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Monday, April 2, 2012

The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers - Guest reviewed by beserene


Title: The Stress of Her Regard
Author: Tim Powers
Copyright: 2008
Pages: 432
ISBN: 9781892391797
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Author Website: The Works of Tim Powers

I have already indicated my love for Tim Powers on numerous occasions across LibraryThing, but if I had not loved him before, if my life had by some ungodly circumstance been empty of Tim Powers up to this point, this book would make me love him. (And, by "him", I of course mean his work. Sort of.)

This is an intense literary-historical fantasy that challenges the reader with a wealth of allusions and deeply conceived and constructed ideas. The premise--which explains some of the odd behavior and fascinations of nineteenth century Romantic poets Byron, Shelley and Keats by positing the notion that they were all interacting, to some degree, with vampiric supernatural beings spun out of European fable and myth--is complex enough. Add to that a protagonist embroiled in a murder plot, early obstetrics, and his own tragic past, as well as a complicated woman who is so much more than a love interest, and you have a rich loam of story into which the reader's mind roots and grows.

There is not a moment in this book where the reader stops thinking. While Powers constructs a plot with the ups and downs of a roller coaster, at no point are we simply "along for the ride". Every page engages one's rational faculties, philosophical perspective, or emotional core. I, for one, found myself fascinated even by the epigraphs that began each chapter, which alluded both to the novel's themes and to the historical personages Powers machinated into the book.

Powers has said that he writes inside the spaces of history -- according to WikiPedia, he states "I made it an ironclad rule that I could not change or disregard any of the recorded facts, nor rearrange any days of the calendar – and then I tried to figure out what momentous but unrecorded fact could explain them all." Rather than taking liberties with the record, he looks for the patterns and the mysterious moments in the lives of particular figures, then speculates what fantastical images or events could inhabit that space. In this novel, one is especially conscious of that method -- the extracts from letters, poetic epigraphs, and precise dates are all reminders, but so is the realism of the characters and their environments. Even though I have read and taught Romantic poetry, I had not previously thought of the poets in such a human way as I did while reading their fictional endeavors. Perhaps that seems strange, but Powers' rich renderings make even the most exotically mythic encounters seem possible.

The novel is not an easy read, by any measure; it is a book that asks you to take your time and read with consideration. It also, as is typical of Powers, contains much more than one expects; there were multiple moments, while reading, that I thought the climax had come and gone, only to find that there were 200 or 100 or 50 pages yet to go and the most intense moment was just around the corner. There were even, again, as often happens with Powers, moments where I asked aloud, "what else can he possibly fit into this book?!" While that rarely felt overdone, in the big picture, it can be exhausting for an unprepared reader. When I began this novel, I did not anticipate how epic in scope it would be; by the end, I felt I had read a lifetime, not just a book.

The novel closes with one of the most elegant last lines I have ever read -- which I will not spoil here -- but there are few books that offer such satisfyingly subtle, melancholic, yet somehow sweet endings. Lines like that resonate long after the book is closed, and Powers is full of them. For sheer craft and style alone, this book is worth reading, but it is also so much more than that. An absolutely necessary read, especially for fans of thought-provoking fantasy, historical fiction with a supernatural twist, or even that fan of serious literary fiction who doesn't think fantasy can do it right.

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