Tim Powers – The Stress of Her Regard
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, with a drop or three of Horror.
Started: 01 March 2013
Finished: 18 March 2013
Where did it come from? Amazon.
Why do I have it? Ana’s fault.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 13 December 2012.
If you’re going to wed
a statue by accident,
make sure it’s just stone.
Summary: In 1816, on the night before his wedding, young doctor Michael Crawford places his wedding band on the hand of a statue so that he wouldn’t lose it in the dark and stormy decorative garden. However, the next morning, the statue – and his ring – are gone. The wedding proceeds anyways, but Michael’s relief is short-lived, as during their first night together, his new bride is murdered in a terrifyingly gruesome manner. Suspicion of course immediately falls upon Michael, who flees, and winds up in hiding with a young medical student named Keats, who introduces Michael to the world into which his has inadvertently stumbled. Because the statue was no statue, but rather a lamia, a member of an ancient race of beings that have been called everything from vampires to nephilim, and a creature to which Crawford is now inextricably bound. Interactions with the lamia are not uncommon in 19th century Europe, and as Crawford travels on, he meets several others so afflicted, including the poets Byron and Shelley. But is the benefit of binding oneself to a lamia really worth the terrible cost that it can exact?
Review: When I was looking for my next book to read, I saw this title on my Kindle and thought “Oh, hey, historical fiction and vampires, should be fun, and totally appropriate for an “I-am-not-overfond-of-air-travel-so-I-get-to-read-trashy-books-as-a-reward-when-I’m-on-a-plane” book.” Right? Right? Wrong. So very wrong. This book was dense, complicated, and twisty in a way that made it really difficult for me to keep a lot of things straight. It wasn’t a bad read, but it was a read that required more brain power and undivided attention than I really had free to give it, and it was also a lot more serious and dense than I was expecting.
A lot of this is because Powers’s worldbuilding is really, really complex. I love the fact that he incorporated all kinds of folklore and mythology and history into a single cohesive idea. I also love the fact that he managed to work this story into the real history, into the lives of real people, without (insofar as I know; I am by no means an expert – or even a well-informed amateur – on the period and people involved) altering what’s known from the historical record. He manages to pull quotes from the writings (published and personal) of the romantic poets and their contemporaries that support his version of events, and weaves it all together so well that I started to think “What if this really were what happened? What if this is how it works? Could I prove that it wasn’t true?” It’s rare that a book manages to pull that off, but I absolutely love when one does (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is another example, although they’re otherwise not particularly similar.)
But the problem with all that complexity is that it makes for very confusing reading if you’re not going slowly and paying attention, and sometimes even when you are. I spent a lot of the book not entirely clear on the differences between an individual who is born into the “family”, vs. those that marry into it, vs. those that are outside but eager to attract a lamia, vs. those that are attracted to the humans who are lamia-touched, etc. Not to mention the extent of lamia powers, what they can and can’t do, and what they do or don’t do to humans, how they’re related to the Graeae, how the Graeae work to influence probility, and so on. Even after having slogged through the entire 400-odd pages, I’m *still* not sure I understand it well enough to give a coherent explanation or summary. I’m sure it all does fit together – nothing in this book gave the impression of being random or ill-thought-out – but the underlying order didn’t always come across clearly on the page.
This detail-packed but not always clearly delineated style came across in the pacing as well. There are certainly some very tautly suspenseful and effectively creepy scenes, in particular most of the confrontations with the lamia. The initial scene, where Michael puts the wedding ring on a statue, which then closes its hand when he’s not looking, was scary enough that I didn’t want to read it after dark… and not just because it reminded me of the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who. (That sure didn’t help, though.) There were other scenes that were just as good; the problem was that I found a lot of the interstitial parts much slower going. It may be because I’m not particularly familiar with the romantic poets, or it may just have been the style of the book, but I had a really hard time connecting with any of the characters, which made it difficult to really get invested in the parts of the story where nothing much was happening.
In short, this book took a lot of very interesting ideas and wove them all together in a creative and fascinating way, but the actual execution of the story itself, while perfectly fine on a technical level, just didn’t always work for me. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: This would probably be best for people who like their fantasy more on the literary side, both in terms of the density and complexity of the prose, as well as in the sense that it involves actual figures from literary history.
First Line: Until the squall struck, Lake Leman was so still that the two men talking in the bow of the open sailboat could safely set their wine glasses on the thwarts.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- Location 1207: ““An oloroso sherry for my friend, and I’ll have a glass of the house claret.”” – A full-bodied, medium-sweet sherry.
- Location 1739: “Having finally reached Auray, these many hours later, the cabbage was wilted but still clinging to his head, and he was noctambulistically intoning the refrain to a song des Loges had begun singing hours ago; and the melody, or perhaps the wing-flapping motions with which the wagon-bound old man had chosen to accompany it, had attracted a following procession of barking dogs.” – I don’t think this is really a real word (Google has 3 hits for it), but it’s obviously meant to mean “like a sleepwalker”.
- Location 2252: ““People are dying by the side of the road, and all you can be bothered to do is recite poetry and tell me about digestive trapezohedrons.”” – Any of several forms of crystal with trapeziums as faces.
- Location 4220: ““Fresh air’s important in the treatment of the sort of Phthisis you suffer from,” Crawford said.” – any disease that causes wasting of the body, esp pulmonary tuberculosis.
- Location 4822: ““Originally it was for haruspication.”” – a form of divination from lightning and other natural phenomena, but especially from inspection of the entrails of animal sacrifices.
- Location 5717: “The waiter brought a steaming platter of trenette noodles covered with green pesto sauce redolent of basil and Ligurean olive oil and garlic, and Josephine said, “I hate this.”” – a type of narrow, flat, dried pasta
- Location 6332: “He was tanned and fit-looking in a double-breasted reefer jacket and white nankeen trousers and black boots, but the face under the disordered gray-blond hair was expressionless.” – A sturdy yellow or buff cotton cloth.
- Location 9359 “He kept forgetting that he was not in a hospital delivering a baby, and more than once he irritably asked Josephine for a bistoury or probe-scissors.” – A long, narrow surgical knife for minor incisions.
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