This is perhaps Tim Powers’ finest novel to date and won the 1984 Philip K. Dick Award. Its fast pacing, one of Powers’ hallmarks, never lets up from beginning to end. Highlights include further insights into the nature of a magical paradigm that was first outlined in The Drawing of the Dark (1979) and was used in On Stranger Tides (1987). Powers’ theory of magic includes some engaging twists on old myths. For example, the power of a mage’s real name presumably derives from its reflection of the mage’s inner being. Thus, when a sorcerer undergoes a major personality change, his or her true name changes as well.
An important theme in this book is the gradual fading of magic. In Powers’ schema, magic fades before the light of Christianity. As the last strongholds of magic-working religions are overwhelmed during the nineteenth century, magic gradually vanishes. As part of this process, the universe is transformed from a magical world to a scientific one. For example, until 1810, the sun actually was carried by Ra underground in a fabulous boat. By the end of the story, however, the underground channel has vanished, and the sun has become the ball of burning gas it is today. This is a delightful way to work the paradigm shift. In Powers’ sixth novel, Last Call (1992), he uses a different paradigm involving the tarot and nonfading magic.
Powers brought the grotesque simile, another of his trademarks, to...
(The entire section is 480 words.)