I know I've mentioned my love for The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers several times, most recently in my review of Alternate Routes. The book made a profound impact on me decades ago in middle school, and held up well as more than childhood nostalgia disorder when I read it again recently.
Nevertheless, I missed a lot of the symbolism in it. For example, the connections between the events in the book and the liturgical year. Then I came across this review by Ben Espen at With Both Hands, which noted:
Written in 1979, The Drawing of the Dark is only Powers’ third novel, but there was a notable increase in polish compared to the two previous books, The Skies DIscrowned and An Epitaph in Rust. Unlike his approximate contemporary, Timothy Zahn, Powers usually takes about three years to write one of his novels. That is not pulp speed, but it does allow Powers to do some amazing things in his books that no other author does.
In this book, Powers creates a clash between rival civilizations that has a vaguely Spenglerian cyclicity and also manages to accept and invert Fraser’s The Golden Bough. Balder not only pre-figures Christ, he actively participated in making the future Christendom fertile ground.
Declare is sometimes talked about as Tim Powers’ first explicitly Catholic novel, but like The Lord of the Rings, the structure of the plot in The Drawing of the Dark follows the liturgical year. An example of why it takes Powers so long to write a book is that he makes a plot that not only follows the cycle of major feasts and saint days, but also matches up with secular history.
I assume that Powers took more liberties with history in The Drawing of the Dark than Declare, as the pivotal and unsubtly named Herzwestern Brewery, which the protagonist Brian Duffy is hired to protect, does not actually exist in Vienna, but the major structure of events in the siege is well-attested, and Powers deftly weaves his story around it. Duffy is hired in Venice by Aurelianus, a shifty old wizard, on Ash Wednesday. Duffy spends most of Lent traveling to Vienna, but he arrives before Easter, when the bock beer will be served at the Brewery.
He goes over the major characters and events, picking out details that I had missed on both readings. And yes, Duffy is just as flawed a man as he portrays - yet he is guided where he is needed, and does what is needed, at great personal cost. Also, the book is funny:
Powers has an eye for the absurd and strange things that nonetheless actually happen, and he peppers the text with them. Sometimes we get such observations from Duffy’s black sense of humor, or Aurelianus’ waspish one, but we also get the narrator chiming in as well. That a book with such a deep and subtle crafting can also manage to be laugh out loud funny is a remarkable accomplishment.
The Drawing of the Dark has rewarded me everytime I’ve come back to it. I encourage anyone with a love of chanson de geste, adventure, or myth to give it a try. And hoist a beer for Brian Duffy, who saved that brewery.
I can think of little higher praise than that which Ben gives: that it "rewarded me everytime I’ve come back to it."
Also, I like his attitude towards spoilers: Since this book is older than I am, I don’t care.