Tim Powers is an author who seems to forever fly under the radar of popular readership. And there doesn’t seem to be an obvious reason. His stories are well crafted; the prose has been revised numerous times until it’s a lean and brisk; and the sense of the fantastic he utilizes is always vivid and invigorating. His 5th novel, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, has all of these qualities on display. Recently brought back to life by Open Road Media after two decades out of print, the novel has everything a genre fan could love, including one layer just beyond quality entertainment.
With echoes of Stephen King’s The Stand, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace is a post-apocalyptic novel in an American setting. The story occurring in the crumbling remains of L.A. long after a nuclear catastrophe, humanity has reverted to pre-industrial times. Cults roam the land, bandits and brigands hide along broken roads, ragged buildings sag in the sunlight, and people scrape by in whatever manner they can—alcohol the only dependable currency. Wandering the decrepit scene is Gregorio Rivas. Once a redeemer but now a musician for hire, Rivas assumes his past is behind him, that is, until preparing for a gig at Spinks one evening. Made a most inviting offer that involves redeeming a former lover, Rivas can’t refuse 5,000 temptations, and he’s suddenly back in the saddle on a mission to rescue the kidnapped woman. Walking the tightrope with an evil drug, tangling with creatures mutated by the nuclear catastrophe, and attacked by hooters and pocalocas, the cult of the Jaybirds he must infiltrate will only kill or make him stronger.
If a wandering musician on a quest to find a woman rings a bell, it should. Dinner at Deviant’s Palace is a variation on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. But like Jeff Vandermeer’s treatment of it in Veniss Underground, Powers spins his novel in a unique direction—a post-apocalyptic one. And the ending, well the reader will have to read to find out whether Rivas gets his girl and survives. The author not interested in merely paralleling the myth, there are more than enough twists, turns, and surprises for the age-old tale to be inspiration at best, Powers writing an enjoyable tale.
If there is a fault to Dinner at Deviant’s Palace it’s that the novel breaks little new ground. Based on myth, utilizing or combining known science fiction/fantasy tropes, and told in vivid yet straight-forward terms, the story is readily accessible. That being said, Powers does genre right. Working within the perceived and unperceived limits of story, he shows, as in his other novels, a fine eye for structure and balance. Knowing when to expand and when to fall back upon ideas already presented, the plot of the novel evolves smoothly toward the titular encounter before receding into bittersweet satisfaction. Like Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Powers plays within the existing bounds of the genre but does so with the eye of a craftsman, the reader benefiting as a result.
Thankfully, gone are the days of ebooks prepared from unedited Dragon Reader scans. Open Road has formatted and proofed the story into a proper ebook that will not feature in Amazon reviews as “The one star rating is not for the story, but for the format in which I received this on my Kindle…” It’s good to see the industry not only adapting to new modes of media, but caring about presentation and readability.
In the end, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace is solid science fiction/fantasy that proves a relaxing, entertaining read. But, Gregorius Rivas is not a typical hero in a typical setting. Having to fight his way across a southern California laid waste by a nuclear catastrophe, L.A. is not as we know it. Eerie cults, vampiric specters, “all natural” drugs, bicycle gangs, and a lot of other strangeness impede Rivas as he tracks the woman he used to love. The writing and storyline are not as original or strong as The Anubis Gates, Last Call, or Declare, but Power’s sense of style allows him to propel his story from what would be mundane in the hands of lesser writer to something page-turning. In the context of other post-apocalyptic novels, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace does not possess the moral intensity of McCarthy’s The Road nor the personal/social foundation of George Stewart’s Earth Abides. But it does bear something in common with Stephen King’s The Stand for storytelling and Vandermeer’s Veniss Underground for grounding in the Orpheus/Eurydice myth and macabre imagery. But for overall outlook, nothing can compare like Mad Max.