Thursday, March 31, 2011

Musings: The Drawing of the Dark

Drawing of the Dark
I have had The Drawing of the Dark on my shelf for some years now.  I am not sure who first told me that I should read Tim Powers, but whoever it was probably knows my reading tastes pretty well.  Powers specializes in historical fantasy.  He takes real-world events and then puts a twist on them to explain what "really" happened.
In this book, he puts his spin on Suleiman's attempt to take Vienna in 1529.  That whole situation wasn't just about economics and empire-building.  Oh, no!  It was all about beer.

Well, beer and the infinite battle between East and West.

But let me start at the beginning.  Brian Duffy is an Irish mercenary living in Venice when he meets a strange old man named Aurelianus.  Aurelianus hires him to be the bouncer at his brewery in Vienna and Brian sets off immediately to take on his duties.  But strange things happen along the way.  Weird animals and monsters follow him and protect him.  Other things try to kill him.  He has strange dreams about a sword and a lake.  And all the while, Suleiman's army is advancing...

This story sounds exactly the sort that I would enjoy.  Unfortunately, it didn't work for me.  The story moved very slowly.  One of the most painful things (in my opinion) as a reader is to know something before the main character does and then have to sit around waiting for him to catch up with you for many more pages than is ideal.  In this book, at least a few things were very obvious to me while I read the book, but Brian Duffy just did not catch on.  There were also a lot of battle scenes that I think would appeal to a different type of reader but did not appeal to me.

Additionally, there are really only two characters that are fleshed out at all in this book- Brian and Aurelianus.  Everyone else is completely one-dimensional and flat.  For example, Brian has a semi-love interest for most of this book- she has hardly any useful dialogue, though, and spends a lot of time crying.  And Brian seems to lose interest in her very quickly- she becomes quite vague and fades into the background.

My main problem with the book, though, was that the premise was never properly explained.  Why are the East and West at war?  That is never explained.  It is just taken as a given.  Aurelianus says that if the East takes Vienna, it could wipe out Western civilization and they would all go back to living in caves and drawing with rocks on walls.  But why is this the case?  Wouldn't it just be that they were all absorbed into Eastern culture?  Aurelianus also blithely ignores the many occasions in which the West went forward against the East in attempts to conquer and would have apparently left the East in much the same state.  I just didn't understand why the two sides were fighting, and how the "teams" were formed except by geography.  And how does the New World figure into all of it?  Are they on a totally different "team"?  There was just a lot left unexplained.

What I did like was the mish-mash of all sorts of mythologies and folk tales, even if I didn't quite understand how they fit together.  We have King Arthur and Merlin, the Fisher King and Norse gods.  In a way, this book reminded me of American Gods, but only because of the god-elements in it.  It also reminded me of Silverlock in that I'm sure I didn't get all the literary and mythological elements at all!  The book also had some great humor in it.

Overall, though, it was a sad book.  Brian Duffy is nearly always drunk or hungover.  He reflects on the life he could have had and is sad by the way his life actually turned out.  Most people in the book seem to feel that way, really.  There was a lot of regret and "If only we had another chance"-ness.  And the way the book is set up, with East fighting West, you know at the end that it isn't really the end.  That there will be more battles.  It wasn't so much that the East was considered evil here, but that they were considered the "Other."  And there must always be an element of conflict between one side and the "Other."  It was an interesting way to describe conflict, but ultimately did away with all the complexities and intricacies of the conflict in a way that left me unsatisfied.

I hope the other Power books I have - On Stranger Tides- is one that I'll enjoy more.  (How could it not be, as it's about pirates?!)  I have also heard great things about The Stress of Her Regard.  Have you read any Tim Powers?  What do you think of him?


  1. Well, this sounds like it was no where up to the standards of Guy Gavriel Kay's historical fantasy, and for a moment there in your summary I was really gung-ho about trying this one. Unfortunately I think I would have much the same issues as you did with this book. First of all when it takes a character too long to play catch-up, it annoys. Secondly, I think I would need more meat about the actual conflict and what it means to each side involved. I also don't like that the "whys" were not explained at all. Much to my disappointment, I think I am going to have to pass on this one, but I really did appreciate your beautiful and comprehensive review.

  2. I don't think I've heard of Tim Powers' novels before, so even though you didn't enjoy it as much, I'm glad you posted about it. The mythological elements sound very intriguing.

  3. Zibilee - No, it was nothing like GGK, but I don't think he was trying to be, either. I think what bothered me the most was the lack of the whys. I think GGK generally gives good background on that sort of thing, as do a lot of fantasy authors. And there was none here, sadly.

    chasingbawa - Yes, I am definitely looking forward to giving his other two novels on my shelf a try (turns out I actually own Stress of Her Regard!). Don't want to write him off quite yet as I think he did some things really well.

  4. Apologize? No need to, but then I love love love fantasy ;) It is my escapist read too

  5. Oh no! As soon as you described Tim Powers's milieu and said what this one was about, I thought, "Must read!" Now I'm not so sure. Perhaps I'll start with another of his books. I've heard good things about ON STRANGER TIDES, which was apparently the basis for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

  6. Blodeuedd - Yes, I think we're the same that way!

    Memory - Yes, I plan on reading that one soon(ish), too. If you want to read it together, let me know!

  7. I started reading The Stress of Her Regard a few years ago and couldn't get anywhere with it. I think part of it was to do with my frame of mind at the time, and part of it was how slow the story was to get started, and part of it was it was seriously icky. So that's my two cents.

  8. I have never heard of Tim Powers, but I'm definitely going to research his work -- it sounds really interesting!

  9. I've not heard of this author and I'm not sure he would be my cup of tea. It sounds like this book was promising but fell apart. I hate when that happens. Here's hoping the other ones work out better for you.

  10. I've never read historical fantasy. How fascinating. I ought to give it a go.

  11. hi, i stumbled accross your blog, very good tips indeed... since you like historical fantasy books, have you heard of the Libanese french language writen Amin Maalouf? he writes great historical fictions (not exactly fantasy...)


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