One of the first of Tim Powers’ books, it bears all the marks of what later became his unique style. It will come as no surprise then that The Drawing of the Dark is a crazy, fast-paced story full of magic, inexplicable occurrences and concurrences, tackling themes as disparate as metaphysical rebirth, production of beer, detailed instructions of what to do with a dead hunchback, a band of Vikings marooned on Donau canals, and a close loving look at mythology – this time strictly Western European.
The Drawing of the Dark is set in the year 1529, mostly in Vienna, at the height of Turkish invasion. The dominant part of the plot centers around a Vienna-based Zimmerman Inn, a former Christian cloister built on a Roman fort’s ruins, raised on even older Celtic brewery ruins, now a well known pub and hotel producing its own, highly valued beer. The owner of the Inn, a very old, black-clad man calling himself Aurelianus, hires in Venice a battered, middle-aged Irishman, a veteran of many battlefields, a grizzled drunkard named Brian Duffy. Another BD, you may notice, if you’ve read The Anubis Gates ;). Duffy’s journey south is fraught with bizarre events and near-death experiences, from the materializing of a Bacchus tavern somewhere on the streets of Trieste, through the assistance of mythical creatures on Duffy’s passage through the Alps, to a sudden attack of winged monsters on the shores of an Alpine lake. If I am allowed to say one thing about Powers’ undeniable love of Alps, I’d say it’s pretty damn impressive. The description of the mountain views is powerful and poignant – it seems that Powers really has a streak of Romanticism hidden somewhere deep inside.
Once Duffy finds himself in Vienna, the city which years before he had hastily abandoned after an especially spectacular heartbreak and a rather brutal scene at the wedding, the plot measurably thickens. Several important characters from the Irishman’s past gather on the scene, from his former girlfriend Epiphany, now a grey-haired, wrinkled and beaten-down by life serving maid, to John Zapolya, erstwhile successful general of Hungarians, now, after the defeat of Hungary, a skilled and audacious spy for Ibrahim, the Turkish Grand Vizier. Because of course, the Turkish invasion is something different than it seems – the Turkish sultan Suleiman is just a pawn of Ibrahim, who in turn serves the mysterious King in the East, the ultimate Eastern ruler, bent on conquering and banishing all that West stands for. And just as he rules the East, in the West resides his peer, the mystical King in the West, whose health and well-being are merged with the health and well-being of the Western culture, philosophy, aesthetics, values and identity. The aforementioned health of the Western King is failing – and has been for a while, judging by the fact that (spoiler alert!) he IS the Fisher King, the mythical king of Arthurian legends. And, as the legends say, also most probably the still-alive Christ.
He, and the West, can be cured of illness – by a cup of Dark Herzwestern beer, draught on the All Hallows Eve from the ancient Celtic vat built on the grave of Finn MacCool, hidden in the cellars of the Zimmerman Inn. Yeah, a bit of essence of a legendary Celtic hero is bound to cure everything 😉
The Turkish invasion is therefore an all-out attack on the heart of the West. Destroy Vienna, and the brewery, and the Western King – and the West along him – will never be able to regain strength.
Fortunately, the West has Brian Duffy – for an ageing swordsman is in fact a reborn hero of many tales and cultures, even if he himself doesn’t believe it.
So, another unabashed, exuberant romp through every possible theme and topic of Western-centric fantasy. We’ve got Vikings, landsknechten, poets and scullery maids, dwarves and hunchbacks, winged sirens, Merlin, and beer. Lots and lots of beer, sometimes put aside only for lots and lots of wine. Or brandy. Or dried snakes, smoked like cigars. All in all, it seems to me that Powers’ Merlin was definitely inspired by The Once and Future King. He may not age back as T.H. White’s Merlin, but he has a lot of characteristics derived from that character. To say anything more would be to spoil certain surprises, so I won’t write another word about it ;).
The Drawing of the Dark is pure fun. Not on par with The Anubis Gates, that would be a difficult feat to achieve, but still very good. Mind you, don’t look to closely at the logic supposedly driving it all – the plot is decidedly far-fetched and ultimately not the most important part of the novel. What matters is the wild imagination of Tim Powers, whose frolicking through European Renaissance history is at the same time shameless and weirdly informative. His look at the Arthurian mythos seems by no means original now – but The Drawing of the Dark was written almost half a century ago, and then it definitely was fresh and unique. I especially liked the system of magic, so closely bound with reality, subjected to changes and waning. Powers has it thought through – through many years and many novels.
I wholeheartedly recommend The Drawing of the Dark – it’s a light, even if very dense and sometimes demanding – read, full of inside jokes and totally crazy ideas, and yet still making a lot of sense. I pitied the poor Turks – being the big bad guy from the East for so many centuries must have been tiring, so the ascendance of Russia to that position must have come as a relief to them :P. And the Janissaries, the red shirts of Powers’ novel – I’d like to read a really nuanced fantasy account of those soldiers for a change.
And, of course, a quote from the unparalleled William Ashbless (who says authors don’t think long-term? ;)):
If but we Christians have our beer,
Nothing’s to fear.