02 April 2012

The Stress of Her Regard (Tim Powers)

In The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers accomplishes a near-impossible feat: he makes me sympathetic to Byron and Shelley.

Seriously, I hate those dudes. Esp. ol' Percy B. Writing "Ozymandias" does NOT excuse abandoning your pregnant wife to run off with a 16-year-old. (Yeppers! When Mary started writing Frankenstein, she was still Miss Godwin; they didn't marry until his first wife committed suicide. How Romantic!)

But! In these pages the trufax behind the many oddities of these gentlemen (as well as poor doomed Keats) are revealed--and while they're still reckless, stubborn, sybaritic, their hearts are in the right place. In fact, Shelley's heart--which legend says came through his funeral pyre intact--is the key to the whole last act. WHICH IS SO AWESOME I CAN'T EVEN DEAL

Long before that jaw-dropping denouement, an ex-Navy obstetrician named Michael Crawford, while drunk at his bachelor party, slides his bride's wedding ring onto the outstretched finger of a statue for safekeeping. But when he comes back to get it, the statue's hand has clenched around it--and the morning after his wedding night, he wakes next to the brutally murdered corpse of his wife. Pursued by the authorities and his deceased wife's twin sister, he falls in with the aforementioned triumvirate of poets, and learns too late that he's accidentally married into a very old and powerful family, that of the Nephilim--pre-Adamite monsters who are part vampire, part succubus, part stone. And getting a divorce won't be easy.

Powers spins a terrific secret history dating from the earliest days of life on earth; his story scales the Alps and swims the canals of Venice. Along the way, there's an unexpected romance, a cohesive supernatural cosmology, half a dozen killer action setpieces, and quite a lot of IRL biography. Oh, and that great title? It's from a poem by H.P. Lovecraft's bestie, Clark Ashton Smith, called "Sphinx and Medusa":
...Yet thought must see
That eve of time when man no longer yearns,
Grown deaf before Life's Sphinx, whose lips are barred;
When from the spaces of Eternity,
Silence, a rigorous Medusa, turns
On the lost world the stress of her regard.
P.S. Having now read both, I understand the decision not to market Powers's latest, Hide Me Among the Graves, as a straight-up sequel to Stress. While they share characters both human and inhuman, he's tweaked the mythos just enough that the books stand more easily alone than together.

P.P.S. I couldn't figure out a good way to segue to a link Kate Beaton's awesome Shelley 'n' Mary 'n' Byron comic, so I'm just gonna do it here. SO GOOD

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