Tim Powers’ Alternate Routes (2018) is another colorful Southern California contemporary fantasy. While I enjoyed it, it feels like driving on one of the many LA freeways it depicts: a frustrating, stop-and-go experience. Sebastian Vickery, a former secret service agent, now lives a life off the grid in Los Angeles. Years earlier, Vickery got on the bad side of the Transportation Utility Agency, a supernatural intelligence service which has discovered paranormal activity along the United States’ many highways. When the fugitive Vickery gets back on the TUA’s radar, he’s aided by a rogue TUA agent named Ingrid Castine. Together, they go on the lam, trying to stay one step ahead of the TUA and uncover a ghostly mystery underlying the mundane surface of Los Angeles.
Alternate Routes has considerable assets, chief among them a nifty surreality that comes vividly to life as Vickery and Castine cross back and forth from the real world into a disorienting afterlife realm, accessed via mysterious phantom offramps from LA’s intricate freeway system. Fans of Powers’ work will find plenty of similarities with his other mash-ups of espionage and the supernatural, such as Declare or Three Days to Never. Unfortunately, this one holds its MacGuffin so close to the vest that it’s difficult to make sense of the plot, with Vickery and Castine negotiating a maze of enemy motivations that are never adequately explained. As a result, it’s difficult to see cause and effect or even the stakes, making for a confusing read. The murkier chapters slow it down, while some of the more vividly depicted, eyeball-kicky ones ramp it back up again. As a major Powers fan and a former Angeleno, I generally enjoyed this return trip to the desert asphalts of SoCal, but it’s definitely one of the authors’ less successful efforts.