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.