When I was first made aware of The Drawing of the Dark, I was told to expect “some problematic East/West stuff.” The title itself did not fill me with confidence, as I imagined light/dark dichotomies mapped, Tolkien-esque, on to pale and dark skin to represent good and evil as endemic to specific geographies or geo-political realities. But I love Powers’ writing, and decided it would be a good thing to familiarise myself with his earlier work.
Happily, the title is about beer.
Sadly, my instincts about the rest were not as far off as I had hoped.
The year is 1529, and the Ottoman Empire is advancing on Vienna. Brian Duffy, a well-travelled mercenary, accepts a job from a mysterious old man in Venice, agreeing to travel to Vienna and keep the peace in the Zimmerman inn, famous for its Herzwesten beer. But no sooner does he set out than he finds himself plagued by assassins working to prevent his arrival and a motley assortment of supernatural creatures working to safeguard it - hinting that the Zimmerman inn, and Duffy himself, are both more than they seem.
The Drawing of the Dark is a fantastically engaging novel, and one that is, in many ways, a proto-Powers work: I see in it the seeds of future writing that I have absolutely loved. A protagonist that has a complicated spiritual relationship with alcohol; magic and supernatural creatures shown to be responsible for historical events; world-weary characters that bring hundreds of years of lived experience to bear on modernity; all these are aspects of Last Call, The Stress of Her Regard, The Anubis Gates, and much short fiction that I’ve tremendously enjoyed. The contemporary language and perspectives in a sixteenth century setting worked pretty well for me - I laughed at what seemed like deliberate anachronisms about “those British shopkeepers who claim to be druids, and dance, rather self-consciously, at Stonehenge every midsummer’s eve” (183) - and Powers is remarkably adept at writing extensive fight scenes that don’t put me to sleep (a rare distinction shared only by Dorothy Dunnett and Ellen Kushner).