Tim Powers,
A Soul in a Bottle
(Subterranean Press, 2006)

Having only previously read novels by Tim Powers -- a recent one that I liked (Declare) and an older one that I disliked (The Anubis Gates) -- separated by nearly a decade, I wasn't sure what to expect from him as a novella writer. I'm happy to say, however, that even with A Soul in a Bottle filling up to just 80-some pages (including some nifty J.K. Potter illustrations and not many words per page, at that), Powers serves a subtle and memorable brew.

The girl laughed quietly, and in that moment she seemed to be the only figure in the forecourt, including himself, that had color. He realized dizzily that the scent he'd been catching all morning was hers.

This moody, ghostly tale, set in modern day Hollywood, starts off on a deceivingly direct and simple note. Our hero (Or should he be called thus? You may wonder by the end.) is a simple book collector/seller with a poetic streak that makes him an easy target for an attractive woman whose behavioral oddities, he quickly figures out, owe to her being literally behind the times. You see, she's not among the living, but she hopes there's something he can do about that situation.

"Nobody falls in love under normal circumstances," she said softly. ... "Love isn't in the category of normal things. Not any worthwhile kind of love, anyway."

Meanwhile, he also meets the woman's all-too-alive sister, and she has her own thoughts about her sibling's plans for returning to this mortal coil. The rivalry between them has crossed many thresholds, not the least of which is the one between life and death.

She smiled at him belligerently. "Crush an ant sometime, and then smell your fingers. I wonder what became of the clothes we buried her in. Not a sweatshirt and jeans."

To this slim recipe, Powers adds a little bit of murder-mystery, some literary forensics, a drab of time travel and a heaping helping of atmosphere. It all goes down smooth, but maybe too fast for its own good. One quibble would be that, as was the case in the longer works I've read by the author, his lead male doesn't hold a candle to his lead female. Somehow, Powers' guys have interesting things happen to them, but aren't very interesting in and of themselves. If it isn't already the case, however, this volume could make for a dandy installment in a series of continuing adventures for this particular character. Give him room to grow, Mr. Powers!

In a similar vein, a mystery woman as alluring as the one Powers gives us here deserved more pages in which to develop her strange relationship with our schlub of a protagonist, if only to make this "bottle's" already effective finish that much more tasteful.

by Gary Cramer
20 January 2007

Buy it from Amazon.com.