The Stress of Her Regard
One of the main pleasures about Tim Powers’ books is the pleasingly baroque sentences that result when you attempt to summarize their premises. The Stress of Her Regard, for instance, is based on the idea that vampires are really succubi, who are really the nephelim from Genesis, who are really silicon-based lifeforms, who are also (just incidentally) the muses.
The main character is Michael Crawford, an English doctor whose wife is mysteriously killed on their wedding night. Fleeing suspicion for the murder, he is drawn into reluctant association with the nephelim, as well as with the poets Keats, Byron, and Shelley–all of whom, in their different ways, are also connected with the nephelim. The book follows the characters over a number of years as they all try to free themselves from their supernatural entanglements.
If I were to describe this book in one word, it would be “enjoyable.” It’s not the best of Tim Powers’s writing. The plot is episodic, with several different climaxes. As far as I can tell, the historical parts are well-researched, but there were occasional lines of dialogue that sounded a little modern to my ears. (I should say, though, that I know very little about the period and am not qualified to make an expert judgement.) However, the ingenuity with which Powers works together disparate historical elements more than makes up for any small lapses; and despite the looseness of the plot, there is a thoroughly satisfying final showdown.
But really, the book is just fun. Even if it didn’t go anywhere, the ride would still be more than worth it. Powers makes the Romantic poets come alive as flawed but sympathetic people. I especially enjoyed his characterization of Lord Byron, who is proud, pretentious, and afflicted with a host of other vices–but still has a few redeeming qualities. And for anyone who has read Powers’ books and enjoyed them, the book is a real treat, because it has a lot of elements that are typical of his works. A middle-aged hero recently bereaved; ancient supernatural beings harnessed to the service of a regime; multiple personalities; Biblical stories re-interpreted–it’s not derivative, but for a Powers fan it is charmingly familiar. It did mean that I guessed a certain plot twist about a hundred pages before it happened; but there were plenty of surprises to make up for it. And how can you not love a book that connects the Alps, the Hapsburgs, the Riddle of the Sphinx, Lot’s wife, and Perseus?
Morally, The Stress of Her Regard is . . . interesting. Like all Tim Powers books, it employs an earthy, sympathetic-type magic that in this case leads the heroes, in their efforts to combat the nephelim, to use some rather dubious rituals involving blood. There are also a number of non-marital relationships which the author doesn’t judge one way or the other. To my mind, the only truly problematic part of the book is when several people drown themselves in order to kill one of the nephelim; and honestly, it’s an issue open to debate. Overall, I don’t find the book problematic so much as weird. But that’s kind of a given with Tim Powers.
Content-wise, this book is not for the squeamish. There’s a fair amount of violence, and though none of it is terribly graphic, some of it is pretty disturbing. Tim Powers has a reputation for injuring his heroes, and in this book he certainly lives up to it. Along with the aforementioned blood-rituals, there are also several amputations, various bites (vampires, remember?), a dead man’s heart pulled out of his funeral pyre to be used as a magical distraction, and did I mention the perverted nephelim groupies? There’s also a fair amount of sex going on (inevitable, given the succubus element) but it’s never very graphic. Though definitely not a book for children, I think it is acceptable for adults.