Paul Di Filippo reviews Stolen Skies by Tim Powers

Stolen Skies, Tim Powers (Baen ‎ 978-1982125837, hardcover, 304pp, $26.00) January 2022.

I must assume that all my readers here today are hardcore fans of Tim Powers and are up-to-speed on his wonderful Vickery and Castine series, the third volume of which sequence is now before us. To assume otherwise is to contemplate the unthinkable: that there are benighted readers of fantastika who are woefully depriving themselves of such treasures and pleasures. But if you do need a brief refresher, check out my review of the second installment at this link.

All right, now that you’ve returned, let’s see what wonders we have in installment three.

It’s a year and half since the last adventure. Ingrid Castine continues to work for the government, the Office of Naval Intelligence, with an assignment to investigate real crop circles (and to sow fake ones in a disinformation campaign). When she sees real aliens, she is recalled to Washington and told she must help finger her old partner-in-spooky-doings, Sebastian Vickery. Vickery is apparently getting too close to UFO secrets that the government wishes to keep concealed. Accompanying Castine on this Judas mission of betrayal will be another agent, the ultra-competent and hard-nosed Asian woman, Rayette Yoneda.

Off the pair go to California, specifically the UFO-haunted site known as Giant’s Rock, where Vickery is expected to appear, lured by a government setup. Sure enough, all three parties converge there, along with a fourth person, Tacitus Banach, who proves to be a longtime Russian sleeper agent also concerned with unexplained phenomena. When real aliens again appear, the whole entrapment affair descends into chaos. Warned off by a loyal and repentant Castine, Vickery escapes. Castine shucks off Yoneda—who ends up with Tacitus—and rejoins her old partner.

These two teams will form the nucleus of the subsequent super-compressed adventures (the novel spans just three days), along with a final new character—the wonderfully named Pierce Plowman, elderly UFO expert—as well as a couple of repeat players: the tough crimelord Anita Galvan, specialist in anti-spook automobiles, and a resourceful young lad named Santiago. And oh yes: when Yoneda and Castine fall off the radar, more agents are dispatched from Washington, including a real Men-in-Black pair named Finehouse and Cendravenir, adding their own motives and machinations to the swirl of events.

What Vickery and Castine eventually learn is that all the aliens and other UFO incidents are manifestation of other-dimensional beings trapped in Earth’s planetary nexus. Seeking to escape, these creatures manifest in crop circles, etc. And as they accumulate a critical mass of such probing incidents, they are about to finally make their ultimate departure from our planet. That’s fine, you might think—good riddance! Except that upon their departure, the creatures will drag with them the four fundamental forces of the universe (gravity, electro-magnetic, strong and weak nuclear) and thus doom our globe. (Accidental but resonant echoes of The Eternals movie might be invoked here.) Naturally, our heroes wish to stop this from happening, while the ignorant government faction still thinks the aliens can be safely contacted and plumbed for new technologies.

Eventually the two teams—V & C, Yoneda and Tacitus—merge their efforts. Constantly harried by the Feds, human ghosts, nutty cultists, and Russian Intelligence, the good guys come up with a plan, barrel through all opposition, and finally converge once again on Giant’s Rock for a last-ditch attempt to save the planet—with Galvan and Santiago doing their bit as well.

Powers propels his deliciously overstuffed plot—I haven’t even gotten into the aspects of how the Flat Earth theory is proved real on a certain level—with a breathless, nonstop energy that still leaves time for plenty of quiet and sensitive moments between Sebastian and Ingrid—less than lovers, but more than lovers—and good introspective moments for Tacitus, Yoneda, Plowman, Galvan and Santiago as well. Even antagonists Finehouse and Cendravenir emerge as empathetically deep fellows.

All the ingenious and fresh occult, speculative, and metaphysical elements are laid out with convincing clarity, a rich stew of ideational fun. There are amusing callbacks to the past two adventures, and hints towards future exploits. And although the reader must suspect that our pair will succeed in saving the planet, the path there and the many sacrifices, feints and counterfeints are never predictable.

Of course, one of the main pleasures of this book—and almost all of Powers’s fiction—is his depiction of California. He truly functions as one of the great chroniclers of the contemporary and historical Golden State. One might almost be reading a Ross Macdonald mystery at times.

Howard’s Landing was a big marina down Pacific Coast Highway from Seal Beach in Huntington Harbor, behind a very new-looking beige shopping mall, and the low sun was silhouetting the buildings and palm trees on the peninsula by the time Vickery was able to wrestle and coax the haunted car off the highway into the parking lot, and, finally and with much jerky backing and filling, into a parking space.

Vickery switched off the engine at last, evoking a faint wail from the radio speaker. He sat back and exhaled, flexing his hands.

Perhaps what is ultimately most appealing about this series is the freelance individualism of its heroes, the way that a bunch of “bums,” as Yoneda characterizes them, band together, helping and complementing each other down the rough path to victory. Their tools might be amateurish—Yoneda comments at one point, “Thrift-store junk against…something like gods?” [Ellipsis in the original.]—but their hearts and souls are top-shelf.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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