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, his prose lean and brisk, and his sense of the fantastic always vivid and invigorating. His fifth 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.
With echoes of Stephen King’s The Stand, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace is a post-apocalyptic novel in an American setting. The story occurs in the crumbling remains of L.A. long after a nuclear catastrophe, humanity having 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, with alcohol the only dependable currency.
Wandering this decrepit scene is Gregorio Rivas. once a redeemer but now a musician for hire. Rivas assumes his past is behind him. That is, until he’s preparing for a gig at Spinks one evening and is 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, he must infiltrate the Jaybirds cult. Vampiric specters, “all natural” drugs, bicycle gangs, and other hazards impede Rivas as he tracks the woman he once loved.
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, you’ll just have to read to find out whether Rivas gets his girl and survives. Powers doesn’t merely parallel the myth but adds plenty of twists, turns, and surprises to his enjoyable tale.
If there is a fault to Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, it’s that it breaks little new ground. Based on myth, using and combining known science fiction and fantasy tropes, and told in vivid yet straightforward terms, the story is familiar and 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. He knows when to expand and when to fall back upon ideas already presented, and 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, and the reader benefits 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. The writing and storyline are not as original or strong as The Anubis Gates, Last Call, or Declare, but Powers’s sense of style allows him to turn his story from what would be mundane in the hands of a 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 Cormac 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.