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28 April 2016

REVIEW: "The Stress of Her Regard" -- Sing, O Muse, and bite me on the neck

The Stress of Her Regard The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book I've read by Tim Powers (the first being The Anubis Gates) and it certainly won't be the last. I'm somewhat of a sucker for secret-history fiction and both those books fall squarely in that genre, but Powers' bigger strength is the way he portrays the supernatural as something recognizable but also ineffably weird. In The Anubis Gates you had a body-swapping werewolf-spirit-thing and wizards who sacrificed contact with the earth in exchange for contact with otherworldly powers. In The Stress of Her Regard, you have a race of creatures who are basically all the seductive nasties of Western mythology, rolled into one. Plus more than a bit of Lovecraftian horror.

It's not really a spoiler to say reveal the book's central conceit: that human history, and in particular the lives of poets and artists, has been shaped by contact with a second intelligent race living on Earth. As it turns out, the frail and tragic lives of most of the Romantic poets (Byron, Shelley, and Keats in particular) were that way precisely because they were the lovers/prey of these beings.

Call them vampires, lamiae, gorgons, nephilim: they're all those things from mythology, rolled into one. Powers' explanation for why they're all the same race is interesting and more than a bit weird, and it's nice that the explanation comes from characters who clearly are just trying to piece it all together: enough happens that even those details, while seemingly true, never seem true enough. Powers is a bit more on the "this is all knowable" side of things than, say, Lovecraft was, but you never feel like the characters, at least, reach a point of knowing the enemy fully.

Speaking of Lovecraft, there were several scenes in TSoHR that could have been ripped from the pages of a particularly epic Call of Cthulhu RPG campaign, and I say that in the most positive way. (No spoilers, but remember this during the scene in the Alps, and both adventures in Venice.)

I listened to the Audible recording of the book, narrated by Simon Vance. I really really like Vance as a narrator, and he does a fine job here. That said, I think he's better at reading straight fantasy rather than horror, as TSoHR tends to become.

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