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“Medusa’s Web” by Tim Powers

I first became aware of Tim Powers through his collaborations with James P. Blaylock in the latter’s collection Thirteen Phantasms (reviewed here: https://ninashepardson.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/thirteen-phantasms-and-other-stories-by-james-blaylock/). He gained some wider notice when Disney adapted his novel On Stranger Tides for the Pirates of the Caribbean film of the same name. To me, Powers was a fantasy author, so Medusa’s Web was a bit different from what I was expecting when I picked it up.

Medusa’s Web tells the story of a brother and sister who return to their aunt’s decaying Hollywood manor after her suicide. There, they discover a secret network of people who use mysterious two-dimensional creatures known colloquially as “spiders” to send their minds backward or forward in time. This discovery is connected to an incident the siblings experienced as children, which left psychological scars on both of them.

Like the best science fiction stories, this book pairs an inventive premise with a compelling portrayal of human relationships. At first, Scott and Madeline get the cold shoulder from their hosts. That changes over the course of the book, but so does the affinity between Scott and Madeline, particularly as Madeline’s obsession with their shared childhood experience deepens. Powers does a great job of giving the reader both a story with a great “wow!” factor and characters they can care about.

While science fiction is usually focused on the future, some remarkable sci-fi tales have been written that are also love letters to the past. Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, for example, recalls so-called “golden age” sci-fi. Tim Powers does something similar here, weaving notable figures of the silent film era into the story he’s telling. While it might seem paradoxical, this focus on the past adds another layer of depth to the book.  All in all, this is an intriguing book and well worth reading.

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