Down and Out In Purgatory
by Tim Powers
Review by Sam Lubell
Subterranean Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596067813
Date: 30 June 2016 List Price $30.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Down and Out In Purgatory is part of a series of novellas by big name fantasy and science fiction authors published by Subterranean Press. They have previously published limited editions of some of Powers' novels and trade/limited editions of a few of his novellas. These are aimed at collectors, although Subterranean has done ebook versions of the novellas.
Tim Powers is a popular writer of secret history fantasies, and one of his books, On Stranger Tides, was loosely adapted as Disney's fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. He also will be a guest of honor at this year's Readercon and Capclave. So many people will be interested in a new book by Powers, even if just a short novella.
Generally, novellas fall into two categories--short novels and long stories. Down and Out in Purgatory feels more like the latter, with somewhat slow pacing and only one main idea. The novella is about 120 pages or 20,000 words. This leaves little space for Powers' usually complex plotting with conspiracies and secret histories.
The main character, Tom Holbrook had loved Shasta DiMaio in college, but she married John Atwater instead. Six years before this novella begins, John killed her and then, thanks to his high-powered lawyer, was acquitted. Ever since then Tom has searched for John to punish him for the murder. Unfortunately, when Tom finally finds him, John is already dead, resulting in a nice scene in a morgue. So Tom turns to supernatural medium Martinez to ask how to kill a ghost.
Martinez tells Tom that in order to kill a dead man, he will need to die too. Martinez offers to put him in touch with a spirit guide, Hubcap Pete, and then kill him while the two are communicating. After being killed, Tom learns how to function in the consensual reality of John's particular Purgatory and finally succeeds in tracking down John, only to learn that Shasta's ghost is still accessible.
I found the premise interesting and there are a few surprising twists. I was a bit disappointed in the rather prosaic Purgatory presented by Powers. I was hoping for something more spectacular, given Powers' usual flair with descriptive language. But this Purgatory was disappointingly dreary.
Collectors of Powers' work have probably already reserved their copy. For everyone else, $30 is rather expensive for something so short, let alone $60 for the limited edition. By comparison, the ebook, at $6 seems much more reasonable; although still pricy. If you've already enjoyed all of his novels and want more Powers, Down and Out in Purgatory may not be heaven, but it is well worth reading.