The third book in Tim Power’s body of niftiness is distinctly better than his first two, though he’s clearly still maturing as an author. It makes the decisive move: from the future to the historical past, and in particular to the secret history behind the history we know, a field Powers has been mining in various ways ever since.
The Drawing of the Dark takes place in the 1520’s, and concerns one Brian Duffy, an Irish mercenary and fencing instructor. After a long and successful career (a successful mercenary is one who’s still alive) he is hired in Venice by an peculiar old man who smokes small dried snakes and calls himself Aurelianus. Aurelianus wants him to go to Vienna to be the bouncer at the Herzwesten Brewery, the only brewery in town. Duffy has mixed feelings; he left Vienna many years before when his lover married another man, and he’s not at all sure he wants to see her again…but maybe he does. And Aurelianus is paying well. And he’s really getting too old to be a mercenary. And he’s just fought a duel with the young scion of a prominent Venetian family (and won) and it would behoove him to get out of town.
And that’s when the weirdness starts. He finds himself being escorted to Vienna by unseen things with disturbing shadows. Why? He narrowly misses being attacked by large flying things. What are they, and why are they after him? He arrives in Vienna in one piece, and in good time to be there for the Siege of Vienna in 1529, when Suleiman the Magnificent attempted to capture Vienna for the Ottoman Empire. Prior to that time the Turkish empire had been expanding by leaps and bounds; Vienna was the first place where the line was well and truly held.But of course there’s more going on in this conflict than meets the eye. Europe is under the oversight of the Arthurian Fisher King, who is (as always) injured. Duffy’s job isn’t simply to be the bouncer at the brewery, as Aurelianus had said; it’s his job to do what it takes to keep the Fisher King alive. And paired against Duffy, the Fisher King, and Aurelianus (who has another name you probably can now guess) are the forces of the Turk—and behind them the eastern equivalent of the Fisher King. This is not simply a clash of civilizations; it’s a clash between the spirit of the West and the spirit of the East, and in the end it will all come down to the fate of the Herzwestern Dark beer.
There’s a lot I like here. Duffy is an entertaining, irascible character, and as a history buff and long time fantasy reader I like the careful intertwining of Renaissance history and the Grail legends. More, I like Power’s somewhat goofy sense of humor; the title The Drawing of the Dark sounds like a third-rate cheap fantasy novel about the emergence of dark powers, but in fact it is precisely correct: the plot hinges on the drawing of the dark beer from the Herzwesten vat.
Delightfully goofy as the notion of Western civilization being saved from destruction by beer might be (and there’s much more to it than I’m sharing), it’s also a flaw: the book isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be funny or serious. Or, rather, it wants to be serious (if light) but the goofiness detracts from the tone.
This won’t be a problem again, I might add; in later books Powers’ imagination is every bit as fecund and peculiar, but always in service to the story, and often with chilling effect.
Despite its flaws, I’ve read The Drawing of the Dark with enjoyment many times, and I always come back to it with a smile.