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The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers

The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers
Book Name: The Stress of Her Regard
Author: Tim Powers
Publisher(s): Charnel House (US) Ace Books (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Horror
Release Date: September 1989 (US) August 1989 (UK)

Tim Powers may be familiar to many as the author of the novel On Stranger Tides (on which a Pirates of the Caribbean movie was based), but to me he’s the writer of The Anubis Gates, a book I first stumbled across in my local library way back in 1987, and again a year or so later. Strangely, it’s the only Tim Powers book I’d read until this one; I was a fickle teenager and, despite promises to read everything Mr Powers wrote from that moment on, I never did – perhaps I decided The Anubis Gates was too good, and nothing he wrote would ever match it.

Twenty-odd years later, and another trip to the library, I found The Stress of Her Regard. Originally written in 1989, its latest incarnation was released in the UK by Corvus Books in 2012. The quotes on the cover describe Powers as ‘one of fantasy’s grand masters’ who ‘recasts the tragic lives of the Romantics in a gripping and Gothic feat of imagination’. How could I refuse?

The book starts in 1816, with poets Byron and Shelley rowing on the peaceful waters of Lake Geneva. They almost capsize when something rises from the lake to attack them. In England, Michael Crawford’s wife is brutally murdered on their wedding night, allowing a dark spirit to claim him as her own. What follows is Crawford’s attempt to escape the reputation he has now gained, as well as to understand and free himself from this strange being. His journey takes him from London and through Europe, finding company and shared experience with the poets Byron, Keats and Shelley.

It’s an ambitious work, one where fictional and real-life characters merge seamlessly, along with places and the events of the time. By focusing on Crawford, Powers keeps the narrative tight; despite the scope of the novel, it never feels like it sprawls or loses direction. Quite a feat, considering there are chapters when Crawford doesn’t appear at all, the author letting the poets take the reins, which he does with great skill. While these chapters may initially seem jarring, as if they were written as short stories slipped in to form an interlude, they all have their places in the plot that are revealed as the reader proceeds further into the novel.

Throughout the book, right from the very first page, there’s an otherworldly air, a feeling that nothing is quite as it seems. We’re as bewildered with the goings on as Crawford is; we learn as he does, drawn gently into the story that unfolds around us. Spanning several years, The Stress of Her Regard never feels like the author is showing off his knowledge of countries and celebrities of the nineteenth century. While some parts may initially seem overly descriptive, the author chooses his words wisely, often making the landscape a vital part of the story. It’s a book that makes the reader pay attention, but is all the more rewarding for doing so. I often found myself setting out to read a chapter, only to find that I’d devoured a hundred pages without pause.

The ‘dark spirit’ that is the villain of the story is equally as fascinating as the protagonist and other characters. I’m not giving anything away by saying that it’s a spin on the vampire, but this is certainly vastly different from anything I’ve ever come across. It’s a creature that has existed for thousands of years and, despite the nature of it, it’s still possible for the author to conjure some sympathy for it. In fact, there are times when it seems to have more humanity than the men and women it seeks to possess.

For a novel that was first published twenty-five years ago, The Stress of Her Regard is fresh and vibrant, still unique after a quarter of a century. Its age means it has some faults – there were some modern phrases that jarred in the dialogue, for instance, and there are a couple of moments that feel too surreal – but as a whole, this is a book that has captured the essence of the Romantic poets beautifully, carrying the reader forward into a tale that they will be submersed in and – just possibly – be reduced to tears by one of the most moving endings I’ve read for a long time.

It’s a book I’d recommend to anyone who has an interest in the era or the Romantic poets of the time, to those who aren’t afraid to look over their shoulders now and again, just to make sure there are no moving shadows. Certainly, I’ll never look at a statue in the same way again…


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