Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Book Review | Three Days to Never by Tim Powers

When Albert Einstein told Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 that the atomic bomb was possible, he did not tell the president about another discovery he had made, something so extreme and horrific it remained a secret... until now. This extraordinary new novel from one of the most brilliant talents in contemporary fiction is a stand-out literary thriller in which one man stumbles upon the discovery Einstein himself tried to keep hidden.

When twelve-year-old Daphne Marrity takes a videotape labeled Pee-wee's Big Adventure from her grandmother's house, neither she nor her college-professor father, Frank Marrity, has any idea that the theft has drawn the attention of both the Israeli Secret Service and an ancient European cabal of occultists — or that within hours they'll be visited by her long-lost grandfather, who is also desperate to get that tape. And when Daphne's teddy bear is stolen, a blind assassin nearly kills Frank, and a phantom begins to speak to her from a switched-off television set, Daphne and her father find themselves caught in the middle of a murderous power struggle that originated long ago in Israel and Germany but now crashes through Los Angeles and out to the Mojave Desert.

To survive, they must quickly learn the rules of a dangerous magical chess game and use all their cleverness and courage - as well as their love and loyalty to each other - to escape a fate more profound than death.


Tim Powers is known for a number of notable genre novels, including the Locus and World Fantasy Award-winning Last CallThe Stress of Her Regard and its recent sequel, Hide Me Among the Graves, and On Stranger Tides, the so-called "inspiration" for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean affair. For all these, though, it's fair to say The Anubis Gates remains his most famous. Despite the critical and commercial success of the books above and beyond, nothing the acclaimed American author has written in the nearly 40 years of his career has caught on quite like that classic time travel narrative, so to see Powers return to this well-trodden trope is at once predictable and auspicious.

Three Days to Never isn't a new novel, strictly speaking - it was published in the United States in 2006 - nevertheless, it's new to me, as it will be to other readers who've had to wait for its belated British release this week. But better late than never, certainly — and that goes for those of you who missed it when it was new, too.

Considering the complexities of its exhilarating endgame, the beginning of Three Days to Never is suspiciously simple. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest the story starts slowly, but it does take Powers an age to explain the narrative's core conceit, which has our central characters inherit an improvised time machine following the puzzling passing of a batty granny with secret ties, it transpires, to both Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein.

That it takes the entire first act for Frank and Daphne Marrity to figure out even this little is an issue, admittedly, but not as big a one as it might have been, thanks in large part to Powers' protagonists: a deeply endearing father and daughter double-act who keep Three Days to Never interesting during the opening doldrums, and ground the narrative's especially incredible aspects afterwards. To be sure, they're a precocious pair, yet Frank and Daphne must be amongst the most charming characters the author has created to date.

To balance out the great equation, Powers provides two superficially fascinating antagonists, each of whom represents an outside interest in Frank and Daphne's magical swastika.

Wait, had I not mentioned the magical swastika?

Well... now you know.

Oren Lepidopt, however, knows more. In fact, after a close encounter with a holy wall in Jordan, Lepidopt knows certain things with absolute, unearthly certainty: he knows, for instance, that he'll never again hear the name John Wayne. He knows he'll never eat another tuna sandwich, or swim in the sea, or pet a cat, or see a film in the cinema. About the only thing he isn't sure of is how to safely extract the aforementioned artefact.

And the Mossad aren't the only organisation with designs on Grammar's golden swastika. There's also the Vespers:
"A secret survival of the true Albigenses, the twelfth-century natural philosophers Languedoc whose discoveries in the areas of time and so-called reincarnation had so alarmed the Catholic church that Pope Innocent III had ordered the entire group to be wiped out [thinking they] had rediscovered the real Holy Grail." (pp.76-77)
Blind since a nasty accident, yet still able to see through the eyes of anyone within a particular radius around her, Charlotte Sinclair epitomises the occult orientation of this secret society — that is as opposed to the Mossad's more spiritual principles. Haunted, if not necessarily daunted by the terrible things she's done, Charlotte hopes to travel back in time to undo all the wretchedness she's wrought... but her bosses have different ideas.

Charlotte and Lepidopt are fantastic characters in concept, and they do come into their own eventually, but  again, it takes too long, meanwhile the many others members of their respective groups feel faceless; excuses to infodump outside of the central thread, at best. Unfortunately this is not uncommon in Three Days to Never: Powers frequently interrupts the momentum of Frank and Daphne's comparatively fast-paced chapters to explain, in dizzying detail, what just happened — in addition to why and how and, tellingly, when.

So it starts uncertainly, and suffers from some dreadful talking heads, but take heart, genre fiction fans, because said sequences are the exception rather than the rule, and the whole thing finishes with a phenomenal flourish. Between these extremes, Three Days to Never is as thrilling as anything Tim Powers has written. There's espionage, obviously, and a neat take on time travel, but winningly, the tale also takes in physics and history, philosophy and literature.

Not all of these ideas succeed, indeed; together, however, the few which do trump the entire contents of three normal novels. Even if Three Days to Never can't quite exceed the high bar set by the author's most memorable other efforts - sadly, this isn't the second coming of The Anubis Gates - it is still a solid slab of smart, supernatural sci-fi, well worth looking into whether it's new to you or not.


Three Days to Never
by Tim Power

UK Publication: January 2013, Corvus
US Publication: November 2007, Harper

Recommended and Related Reading

1 comment:

  1. Tim Powers adds enough research and craziness to his fiction to make you wonder where history leaves off and imagination begins.
    The Equation