“The Stress Of Her Regard” by Tim Powers

This is one of those books where I accidentally picked up the sort-of sequel from a library without realising it was a sort-of sequel, because when they’re only sort-of sequels, the publishers don’t tend to write on the front cover that it’s not the first book. However, even though they don’t contain the same characters and take place about fifty years later, these sort-of sequels tend to make very little sense for at least the first half of the book. And that’s sad.

So I read Hide Me Among The Graves and I enjoyed it, but I did find it quite confusing, because a lot of things didn’t seem to be explained. And I wasn’t sure if that was just Tim Powers being obscure, or if I’d read the books in the wrong order. When I figured out it was the latter, I tried to track down the first book, but the libraries didn’t have it, so eventually I bought it.

And now, we are here.

the stress of her regardI managed to read this book fairly quickly, in just a couple of days, which compared to my complete lack of reading recently is fairly impressive. Although it’s not short, it’s not difficult to read, and the prose doesn’t slow you down the way it does in some books, so you can race through it. And I wanted to: my disordered reading contributed to a constant sense of, “But how does this lead to what happened later?” as well as the book itself being gripping.

Now, I’m a sucker for the Romantic poets. I can’t help it. Byron, the Shelleys, Keats … they fascinate me, and I’m pretty sure they would also have made a great emo band because Byron was clearly born to wear skinny jeans and guyliner. What Tim Powers does here is place those historical figures in a story with vampires, without ever demanding that you suspend your disbelief. By the time you get to the end, you’re pretty sure that it actually happened like that.

This is exacerbated by the way that Tim Powers includes quotes from their poems (as well as other poetry), journals and letters at the beginnings of chapters, tying in their real lives with the events he’s describing. He does this so cleverly that instead of seeming contrived, it seems natural, like he really is uncovering a secret double life of these famous poets.

Okay, so I’m no scholar, and maybe someone who had studied their lives would be able to notice discrepancies, but basically the plot takes actual events (“The Romantics in Switzerland writing ghost stories”) and actual places and then … adds vampires. Except they’re not the cheesy, overdone and melodramatic vampires you get in a lot of fiction. They’re terrifying, linked in with ancient myths, and not once do you feel any desire to laugh at the idea of vampires in this setting.

(Because, you know, a lot of things it’s like, “Oh yeah, history plus vampires, ha ha ha I’m sure that’s hilarious.”)

That isn’t to say this book isn’t at all funny. There are moments of humour: sardonic one-liners from background characters, mostly. However, on the whole it’s more of a serious story, and in fact its attention to historical detail as well as its sombre tone sets it apart from a lot of fantasy novels, because it seems otherwise like the ‘real’ world.

The characters are an interesting bunch. Some of them, like Byron or Shelley, are familiar to most people in the shape of their actual historical selves. Others, like Josephine, are fictional creations. Josephine was actually one of the most interesting ones for me, because you’re led to dislike her at the beginning, but as the novel progresses, it’s hard not to pity her and then, almost, to like her. Her struggles with identity and self-mastery, despite her occasional weakness of character and restraint, make her far more compelling than I ever suspected at the beginning.

Powers is a tasteful writer, in my opinion. There’s a liberal dose of violence and some truly gross moments including one where a character bites off his own finger, but none of it is described in too much detail: only enough to set the scene. Where other writers might dwell on gore for the sake of it, for Powers it’s a part of the plot and the character’s journey. The same can be said for sex, as he quickly covers in a couple of sentences the emotions and actions of the moment without going into unnecessary graphic detail, and I’m always grateful for that.

The book twists and turns, and is fairly unpredictable at moments, because where you might think it was coming to the end, it does so far sooner than you think, and then takes a new direction after that. It’s never dull, and I was never flicking through to see how much I had left, unless it was to see if I could justify finishing it.

As a poet, I found it inspiring. I’m not sure what it is about reading about poets, but it always makes me want to write, even when poetry is perceived within the novel as the gift of these vampiric muses. I’m pretty sure if I was being stalked by one of them I’d be selling more poetry collections, though, so I figure I’m safe so far.

I suppose it should be obvious that I’m giving this four stars, because that includes the category of “recommending to friends” and in fact I already bought this for a friend, even before I’d read it, on the strength of its sort-of sequel / companion novel. I really do encourage you to read them in the right order, though. It makes a lot more sense that way around.

It’s a great read — exciting historical fantasy that takes the genre to a new level. Also because it involves Lord Byron and hey, we have the same birthday, so I kind of have a soft spot for the guy.

Rating: ****

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