Tim Powers’ track record for inventive fantasy is a long and accomplished one, and while Medusa’s Web (2016) isn’t among his strongest novels, it’s likely to scratch the itch for the author’s long-time fans. It’s a quirky and clever yarn about a uniquely dysfunctional family in Southern California, and a secret underground of occult vision junkies.
Upon the bizarre suicide of the aunt who raised them, thirty-something siblings Scott and Madeline Madden return to the odd Hollywood Hills mansion, called “Caveat,” where they grew up. They’re met icily by their reclusive cousins Ariel and Claimayne, who see them as rivals for the estate. But their aunt’s mysterious death turns out to be just the first clue in a decades-long mystery that ties into strange, occult symbols that Scott and Madeline accidentally viewed as children. These “spider” symbols cause the viewer to travel through time and temporarily inhabit other bodies — and the experience is addictive, which has created a secret Los Angeles underground of users seeking to track them down. Evidently, Scott and Madeline’s aunt is tied into this strange subculture, and her death generates a web of intrigue into which they ultimately fall.
Medusa’s Web has a nifty set-up and a memorable backdrop, and it nicely leverages the inimitable landscape and storied history of Hollywood. The characters are likeable oddballs, the dialogue is amusing, and the time-jumping plot contortions surrounding the spider visions are cleverly executed. Alas, there’s rather a missing spark of energy; it’s a slow, talky book, especially early on, and the plot takes its time developing. Momentum finally arrives and accelerates in the final act, but it takes some effort getting there. Still, it’s a fun, inventive fantasy that reminded me a little of the charming California fantasies of James P. Blaylock, as well as some of Powers’ earlier contemporary work, like Last Call.