One stormy night in 1816, shortly before his wedding, physician Michael Crawford places his wedding ring on a statue, and so becomes ties to one of the nephelim, a race of inhuman vampires who predate humanity on Earth. The morning after his wedding, he wakes to find his bride Julia horrifically torn to bits in their locked room, and he’s forced to flee the life he knew to escape the hangman’s noose. With the aid of poet John Keats, he heads across the English Channel to France where he encounters Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, and becomes deeply embroiled in a fight to fight off the creature which haunts him. He’s pursued by Julia’s twin sister Josephine, who gains a nephelim lover of her own.
Taking place between 1816 and 1822, The Stress of Her Regard is a shadow history centered around the lives of the three romantic poets, all of whom died young and whose families also suffered from early deaths. Powers uses the nephelim to explain both their artistic prowess as well as the grim elements of their lives: The nephelim attach themselves like haunting spirits to humans and (perhaps as a side-effect) imbue them with certain skills and even with long life, but the nephelim are also jealous creatures who try to kill all who are loved by their human beloved.
There are many recurring elements of a Tim Powers novel: The main character is physically mutilated and forced to abandon the life they knew; there’s a leap in time between the first and second halves of the book; and the plot culminates in a mystical ritual which goes wrong somehow (yet often succeeds nonetheless). The main character is usually an everyman – albeit one with some skills of his own – who ends up as the lynchpin character amidst towering (or at least more knowledgeable) figures. All of these elements are present here, and while you could argue that this makes Powers’ books a little repetitive, his intricate plotting and clever twists and turns make each story unique. Clearly he just enjoys writing about certain dramatic situations.
A common theme of Powers’ novels is being torn between the temptations offered by the opposing forces, and one’s own well-being or loved ones. This conflict is as clear here as it’s ever been, with Crawford deeply succumbing to the nephelim’s influence in the first half, and then severely tempted to invite them back – despite the ruin it would deliver on his life and friends – in the second. He sees what the nephelim do to other people, even when – as they do for Byron – they provide a vital piece of meaning in their lives. Crawford goes through hell to get rid of his succubus, but constantly feels the temptation to invite it back, and thus can’t pass judgment on others who succumb. For the love of his friends, he drags himself through further hell in order to help them. Although Powers’ narrative is sometimes verbose enough to take the reader out of the moment, it’s still powerful stuff through the sheer aggregation of tension and emotion.
Stress wraps up with a satisfying climax and touching denouement, bringing the lives of the famous supporting characters to their historical closes. It should please any Powers fan, and is a strong fantasy/suspense tale for anyone else.