I grew up reading Tim Powers. What I mostly do nowadays is this thing - Fallen London - which is a colossally elaborate narrative game of subterranean Gothic Victoriana - and, yes, was The Anubis Gates ever an influence. You could grind Fallen London to powder, boil it, chromatograph it and you'd find the unmistakable tint of Powers read at an impressionable age. But I'm here to talk about a painting in The Drawing of the Dark, his historical fantasy about beer, monsters and the sixteenth-century siege of Vienna.
I'd always thought of Drawing as a lesser Powers. His stories draw much of their tremendous energy from the tension between the exotic and the every day - and Dark's setting is already plenty exotic for most of us. And the central antagonism between the occult poles of Western and Eastern civilisation reads uneasily nowadays - the world's moved on since the 70s. It's certainly no Anubis Gates or Last Call.
But even a lesser Powers is a fine book by normal standards, and when I reread it, I found a lot to like. The protagonist is wearily good-humoured, authentically middle-aged, sceptical of the main plot without being sulky about it. He has a past, he makes bad decisions, and he's - like many Powers leads - a route into the larger concerns of the world outside. The setting's persuasive, the story tramps along with the untidy enthusiasm of a mercenary company, and it's sometimes very funny, despite a haunting tag-line:"Much has been lost, and there is much left to lose." And there's one image that's stayed with me since I first read it.
So, for years this chap Gustav has been working on a mural entitled 'The Death of the Archangel Michael'. Every day he adds incident and detail. It occupies an entire wall of his room. It's a 'near-infinity of fine, close-knit penstrokes', 'crowded and vague in subject but flawless in execution'. Over three years it's gone from noon light to deep twilight as the painter shades it more closely.
It's also, in a not-really-twist that Powers sets up scrupulously, a clairvoyant glimpse of the outcome of a really key plot point.
As said plot approaches its climax, our oblivious hero casually mentions the painting to his mentor / puppetmaster, who - once recovered from a disbelieving tantrum - drags him through the streets of Vienna to the painter's lodgings. They race upstairs! tear open the door! and find (besides another horrible event that comes across as oddly understated) the painter dead of starvation before the mural. And when they tear back the curtain, the mural is gone. Gustav's been working on it so long, so hard, so determined to complete every detail, that he's just ended up painting the entire wall black.
As a shorthand for the irreversible seduction of artistic overelaboration, it's pretty strong stuff. When you've been working on a colossal narrative game (a million words and counting) for years... well, I won't say the Drawing of the Dark on its own is what caused us to commit to a clear game-plan for the ending. But I will say it helped teach me when to stop.
Alexis Kennedy is the Chief Narrative Officer and co-founder of Failbetter Games, the mad creators of, amongst other things, Fallen London, Sunless Sea, Story Nexus, Black Crown, The Night Circus... and pretty much any other amazing interactive storytelling experience that you can think of. You can gawk at him on Twitter as @alexiskennedy.