Strange Itineraries by Tim Powers lives up to its title: it’s a trip.
Tim Powers is a powerhouse fantasy novelist. He’s probably known best for his historical fantasy, and books like The Anubis Gates and Declare have won him a huge following. I think my favorite is Last Call, a book about the inspiration behind playing cards come to life, which was one of the handful of card-related stories I read as I was working on my novel, Play Dead. It taught me more about writing than it did about cards, per se. An accomplished writer of what you might call “fabulism,” Tim Powers talent is bringing the mythic and the marvelous to life while at the same time retaining a strict psychological realism, dramatizing the way characters think and feel in deeply penetrating ways, regardless of whether they’re magicians or monsters or men. The world in a Tim Powers book is marvelously unique, yet at the same time his settings are very concrete and keenly detailed and the people are undeniably just like you and me. But being “psychologically” realistic does not make Tim Powers a “realist” by any means — indeed, his mission seems to be to bend reality, and Strange Itineraries succeeds at unhinging it at every stop along the way as he takes us on a tour of some exceptionally weird landscapes and frightfully uncanny mental vistas.
Strange Itineraries collects nine fantastic tales by Tim Powers, culled from anthologies (like the mega-horror book, 999), collectible chapbooks, and familiar serials like The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov’s SF Magazine. It’s a great sampling of Powers’ talent (as well as that of James P. Blaylock, his collaborator on one third of the stories included here — almost enough to make me think he deserves to share the book’s byline). The stories range from peculiar fantasy to disturbing (but subtle) psychological horror and twisted alternate reality. Powers is not a horror writer in the strictest sense, but he can be very dark and mind-bending (and often, funny), but what really floors me is his sheer imagination. He takes risks and always pulls it off.
In his introduction, Paul di Filippo refers to this collection as a book of “haunted” stories. This is an excellent way to think of Strange Itineraries — though it is not so much a collection of “ghost stories” as it is a tour of diverse settings where things are not as they seem. In the title piece, “Itinerary,” a character steps into a short circuit in space and time and Powers’ effectively loops the plot structure of this story in a way that really gets you at the end. (You’ll also learn why this book has a porcelain duck on its cover). One of the darkest tales in the collection, “Through and Through,” visits a priest with a ghost in his confessional, a specter who looks him “through and through” with surprising results. “Pat Moore” is the doppleganger story to end all doppleganger stories, where the title character encounters more Pat Moores than even Pat Moore can imagine. In “The Better Boy” — perhaps the best “magical garden” tale I’ve ever read — Powers shows what happens when a man’s “inventor’s pants” go missing and throw off his plans for the tomatoes…and so much more. The closing story, “Night Moves,” invokes the specter of death in a mind bending and sophisticated way, rife with irony. I really can’t describe these stories without either relying on gross overgeneralizations or spoiling things by giving everything away. So I’ll just stop now and say that if you’re looking for an escape, climb aboard Strange Itineraries and prepare to launch on a very bizarre tour hosted by one of the most brilliant imaginations of our day.
Strange Itineraries is available in trade paperback for $15.95 (US) from Tachyon Publications. (And congratulations to Tachyon on their tenth anniversary!)