As a writer, Powers had a penchant (reputation?) for being both tricky and odd in his constructions. His great talent is the ability to take a fairly "real" scenario and add layers of twists onto it that tweak it into something that is just left of the world we know, where magic lurks just underneath the surface and the stakes are as great as the rewards. His best novels (most people agree on "Last Call" and "Anubis Gates" being the peaks) section themselves off into a territory of urban fantasy characterized by intelligent and extremely deft plotting as well as a seemingly endless stream of ideas.
"Dinner at Deviant's Palace", however, is something different. It's far closer to science-fiction than almost anything else I've read from him before. Granted, it's an early novel (though not embryonic, "Anubis Gates" had already been published) but it shows an interesting direction that he could have gone in, plus an example of what a novel in another genre might look like once he applied his abilities to it.
It takes place in a future US where civilization has been drastically rearranged. Currency appears to be based on alcohol and several nuclear wars seem to have occurred, leaving the remaining cities to function more or less as their own entities. Fairly musician Greg Rivas is going about his business as usual when an old girlfriend's father shows up with a proposition. Even though he hates Rivas' guts, he will pay him handsomely for a job he used to do: "redeem" people. You see, there's a cult wandering around the area, the Jaybirds, who are very good at bringing people into the flock and not letting them out. In fact, people don't want to get out. Rivas, as a former cult member, is more than decent at it, so against his better judgement he goes in again.
The most interesting thing about this novel is how straightforward it is. For the most part Rivas' quest proceeds in a linear fashion and while he runs into detours and obstacles along the way, we don't run into any big twists or surprises as the novel winds on. Most of the appeal of the novel comes from exploring the future world that Powers has created and looking to see where it deviates from our world. It's clear pretty much from the onset that he has thought this through to a ridiculously detailed degree, down to the slang terms and the texture of how this new world would operate, the rules of the differing factions and how those factions would affect each other. There's a certain sense of history to it, that this world had a long and fruitful life long before we came stumbling along to read about it. Done improperly, this could become a mere travelogue, with Powers like a kid who just bought a museum, eagerly taking you on the tour to make sure you've seen everything. And the plot skirts just clear of becoming that.
What's interesting is that for all the issues it potentially could raise, the necessity of cults in a world without marked consistency, the the fear of falling into the comfort of a collective, the exploration of loss in an environment where you're constantly on the verge of losing everything, the fear of re-inhabiting the past in order to refute it, the novel sticks to the pace and conceits of an adventure story, content to move onto the next exhibit in the catalog.
It's a world just on the verge of the magical realism, for every SF concept there are bits like the hemogoblin, a vague gaseous intelligent beast that likes to suck blood. And then there's the whole concept behind the cult itself, which vaguely involves space and I can't go into too much without spoiling the story. Powers clearly had fun coming up with it, putting as much research into it as he does for his more historically based novels, extrapolating as best he can. Which helps, because since the story lacks his typically controlled and breakneck notion of plotting, we're left with a man who is discovering his world at the same time we are. If the thrill of discovery is right up your alley, then there's loads to discover here, the machinations and the ins and outs of how the world functions. There's hope early on that this novel might go somewhere mind-bending, as Rivas confuses past and present as he gets back in the cult, but that perverted sense of time goes nowhere.
Instead, we get the plot hurtling forward like a bird skimming the top of a lake, occasionally plucking out a shiny and iridescent fish for us to marvel over. We get scenes inside the cult. We get scenes of Rivas running and scheming and reacting and eventually getting closer to the aforementioned dinner at the palace of the deviant. Readers will probably have seen this coming before Rivas does but when the climax finally arises and we meet the head Jaybird himself, who the entire novel has spent foreshadowing, there's an odd flatness to it. Entering the palace should be an introduction to the Gothic and alien, a true tonal shift leaving behind all the strangeness we've seen already for a strangeness that even Rivas can't cope with. But the horror eludes us. There's one creepy moment of real danger and then it resolves and we're left feeling this was the way it has to be the whole time. At some points it feels like Powers was so fascinated with the world that he didn't pay as much attention to the plot as he normally does. And what was up with the sacrament anyway?
It reads fast and maybe shouldn't leave any impression at all for the speed with which it races through itself . Still, the details that make it stick. The fracture of society, the way that cult members chant out the thoughts of another, the stalking of the hemogoblin, all of these are images that will stick with you, images that you won't be able to find anywhere else. Such is Powers' skill. But the rest of it feels like Powers doing what most of us are doing when we enter the book, feeling around this new world, trying to find our footing before moving off to see what we can see. Another novel in this vein of exploration would have been interesting, with perhaps a deeper examination of the themes that were starting to be raised here. But alas, where Powers wanted to go was somewhere a bit different. Oh well. It's nice to at least have this.