Expiration Date. Book Review

Expiration Date by Tim Powers
Gollancz, p/b, 400pp, £9.99
Reviewed by Catherine Mann

Itinerant electrician Pete Sullivan gets a warning call from his estranged twin sister just before she kills herself, and he heads back to LA to find something they hid from their dangerous, ghost-eating boss years before. Fugitive psychiatrist Angelica Elizalde returns to LA to make amends for the death of a patient in strange circumstances and finds her situation is more supernatural and dangerous than she thought. 12 year-old Kootie runs away from home with his parents’ idol, ends up being possessed by a powerful ghost and on the run from a one-armed killer. A weird giant fish washes up on Long Beach and a corpulent producer decides it’s time to settle old scores. In the run up to Halloween the three protagonists must avoid the dangerous people hunting the streets of LA for them and put their issues and ghosts to rest.

Although this book is listed as Book 2 of the Fault Lines trilogy it can be read entirely as a standalone novel, as can the first instalment, Last Call. Other than a small cameo the two books have very little to do with each other; Expiration Date introduces a different location and a whole new set of characters. A contemporary novel set in 1992 Los Angeles this novel has Hollywood glamour way in the background and is more concerned with what’s behind the scenes of both the city and life, especially the poor, the dispossessed and those who survive on the grimy streets of LA. Several of the antagonists are well-off with links to Hollywood, or else aspirations in that direction. Among the protagonists and the supporting cast those who were born to wealth, or were doing well for themselves, have since fallen from their comfortable lives and are living as fugitives or scraping by.

This book has three main protagonists as well as a sizeable supporting cast. Kootie runs away from his strange suburban parents only to be plunged into the kind of horror no child should face. It’s easy to feel sorry for him as he survives on the streets for days, encountering opportunists of various types as the target of a deadly hunt. It’s also easy to like him as he has to grow up suddenly and learns to share his body with another personality, displaying resourcefulness and a combination of hope and sarcasm. He learns about street-living, his parents’ weird plans for him and the mysterious trade in ghosts as recreational drugs practised by rich and poor in parts of LA. Angelica Elizalde was a psychiatrist who used the trappings and imagery of the spiritual from numerous cultures and beliefs as therapeutic tools. After a patient died during a séance that was never meant to be real she became a fugitive. She stumbles into the street-level spirituality and occultism of the Hispanic community in LA, finding that the old stories and practices of her family are realer than she imagined. Angelica is well-meaning, but lost in the supernatural world that is determined to draw her in. Pete takes on characteristics of his damaged, alcoholic twin Suki and gloomily reflects on the death of his father and his past failings instead of opposing their old boss. Despite knowing the danger of the forces against him Pete only brings himself to take definitive action when he encounters Angelica and realises that in the intervening decades his father has not yet found peace. This doesn’t make Pete easy to like, but of the protagonists he has the most knowledge bout the supernatural landscape.

The villains in this book are dangerous people who share an addiction to ghosts and a willingness to kill. Loretta de Larava is the principle villain, former employer of Pete and his sister Suki, and probably behind Suki being hounded to her death. Loretta is determined and deadly but also highly strung and neurotic, she’s a fairly complex character and interesting even though she’s despicable. One-armed, amnesiac Sherman Oaks is a murderer with a powerful addiction, he chases a 12 year-old through LA eager to kill again in order to get a major hit. His past is murky but goes back a long way and his old failures are about to come back at him. Neil Obstadt uses his wealth and negotiation skills to manipulate the supernatural resources of the West Coast to his own ends. He seems less personally obsessed by ghost eating than de Larava and Oaks, preferring to use others to achieve his ends, but Obstadt is fixated on winning and gaining power and is emblematic of an entitled businessman.

The magic in this book is related to ghosts and street-level rituals, and as is common in Powers’ books the supernatural elements are complex and the reader feels that they are being shown part of a wider world. Powers writes magic and the supernatural in a way that somehow feels both strange and very plausible, almost as though the details are too weird or mundane to be wholly made up. In this book ghosts are mostly spirits of the dead, but also something more complicated than that, and they can take on types of physical form but only in certain circumstances. There are rules and customs around the trapping, eating and trading of ghosts, and these are observed by addicts and dealers at all levels of society. The rituals of the Latin community in LA are a blending of religion, folktale and urban legend. Although this is a contemporary novel Powers still uses history with as much care and efficiency as he does in his nineteenth century-set novels, with Harry Houdini and Thomas Alva Edison being significant figures in the story and the mythology created here. The characters’ backgrounds are a big part of the book and how their experiences and actions shape them. The book also explores the history of the Queen Mary, an old ship-turned-hotel in LA. He also uses the Alice stories by Lewis Carroll as chapter quotes and sets these books up as foundational texts for those who deal in ghosts within the story, without expecting his readers to know the details.

The plot rattles along at a good speed with characters facing dangers and mysteries and the stakes getting higher and also stranger as Halloween approaches and ghosts become more powerful. Flashbacks are handled well, supporting the current action and the character development without interrupting the flow of events. This is no standard fantasy novel -that isn’t what Tim Powers does- and so it is hard to predict quite where the story will go or how it will get to its destination. This is a strange and intriguing read, one that provides a lot of food for thought alongside an unusual flavour of fantasy.