RogerBW's Blog

The Drawing of the Dark, Tim Powers 18 May 2018

1979 fantasy. Aging mercenary Brian Duffy is recruited by a strange old man to work as a bouncer at a brewery-inn in Vienna. But it's 1529, and the Ottomans are on their way.

This is the book Powers wrote before the one that broke out and made him a big name. Many of his usual tricks are here, but there's a rawness to them which – while it sometimes feels clunky – can work rather well.

Because this is a world with magic, starting with the "Aurelianus" who recruits Duffy (yes, of course he is just who you think he is, though Powers stretches out the revelation). The fantastic elements, a struggle between East and West, are woven into the genuine history of the Siege of Vienna, with Suleiman the Magnificent ending up as just another pawn in the magical fight. There's the Fisher King, and Sigmund… and the Herzwesten (sic) beer, with its brewery that has to be protected at all costs.

There's rather too much, perhaps. A subplot about Duffy's lost love sputters along and ends in a way that's perhaps meant to be shocking, but there's never any repercussion or even significant effect. Women come off pretty badly in general, really, with the only other named female character that I noticed being one of the barmaids whose general job is to be sympathetic as Duffy does a terrible job as a bouncer (because magical stuff is much more exciting) and then drinks himself into oblivion (because magical stuff is scary).

It's something of a romp, but solidly fixed in real events. There's a certain amount of fantasy racism (Mussulmen and Muspellheimers are essentially cognate, and they're regarded as Evil and the West as Good without any particular justification), and Duffy's rather too reluctant a hero for my taste (too reluctant to do anything, really). The plot meanders from incident to incident, gradually filling in the background, but the climactic confrontation is over very quickly and then things just sputter out in a mess of unresolved plotlines. (Though most of the people we've met are dead by this point, so I suppose that counts as a resolution of sorts.) The actual Drawing of the Dark (beer), to which everything has been working up, happens off-stage and we don't get to see it.

That makes it sound like a bad book, and it isn't; the "big" elements of writing, the overarching plot and the character arcs, are unfortunately weak, but the "small" stuff, the moment to moment characterisation and descriptive writing, works very well, and the integration of fantasy and history also holds together. There's a sense of fun about the whole business which is at odds with Duffy's personality, but definitely retains the reader's enthusiasm.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 09:05pm on 18 May 2018

    I liked it - it's the Powers I re-read most often. Other ones are better, by many measures, but this feels /real/ in a way that many others don't.

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