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Expiration Date, Tim Powers, HarperCollins, 1995, ISBN 0-586-21856-4, f5.99

Tim Powers is one of the reasons that I had so much trouble in college. It was his On Stranger Tides that distracted me from at least a complete day of classes. I remember reading On Stranger Tides quite vividly, spending an 8 hour stretch curled up in a chair in the graduate library of the University of Texas, vicariously living the life of a pirate. Most of Powers’ other novels have had the same hold on me, with the possible exception of The Stress of Her Regard, which I found somewhat slow and dull.

I’m happy to say that Expiration Date is much more like On Stranger Tides and The Anubis Gates. Powers’ trick of the trade is the incorporation of historical figures in wildly fantastical yet internally plausible plots. When this works, the reader learns something about the period and personalities while also being entertained. When Powers is at his best, the reader may think some of the fantastic parts are history.

What if ghosts lingered on, and could be “attracted” by conundrums and disorder, could be absorbed by the living who are then “revitalized”? What if certain people’s ghosts were stronger–people like Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison, who knew that their ghosts would be desired by the greedy living? These are Powers’ concepts and he plays them perfectly, establishing the rules as he establishes the characters, always remaining consistent within his world. What Powers has done here is invent his own system of magic, as if he were writing a new role-playing system, then working within those rules as he role plays the characters toward the plot conclusion.

Aside from the mechanics, Powers’ strength also lies within his character portraits. In this long novel he handles at least five major protagonists and a dozen supporting cast, each a well-drawn individual. If there is anything of fault in Expiration Date, it is the lack of anything more than an incredibly entertaining, fun story. But is that a lack or just Powers’ entire intention? In any case, if you want a piece of entertainment that doesn’t treat you like a seven-year-old, you can’t do any better than Powers or Expiration Date.

[Finished 9 July 1995]


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