"They can't stand the bitter rain, so they run underneath one of the two awnings--religion or dissipation-- and guess who's waiting for them, under both awnings at once..." - Sevatividam
I freaking love Tim Powers. I'd like to just get that out of the way. The man flings ideas into the air and then makes them collide at high speeds, he helped invent the steampunk genre, and more than that, he tends to write books that unfold at equally high speeds with a lot of substance. Whether it's the Las Vegas sleaze hiding a soul-trading game in Last Call or the drug addiction novel centered around ghost-huffing that is Expiration Date, he manages to deliver. And while his book On Stranger Tides is getting made into a movie in the most terrible and sad way possible, it's still getting made into a movie, and that's kinda cool. Also, due to Tides, every time you see pirates and voodoo together in a movie (or a video game *coughcough* Monkey Island*coughcough*), it's officially Tim Powers' fault.
I first uncovered Dinner at Deviant's Palace in a Bookman's. It had no cover and no plot synopsis, just a simple yellow book in the sci-fi section. Granted, this didn't exactly endear me to it, as I kinda need some kind of synopsis to get an idea of what I'm getting into. Too many books titled things like The Vampires of Venice or things like that only to be about a bunch of war atrocities when I'm not in the mood for them. However, on a train last week, I found a copy of the paperback and dove right in. By three AM the next morning, I was done with the book. I finished it within a day, almost, and I have to say: It's one of the best freaking books I've read. And entirely unexpected as to the central ideas.
The book begins in post-nuke California with Gregorio Rivas, a musician, or "gunner", getting an odd request. One of the richest people in LA, Barrows, has lost a loved one to a religious cult called the Jaybirds. He pays Rivas five thousand "fifths" (playing cards used to represent brandy, the currency of this new world) to infiltrate the cult and bring her back home. You see, Rivas used to be a member of the cult who found out how sinister it actually was and ran away. He's also got a shady past as a "redemptionist", a combination of a cult deprogrammer and bounty hunter who tries to rescue wayward cultists and bring them back to their families by pretending to be cultists. And all of this has to do with his target: Barrows' daughter, Urania-- the former love of Rivas' life and what set him off on such a strange path on the first place. After much internal conflict, Rivas takes the job, infiltrates the Jaybirds to kidnap her back, and battles threats both external and internal in his quest, leading him to the titular event.
And to top it all off, it's a western about a man doing what has to be done, to save himself and to save others.
What I liked most about the book is the setting. While it becomes obvious that it's a post-apocalyptic setting where they use Brandy as currency and drive horse-drawn carriages made out of classic cars, it's very well-realized. Venice is presented as a sleazy den of sin with Deviant's Palace rising over it like some insane, nightmarish castle. The Holy City of Irvine is bright and clean from the outside, but filled with poverty and trash on the inside, with everyone being welded into leg-irons and forced to work. It's a world with its own slang, mannerisms, and rules of reality. Powers spent a lot of time on this for a book clocking in at under three hundred pages, and every bit of it shows. Despite the book being a slim, quick read, every page has a new facet of the world, be it the playing card-obsessed "Aces" who ruled the wasteland until an explosion went off and killed the Sixth, the alien intelligence known as Sevatividam, the history of Jaybird leader Norton Jaybush, and so on.
The problem, though, with Deviant's Palace is that it vanishes too far inside its character's own head. WAY too far sometimes. It's fine that we have a great sense of internal conflict, of Rivas fighting that impulse inside of him to join back up with the Jaybirds and let it consume him, but to have him living in his own head breaks immersion a little, like the scenes where he has flashbacks and can't tell past from present. While this sort of thing was merely disorienting and added to hallucinatory qualities in a book such as Private Midnight, it sometimes stops the book dead here, as the action is suddenly interrupted.
In fact, Private Midnight has a lot of similarities with Deviant's Palace. Both are books involving a rather driven man with a curious and dark past encountering a charismatic person who hints at being an otherworldly intelligence. But where one is a hallucinatory and strange tale of identity and how people can change, Deviant's is a book about being unable to run from who you are and knowing that icky, repugnant thing may not be pleasant to look at, but it's a part of you.
The other problem, and it's not really a problem, is the fantasy elements. It starts out as a post-apocalyptic western about a man fighting a cult, sort of like The Searchers if it was just John Wayne and he had to pretend to be an Apache for half the movie. But then you get the floating thing known as a Hemogoblin that claims to be a part of Rivas, the weirdness behind the "Sacrament", the restorative powers of "Peter and the Wolf" (which just makes me think of Peter Lorre in M), and a climax involving an alien psychic vampire. Or perhaps just some kind of mutant. And while the book should have ended there, you get a strange two-chapter epilogue just to tie up loose ends that didn't really need to be tied up. While the fantasy elements were still cool, and led to a fantastic setpiece, they didn't tie correctly into the book as well as they should have. Also, there's that stupid epilogue.
But you must read this book. It's a fast, brilliant ride, and while it's ugly and insane in places, it's all part of the charm. Besides, it rips a few satirical targets a good one, and is possibly the best post-apocalyptic and single-character book I've ever read. Rivas, despite starting out as a money-grubbing bastard, turns into a stone-cold badass by the end of the first section, and by the end he's a completely changed man, willing to throw himself in the way if it gets the job done, because his sanity-- and the sanity of his world-- are riding on the consequences. You feel every twist, every turn, and every triumph, and while the epilogue shoehorns a vague romance and tries to end things on a more ambiguous note, it's more than worth a read.
Next week: My three-parter on The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox begins with my review of Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart.