By Tim Powers.
I’ve been a big fan of Tim Powers’ urban and historical fantasy books since I read The Anubis Gates back in 1984. Powers was part of a California group of writers that included K. W. Jeter and James Blaylock in the 1970’s. English majors who dreamed of a hit in the big SF leagues. If you can locate some of the old Laser Books series imprints, you’ll find Powers’ early novel Epitaph in Rust and Jeter’s The Dreamfields.
Powers specializes in stories of ordinary people caught up in cosmic events. Sometimes they’re historical incidents, sometime things that happened a few years ago. Declare proposed that the Cold War was carried out by different groups trying to use metaphysical forces in battle. Final Call is about a magical battle carried out through poker and other card games.
Alternate Routes finds Sebastian Vickery, a former Secret Service agent, teamed up with Ingrid Castine, who still works for the agency. Vickery left the Service years ago when he heard a ghost’s voice from the inside of Secret Service car when he covered a presidential motorcade. Since then, he’s on the hit list from a mysterious government agency known as the Transportation Utility Agency. They tried to kill him on that fateful day but didn’t succeed. He’s survived by working for a strange metaphysical escort company that ferries dignitaries around town in ghost-proof cars.
As usual, Powers lets you figure out how the magic works by reading the novel. There’s not a lot of exposition, but it’s possible to figure out the background as the plot advances.
Somehow, it’s been discovered that the continual traffic on the freeways outside Los Angeles creates a high level of physic energy from the passage of free wills as opposed to the free wills that are stationary. The government has learned how to use the energy to predict the future and study the past. However, this only works for several minutes in either direction.
The energy generated from the freeways also attracts ghosts, or, as the government calls them, “deleted persons”. These aren’t the transparent figures of lore, but wispy creatures with little agency. In fact, they’re harmless, although the rare ghost can be deadly. The government discovered sometime in the past that the ghosts can be utilized, with the aid of radios, to gather information, although it’s hard to get anything useful out of them.
At one point Vickery and Castine hide out in a cemetery tomb. They’re woke by the sound of people singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” outside the tomb:
The singing was more audible from the doorway, though still very faint. Vickery rubbed his eyes and peered out across the cemetery, and each of the tombstone-perching ghosts that he could make out was swaying gently, and the spots that were their mouths were wide; it was the ghosts that were singing. He thought some of the frail voices seemed to be those of children.
Standing in the doorway of a tomb under the infinite night sky, Vickery shivered as he listened to this secret chorus of the dead in the middle of the sleeping city, and he was glad that Castine was beside him.
After a shoot-out with some rogue agents, Vickery and Castine find themselves on the run. It’s a physic adventure where they visit all manner of ghostbreakers and gypsies to find out how to avoid the bad guys. Plus, there’s some vast structure “on the other side” which continues to pull more energy from this world over to the next. There are two more books in this series.
My only real problem with the book is that Powers tends to toss all matter of mystical traditions into the plot. It’s something he does in all his books, so I’ve learned to go along with his style. Everything links together in the end, so this doesn’t create a confused plot.