Three Days to Never by Tim Powers Review

Tim Powers’s novels are so unlike anything else that I think John Shirley said it best over at Emerald City “Tim Powers is his own genre”. Or maybe he is the most unpredictable predictable writer alive, either way he is the most consistently originally fantasy writer of the last 30 years.

 Tim Powers

In a perfect world I would post a review for Three Days to Never and I would be bombarded with replies that say ‘Shut up already, we’ve already bought it and read it. You’re the one that’s behind!’

In a slightly less then perfect world I would say what does Charlie Chaplin’s handprints, Albert Einstein’s unpublished theories, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, gold swastika’s, astral projection, harmonic convergence and the Mossad all have in common and everyone would cry out in unison ‘we don’t care, but we trust Tim…’ and then run out to the store to buy a copy.

So, since my inbox isn’t overflowing with vitriolic messages proclaiming my slowness and since there aren’t any joyful voices floating to my ears (except for the ones that are usually there), then I suppose I find myself faced with the unenviable task of trying to summarize the storyline (which is hard) and make my thoughts coherent enough to recommend this book (which I do).

We are introduced to recent widower Frank Marrity and his 12 year old daughter Daphne. Upon the death of his grandmother in 1987 they discover some things in her shed that finds them in the middle of a covert war between the Mossad and a group called The Vespers. The two groups are vying for control of a time travel device that Albert Einstein invented and used a couple of times but kept secret because of the dire ramifications. Charlie Chaplin gets tied into this as well, accidentally using the machine once. A lost movie of Chaplin’s is discovered as well that contains such powerful symbolism that watching it evokes a strong response from those who view it, including latent pyrokinetic abilities in Daphne. The Mossad and The Vespers each have different pieces of the puzzle and desperately want the various pieces of that puzzle that the Marrity’s hold (whether they know it or not). There is one time traveler from 2006 who gets involved (though I wont say who) in the events of 1987 for selfish reasons, and like many a past character in a Tim Powers novel that mis-uses magic or in this case science, pays a price for it also. All of these story threads come together in a metaphysically action packed climax.

The secret movie that Charlie Chaplin makes that is fraught with hidden symbolism coupled with the books Gnostic themes forced a comparison in my mind to Flicker by Theodore Roszak, which is at least slightly ironic since there were portions of that book that reminded me of Powers. The scenes that were described from the lost Chaplin movie immediately brought to my mind scenes that were described in the films of Frank Castle. To be honest I haven’t explored the connection at all to see if any perceived parallels are appropriate or if there is just residual left over’s from when I read Flicker earlier this year. Chaplain’s movie is not a major plot point; it acts as a catalyst for Daphne’s powers and has an interesting background story, so even if the parallels ARE there then it isn’t enough to affect my opinion of Three Days to Never.

There is a scene in the first third of the book that quickly becomes the heart of the story. Due to its importance I’ll give a truncated version that doesn’t include the outcome. Marrity and Daphne are eating at a restaurant when she chokes, he unsuccessfully attempts to give her The Heimlich maneuver, when that fails he take a knife and a bic pen and proceeds to give her a battlefield tracheotomy. As to the success or failure of this maneuver I’ll not say.

Given the far reaching importance of the event and the wonderful way that Powers threads this event not only through the entire story but through the characters lives as well it’s easy for me to process this scene on an intellectual level. I see how it worked; I know how it worked and why it worked. As a father I can also process this scene on an emotional level, the need to protect your children and keep them safe. But I am having trouble buying into the initial moment where Marrity unhesitatingly asked a stranger for a knife then went on to perform the tracheotomy. Powers in the past has infused his characters with a certain mix of common sense, certitude in the face of danger and a near Boy Scoutish level of practicality that enables them to maintain a certain level of calm in the face of danger. But I see nothing in the character or background of Marrity to indicate that he knows how to do a tracheotomy and more specifically would have the balls to do it. He is a professor of English Literature who was raised by his eccentric grandmother. There isn’t any indication that his deceased wife or even mother had any medical training or that he had read a book on it or that he had seen it on TV or anything.

I’m sure we all remember that very special episode of Doogie Howser M.D. where he was getting burned out by the job, took a vacation, and wound up saving a man’s life by doing an emergency tracheotomy, again with a knife and a pen but just because I saw it once on TV and its a bastardized version of the procedure doesn’t mean that I would EVER consider doing it, and I have kids. Now, to wind this little detour down and get back on to the main road. This is not a big detraction from the story and is probably more of my own personal hang up then anything else, I probably spent more time writing this then I spent thinking about the scene when it happened, but it is the one part of the novel that bothers me. As with any perceived missteps that a skilled writer makes, Powers saves the day and the effects that the emergency tracheotomy has on the story and characters becomes a strength as every possible drop of story is wrung out of that situation. If I were to really stretch I could even come up with a possible solution to my dilemma, but to name it would be to spoil it.

Powers has some highly developed and complex characters in Three Days to Never. Marrity and his daughter Daphne become very real as the depths of their relationship is explored especially after the death of his wife/her mother. The Mossad character that we spend the most time with, Lepidopt, becomes a highly sympathetic figure as he struggles to maintain the course that his life has been set on for 20 + years as he tries to reconcile the importance of his work with the emotional and physical distance that he feels towards his family. Even well known figures such as Chaplin and Einstein have a fresh life breathed into them as they become more perceptibly real and less iconic. Some of the lesser characters are painted with broader strokes but since they aren’t as relevant to the story as the other characters this never becomes a problem. Though there are moments when even the smallest of characters surprise us with their actions.

A Magic Unlike Any Other

Over the years Powers has developed his own unique magic system that stands out as the most innovative and original in all of fantasy: I now find myself able to point out and also understand the importance of tame bodies of water; I watch the patterns of smoke from cigarettes; I have carved holes in all of my boots so the silver chain ALWAYS touches the Earth; I also know that when a Pat marries a Patricia you get Pat squared and the importance of just such a paring. What am I talking about, have I finally gone over the edge. Nah, but Powers possess the singular ability to make you believe that everything he tells you isn’t just possible but probable. One has to wonder what is actually in the Kool-Aid that he’s been serving us over the years, because to read a Tim Powers book is to see the world in a different light. This magic system has consistently maintained its own internal logic over the years. This brings me to what I will call The Lake Scene. There is a scene that occurs in the middle of the book that is a conversation between a Vesper and another character. The conversation takes place in the middle of a lake on a rowboat; on the floor of the rowboat are dozens and dozens of wind up toys. The Vesper is wearing Charlie Chaplin’s hatband around his neck as a choker. The rowboat, the water, the hatband and the toys, which both characters have to keep wound, is vintage Powers and my favorite scene from the book. The lake scene works on two fronts. The spy elements that dominated Declare are more subdued in Three Days to Never however there is employed in this scene a slightly demented occultish and spyish rationale that OF COURSE makes sense. The presence of these items is explained, though to the seasoned Powers reader some of these reasons were already known, and the actions are so simple and the reasons are so compelling that you even want to reach down to the floor of the boat yourself and make sure all of the toys stay wound. On the other side the scene also serves as a calm before the storm, prior to this meeting the threads of the story had been concurrently told. After this fateful meeting though the various threads will begin to come together and race towards conclusion. Given all of the action that happened before the meeting and all of the action that still has yet to happen it is a remarkably quiet scene that is powerful and subdued as it comes to its shocking conclusion with one character making an unmentionable deal.

Truth is Always Stranger Then Fiction

As any reader of his work can tell you Powers is a meticulous researcher and this quality shows itself in Three Days to Never. One can’t even begin to imagine the amount of material that he reads in order to present a series of events where all of the elements present can coalesce into a story that works so well on so many levels. One only has to read the after word of Declare to get a glimpse of this. There is an interesting exercise to be had after reading a Powers book. Hop online or go to the library and start to verify the research in the book and disprove the theories that he presents. You’ll find that Powers is an excellent, near perfect craftsman, fitting his parts of the story seamlessly into the gaps of history and the lives of the historical figures. Once one see how seamless the integration of the occult is into history one does begin to see that IT IS possible that he is presenting us with the real story, the really real story. That in and of itself may be his greatest strength, I mean no one really believes that Middle-Earth is a real place and that creatures like ogres, elves and hobbits really exist but Powers makes such a compelling case for his version of events that you shake your head and say, well maybe Albert Einstein really did make a time machine, maybe Charlie Chaplin really did make a secret movie fraught with symbols to resurrect his dead son. It is exactly this trepidation that makes a Powers tale so amazing.

Three Days to Never is a very strong book that showcases Powers strengths and even though most readers come to his work through The Anubis Gates, Three Days to Never will serve as a fine introduction to the greater Powers mythos for a much deserved wider audience. It may even be his most accessible book to date.

– originally published 10/31/2006

Brian loves both kinds of books — fiction and non-fiction. He is an all around book john and reviewing roustabout.