Tim Powers: Three Days to Never

Review of the novel Three Days to Never by Tim Powers.

Tim Powers’ works can be a little hit-or-miss, and I found his previous novel, Declare, to be rather slow going. Happily, Three Days to Never is a shorter, more fast-paced book for which it seems like Powers has more fully mastered some of the tools he was working with in Declare, such as the spy jargon.

The book takes place in 1987, and revolves around English professor Frank Marrity and his 12-year-old daughter Daphne. Peripherally it also involves his sister Moira, his mysterious father Derek, his grandmother Lisa, and his even more mysterious great-grandfather. Frank receives a message from Lisa that she’s destroying the shed in the back of her house, but when he and Daphne arrive the shed is intact, albeit filled with gas fumes. Daphne purloins a videotape from the shed and watches it later in the day, where it throws her into a trance, and causes the VCR to burn up with the tape in it.

The tape, it turns out, is special, as was Lisa, who turns up dead hundreds of miles away. Two different groups are hunting a secret which Lisa has kept hidden since before World War II: A deep cover cell of Israeli Mossad agents, led by a man named Lepidopt, who has premonitions that he’ll never experience certain things again. And also a cell of Vespers, a supernatural cult which includes a blind woman named Charlotte who can see through other peoples’ eyes. The secret everyone is hunting is a device which involved both Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin. The device is not strictly a MacGuffin, because it has a special power which is very much relevant to the story’s plot.

Much of the book revolves around the love that Frank and Daphne have for each other; it’s unusual to see a strong familial father-daughter bond in fiction, it seems to me. Now, they do have a rather unusual – nay, supernatural – link, which plays into the story, but it’s still touching to see. A lot of Three Days is wrapped up in family: Frank’s relationship to his family, Lepidopt’s feelings for his wife and son and how his sense of duty keeps him in America, Charlotte being a woman without a family, who hates herself for her blindness and desperately wants to find a way to change who she is, but who’s stuck in her depressing little cult cell because she has nowhere else to turn. The book’s climax hinges on characters making decisions because they figure out how to do the right thing for themselves and those they care about, or they wilfully continue to do the wrong thing because they don’t care about anyone else.

And on top of all of this, Frank gets some disturbing information about his life which forces him to set his priorities in order.

As usual, Powers put his characters through all kinds of hell: Blindness, a maimed hand, emergency throat surgery, and all that sort of fun stuff. Sometimes his penchant for physical brutality seems eiither comical or disgusting, but it doesn’t go to either extreme here, because the stakes are high enough and the events seem to flow naturally from the plot’s situations.

And it’s chock-full of the neat ideas which often seemed to be absent in Declare: Frank and Daphne’s special connection, the strange videotape, the secret Lisa was hiding, another secret which can erase people from history, and a variety of lesser magics as well as the spy stuff that the Mossad agents and Vesper members practice reflexively. Lepidopt’s premonitions that he’ll never do certain things again after he does them is quite creepy, and Charlotte’s depression and he use of her remote sight are both starkly portrayed. Although none of the characterizations are particularly deep, they’re varied and vivid and help keep the book engaging.

The book’s climax is satisfying enough, although having spent most of the book expecting one of the characters to employ the secret Lisa was keeping, the way it’s used is unexpected and a little disappointing; the history of the secret was in some ways more satisfying. And the story could perhaps have used slightly more denouement.

Still, it’s a good return-to-form for Powers. Not quite as good as Last Call, but one of his better books.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 13 December 2006.

It’s taken a long, long time – nearly 20 years – but the Marvel Masterworks hardcover reprints of The Avengers have finally gotten to the good stuff: The volume reprints #51-58 and Annual #2 (as well as X-Men #45, which was part of a crossover story), from way back in 1968 (the year before I was born!). Written by Roy Thomas and pencilled by John Buscema, this set is perhaps best-known for the two issues that introduced The Vision, but to me this volume is important as it contains maybe my favoritest Avengers story every: In #56 the team went back in time to witness the death of Captain America’s partner Bucky, and when they returned to the present – in Annual #2 – they found that time had been changed, and that the original Avengers team had conquered the world and eliminated all the other superpowers people. The likes of Captain America, the Black Panther and Hawkeye had to take on Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk to save the world. Even today, this is great stuff in the superhero genre. (The annual is actually drawn by Don Heck, who – although not a favorite of mine – does some of his best work in it.)

Somehow I missed the second issue of Athena Voltaire, a 1930s-era Indiana Jones-type adventure yarn with a female protagonist. I’ll need to ask my comics shop to order it for me.

The Goon, by Eric Powell, is a weird concoction, part hard-boiled pulp fiction, and part gruesome horror yarn, but mostly it’s all played for humor. The Goon is the head of a local crime mob, and his main opposition is a mob of zombies led by a mysterious evil priest. The Goon is not exactly a good guy (and his sidekick Frankie is always looking out for number one), but sometimes he does the right thing, and sometimes even for the right reason. There’s a lot of blood, gore, and off-color humor, but y’know, I enjoy all that stuff if it’s pulled off well. This isn’t classic comics material, but it’s a fun read, and Powell is a crack artist, reminding me in a roundabout way of both Will Eisner and Mark Schultz. It may not be to your taste, but if you enjoy humor that’s on the sick side, then you’ll like this one.

Sick Day

I’m home sick today. I’ve had a cold building for a couple of days, and this morning I decided it was better to stay home and take it easy.

It’s days like this that I really appreciate my house. It’s not big or elegant, but I can lie on the couch and watch TV and read. It’s a short walk to the kitchen or the downstairs bathroom, and I can look out the back door onto my patio, which may be a mess of leaves and branches right now, but it’s still a nice little outdoors. It’s a cozy way to rest up.

So I felt crummy this morning (when I called Debbi she said I sounded awful!), but a bowl of chicken soup and two mugs of tea (and four hours) later, I’m feeling better. Less congested. Getting tired of coughing, though.

I don’t take sick days very often. Mostly I’m pretty healthy, and it seems like when I do get sick it’s right when there’s a big deadline at work or something else interesting going on that I don’t want to miss. So yeah, I can be a contributor to “presenteeism”. I’m trying to get better about that. Usually I get sick in the spring or fall when the weather changes (either direction). I think it’s unusual that I get sick in December like this, but I could be wrong.

Anyway, here I sit!

I forgot to mention a couple of fun things that went on at work this week:

Monday, in addition to getting my car fixed (which was not so much fun, other than the outcome), my extended team went out for bowling as a fun activity. Honestly, it’s been probably 15 years – maybe more – since I last bowled. I think when I’ve bowled before it was either candlepin or duckpin bowling, with a smaller ball, but this time it was ten-pin bowling, with larger, heavier balls with the finger grips in the middle.

It was an odd experience, since I clearly know squat about bowling, and it’s strange to play a game or sport for which I have no expectations at all for myself. Of course, none of us were all that great, as our bowling scores ran anywhere from 50 to 150 during the day. I think I bowled between 100 and 110 all three games. I figured out how to be a little more consistent during the day, but didn’t show much improvement after the first half of the first game. But it was fun! In addition to enjoying my job, I like my cow-orkers, and even if I don’t hang out with many of them very often, I do enjoy it when I do.

Then yesterday there was a “family dinner night” for the software organization, so Debbi left work a little early and joined me for a Christmas-style dinner in the cafeteria. The food was good, the desserts were terrific, and we had a good time chatting with some other Apple people and their families.

It’s not all fun-n-games, though, and I have a bunch of stuff to do before the holiday break. I was getting pretty well focused yesterday so I was a bit bummed about staying home today rather than staying on that roll, but it’s important to get healthy, and hopefully I can pick up tomorrow where I left off.