Thursday, July 07, 2016

Medusa's Web by Tim Powers

I hate writing reviews of books by authors I hugely respect and love; I feel like I'll never do them justice, and any criticisms I make always sound too crude and strong. It's so much easier to write about mediocre books, or authors who are new and getting better, or about lousy stuff. All books are flawed, so any honest review has to cover the flaws. But doing that honestly and fearlessly is sometimes beyond me -- particularly when I let six or seven weeks elapse after reading the book.

So here I am with the new Tim Powers novel, Medusa's Web. I don't think it's one of his very best -- no Declare or Last Call or The Stress of Her Regard. But it's close. If I read it again in a few years, I might change my mind: it feels stronger than a lighter book like Three Days to Never or the half-baked (or, more accurately, double-baked) Earthquake Weather. It's medium-to-strong Powers, I suppose -- maybe not the book I'd hand to someone who's never read him, but a huge treat for everyone who's been reading Powers for the past few decades. And digging into precisely what works and what didn't quite (for me) is really beyond me right now. So I'll have to leave the value judgment like that.

It's a Powers novel, so it's about love and regret, families of blood and circumstance, old secrets and obligations, and, inevitably, about doing the right thing even when that is the hardest thing to do. The fantasy element here is as quirky and yet utterly believable as ever for him: there are certain images, circulating secretly as long has man has existed, that link minds, dragging the first person to view it into the mind of the second person and vice versa. It's mental time-travel, of a sort. Or time-sharing of the brain, perhaps. And it's addictive, as so much magic is in so many Powers books -- something that tends to shrink the soul and break the will and make users worse people than they were, step by step, with each use.The images are spiky crossed lines, called "spiders." And there's a spider that's the ur-version of all of them, the Amber of which they are all shadows.

The death of the matriarch of an odd extended family brings estranged cousins to a huge, rambling and once-glorious house in the Hollywood Hills, now hollowed out by time and neglect. And the novel moves from there, forward and backward in time, through the next week and to the 1920s, as those estranged cousins learn about the spiders -- including one very powerful one they accidentally saw when children in that house -- and about a method to destroy their power forever. As always for Powers, there's a moral choice about doing the hard thing and staying morally and mentally intact, or to choose power over others and decadence.

Medusa's Web ends amazingly well, in a flurry of chapters that use that supernatural element brilliantly and sneakily to build suspense and reshuffle time like a deck of cards. Hmm. Maybe I was wrong: maybe this is one of Powers's best. Maybe you new readers should try it. If you like Hollywood stories and dysfunctional families, give it a look.

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