. The unfortunate truth is that it's not real and that's what it makes it all the more amazing. A fantastic novel that has evoked in me a love of poetry I never knew I had.
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