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Reamde Among the Graves

I recently got back into fiction reading with two books: Reamde by Neal Stephenson, and Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers. I’ve been a big fan of both these authors for some time.

When I started reading Hide Me Among the Graves, I was unimpressed, compared both to Reamde, which I’d recently finished, and to Powers’s best works1; I immediately started planning this post. But once I finished it, though the two books were very different, I ended up feeling roughly the same about them.

Both draw from the authors’ typical cast of characters. Stephenson writes about (and for2, and as one of the) geeks, and most of Reamde’s characters are geeks of one sort or another, often able to put their analytic skills to good use even when in unfamiliar and incredibly stressful situations. The typical Powers protagonist is a male alcoholic Catholic with father issues, though recent stories have mixed that up a bit; in Hide Me Among the Graves, John Crawford’s drinking problems don’t pick up until the middle of the book, and are not explored to any real degree.

Similarly, both books visit comfortable ground for the authors: cryptography, economics, and virtual worlds on the one hand; historical figures and the occult on the other. Stephenson has ranged pretty far afield from these since Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, so this is something of a homecoming for him after The Baroque Cycle and Anathem. Powers has stuck to his formula since On Stranger Tides and The Stress of Her Regard, mostly for the better.3

Stephenson’s aforementioned recent works were high-concept novels that demanded much of the reader — Anathem for the philosophy and quantum theory integrated deeply into the story, The Baroque Cycle if only for its length and complexity. Reamde, in contrast, is largely a geekified technothriller. On the one hand, I found myself immediately wanting to go back and reread Anathem. On the other hand, it’s a very well-done geekified technothriller; once the story got moving, it was pretty hard to put the book down until the end.

There were a couple minor things that bugged me about Reamde. The most annoying, and trivial, was referring to two or three characters — in the modern day, 2011 or thereabouts — using their PDAs. (Really, PDAs?) The other…. One can never accuse Stephenson of leaving an interesting fact out of one of his books. He’s practically bursting with them; you can easily imagine him unable to keep from chattering about them with his friends as he learns them. In Reamde, there were a few instances where it was completely obvious when he was relating things that he saw when scouting the book’s various settings. (Maybe he did that in Cryptonomicon, too, but if so it didn’t stick with me4.)

My brother and I agreed that Powers was basically phoning it in with Three Days to Never, his previous book5. And reading Hide Me Among the Graves immediately after finishing Reamde, I started getting the same feeling: There was little tension, and I didn’t particularly care about the characters. But then the tension built a little more, and a little more, and I realized that I’d brought my technothriller expectations — high energy, high tension, little chance to catch your breath — to a horror novel. After I adjusted my expectations, it was a well-done horror novel, with the stakes increasing and the characters getting closer to damning their souls as the end of the book approached.

Hide Me Among the Graves, too, had a few problems, more fundamental than Reamde’s. Most importantly, I never really ended up caring as much about Powers’s characters as I did Stephenson’s. I’m not sure why; characterization has never been Powers’s strong suit (Declare being his high-water mark), but also he’s chosen to use historical figures for many of his characters (mostly the Rossetti family of poets, and associates of theirs and of Byron and Shelley), who may not have given him much to work with.

In the end, I enjoyed both books, but neither was up to the level of the authors’ best. I recommend them, but won’t necessarily be handing out copies to my friends, and I don’t know if I’ll get around to rereading them.

1 Last Call and Declare.

2 Meghan and I had this discussion the other night: What genre does Stephenson write in? I assert that it’s geek fiction (though I can’t really argue with her more traditional sci-fi classification, other than just on principle).

3 With a brief hiatus for Earthquake Weather. Formally, Hide Me Among the Graves is a follow-up — I suppose a sequel — to The Stress of Her Regard. But it’s been a long time since I’ve read the earlier book, and this book doesn’t seem to suffer for that; I think all one really needs to know about the earlier one is that it dealt with Byron, Shelley, and vampires.

4 Or maybe he just got it out of his system by writing Mother Earth Mother Board, perhaps the best magazine article I’ve ever read.

5 Albert Einstein and time travel.