Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Alternate Routes by Tim Powers

I missed this one, somehow. I've been a big Tim Powers fan - Stress of Her Regard was the first book I read new, I think, so I probably discovered him in the mid-'80s, highschool or college days - but I'm out of the loop this decade and his most recent books are coming out from Baen, of all places.

So I happened to notice recently that he had a two-book series - Alternate Routes, from 2018, and last year's Forced Perspectives - that seemed to be contemporary fantasy novels about cops in LA. (That's not exactly right, though the two main characters were, or maybe still are, in law enforcement, in odd Powersian ways.) They were shorter books than his usual, and came out more quickly than he usually does, which sound like good things from a reader's point of view.

Alternate Routes is a Tim Powers novel, with all of the expected ingredients: regret, broken lives, Catholicism, fantasy elements that are grounded and often unpleasant, something going badly wrong and a few damaged people who are in a position to fix it. I tend to think his historical books are weightier than his contemporaries: maybe it's that they take that much more out of him, in research and construction to make all of the tiny bits of history line up with his inventions. This is a contemporary novel, like its predecessor Medusa's Web and his '90s novels; like those, it's set in Los Angeles.

Sebastian Vickery was an LA cop turned Secret Service agent, until he accidentally heard something he shouldn't have and a secretive government agency tried to kill him. That was a few years ago; he's been hiding, off the grid, since then. He works as a driver for a woman with a collection of businesses that seem to be mostly technically legal but also largely caught up in the secrets of the ghosts generated by deaths on freeways.

Ingrid Castine works for the same agency that nearly killed Vickery, the Transportation Utility Agency (TUA), headed locally by a brilliant scholar who renamed himself Terracotta. Terracotta is clearly both just barely sane and intensely searching for some transformation/exaltation that is not exactly the goal of the larger TUA. Much of Castine's work is interrogating "deleted persons" (the TUA calls them that; others call them ghosts).

The book opens with the TUA finding Vickery, and trying to kill him again. Castine does not go along with it; she ends up on the run with Vickery. At first, the goal is to get her connected back to whatever of her old life she can continue; then, to help her make a new life off the grid. In the end, they have to save the world, from Terracotta and from the supernatural entity that has subsumed Terracotta. There's a lot of running around LA before then, a number of other interesting characters and quirky Powersian fantastic ideas, and more than one visit to the Labyrinth: the other side, the place where deleted persons live, what you might call Hell or Sheol or Purgatory or the land of shades.

It's all Powersian, but in a lighter way than usual. It almost reads like a treatment for a movie, or TV series, that would be "like Tim Powers, but not as weird." That's a criticism, I suppose: what's best about Powers is his depth and specificity and quirk and detail, and the thriller hugger-mugger of Alternate Routes, combined with its relative brevity, leave less room for that, and less room for detailed character development. Vickery is a damaged middle-aged Catholic man, as a Powers hero inevitably will be, but he's mostly a cipher otherwise, those bits of damage serving to be his personality. Castine is even less specific: a spunky, tough female cop who really needs a few more details to make her a fully rounded person.

So this is a bit disappointing. It has a Powers flavor, but more superficially than Powers fans want. I'll probably come back for the second book about these two, to see if there's some more depth there. But Powers embarking explicitly on a series does not seem, to my mind, to work to his strengths, so I'm not holding high hopes.

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