A Tim Powers science fiction novel never fails to titillate and elucidate with the dark and the bizarre, and all with such original, eccentric color and style. This novel--Powers' seventh--is a shining example.
Telling his tale through an English physician named Michael Crawford, Powers takes on the gods of English Romanticism (Byron, Shelley and Keats), their assorted wives, children and friends and their "haunted summer" at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland (out of which came Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"). Crawford gives us the dark story behind the spirit of Romanticism in its myriad written, painted and musical forms as inspired by the, ah, bite of the Muses. Hardly Greek goddesses, Powers' Muses are actually lamia (female demons) from the family of Nephelim, which, according to arcane Biblical material, were the "giants in the earth," the descendants of Lilith created after the Flood. In Powers' fantasy, all of the images, fevered dreams and fantasies of the Romantics were brought on by the attentions of these vampire-like succubi. Byron and Shelley, moreover, essentially welcomed their touch as an inspiration to their outrageous work.
A master of rich detail and mood-setting images, Powers has taken the real events of the lives of Keats, Shelley and Byron and given them supernatural reasons for occurring. Toward the end of the book, however, Powers' richness becomes a little too heavy and it seems to take far too long to get to the conclusion.
"The Stress of Her Regard" is still a fascinating story, though, even if it's a bit unsettling to have the swooning and vivid genius of these poets reduced to supernatural influences beyond their control; without the insidiousness of the Nephelim, Powers implies, they would have been creative nobodies. Ah, artistic license!
Crawford, the narrator of all of Powers' rich Gothic machinations, is an accoucheur , who, on the night before his wedding in England, gets manipulated into a liaison with a lamia which, among other things, becomes jealous of his new wife. So on their wedding night, the lamia visits the couple and hideously destroys the wife while Crawford, under the influence of the nasty creature, is totally oblivious to the horror. This nightmare situation sets Crawford off on his journeys to the Continent, until he meets up with Byron and Shelley, and becomes for awhile, Byron's physician (much to the chagrin of Dr. Polidori, Byron's real-life physician). Since he is under the influence of the lamia, he is "recognizable" as one of the "family" to Byron and Shelley and taken into their circle. The two poets make clear to him just what he's gotten involved with in being a part of the nephelim world and its history and rules, and what works for and against their influence.
Of course, we find out that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Nephelim have been influencing events for centuries, spearheaded by an 800-year-old Hapsburg patriarch named Werner von Aargau. The Austrians, in their takeover of Italy in the early 18th Century, have utilized Von Aargau's influence to get them where they want.
Despite Powers' time traveling, though, all of his characters speak terribly modern English. Moreover, Crawford is, conveniently, a very forward-looking physician for his time, especially for one involved in childbirth. But these are minor quibbles. All in all, Powers' unique voice in science fiction continues to grow stronger.