Taking place in Vienna, 1529, during the Turkish attack, this book is showing the struggle of “The West” and “The East” in the form of historical fantasy. The premise is, more or less, that the forces of East and West live in a constant struggle, magical and political, and at the same time, the world of magic has been losing power for the last 1500 years, because Christianity is hacking away at the root of it – soon, within 200 years, magic will be mostly gone.
Until then, though, we have a magical world with creatures and incarnations, with the real Merlin and the ghost of Arthur, leftover Vikings, and the heart of the West in an ancient brewery in Vienna that was there already when the Romans set up their camp. Our protagonist is an aging sellsword (Landsknecht) from Ireland who has seen much of Europe and is hired to work as a bouncer at a certain ancient inn by a mysterious old man. So, yes – this book is tropey.
I liked the historical parts. Tim Powers clearly did his homework and loved it – and it shows. He gets a ton of details right, from historical weaponry, to practicalities of warfare at the time, to political concerns. The worldbuilding is both playful and loving and made me feel right at home.
Sadly, I can’t say as much for the plot and the characters. The plot itself was so straigthforward that it was suddenly over, and the wonderful hinted-at internal conflict of the protagonist struggling with his previous, re-incarnated identities taking control and the wizard pushing him to give up his personality entirely was just handwaved away in the end. The antagonists went completely unexamined – they are the Turks, so they are the opponents, and want to subjugate the West, end of story. Both of these storytelling choices disappointed me a lot – I’m still happy I read the book, mind, but I’ll remember the streets, not the people who walked them.