Tim Powers is my literary hero. He creates secret histories in which historical events are “explained” through fictional embellishments which completely alter history’s meaning. Secret histories have been written by Alexandre Dumas, Gore Vidal, Umberto Eco, and they are especially associated with genre writers like Elizabeth Bear, Steve Berry, and above all, Tim Powers.

Powers’ approach is rigorous. He never allows his fiction to contradict any known historical fact (and he knows a lot). He does, however, allow his fictional additions to make full use of magical and science fictional elements.

He begins with thorough research of a topic of interest, looking for actions which seem unmotivated or events that are poorly explained–such as Blackbeard the Pirate’s bizarre behavior leading to his death, or the multiple sightings of Lord Byron in London at a time he was traveling in Greece. To these anomalies he applies what he calls his “paranoid squint,” saying to himself, “That makes no sense—so what really happened?” Then his wild imagination concocts an answer, and the fun begins.

This approach is devilishly difficult due to its complexity and the danger of false starts. One small, ugly fact can blow up a beautiful theory. (Some of my own fiction runs toward secret history, but I freely toss facts aside when I find them inconvenient; rigor is not a temptation for me.) In my estimation, Powers has had a range of success from good to superb.

Secret history is full of traps for the author. An additional danger is that a smart guy like Powers might bury his story under a mountain of historical minutia. There’s a rule in fiction: don’t burden the reader with all your research. The nature of secret history makes that rule especially hard to obey.

So, have I sparked your curiosity? Do you want to give a Tim Powers novel a try? Here are four examples I can recommend, ranked from good to great.

1. The Stress of Her Regard

Tim Powers got the inspiration for this novel’s key scene like this:

I came across the fact that when [Dante Gabriel’s] wife killed herself, in his grief and guilt, very valid guilt, he put his whole poetry manuscript in the coffin with her. And she was buried. And then several years later a publisher told him ‘if you had a collection of poetry we could publish a book of it’. And he said ‘ah, give me a couple of days’, and he dug her up. My immediate thought was ‘why did he really dig her up? It wasn’t to get the book of poems, that was an excuse’. He had to get something else out, or he had to put something in …

This illustrates Powers’ paranoid squint beautifully. It also points to the book’s weakness: who the heck is Dante Gabriel? Those few who do know about the business with the coffin probably enjoyed Powers’ twisted account immensely—small spoiler: vampires are involved—but for those of us not in the know, the scene is merely impressive, rather than the mind-blowing joy it ought to be. It’s true there are some household names in this book–Keats, Byron, Shelly–but, in general, the historical background is too obscure to get me excited. YMMV of course; maybe the romantic poets are your thing.

I did hugely enjoy one scene where a woman consults the “ghost” of her dead father. It’s an affecting scene, but grounded in Powers’ bizarre, but surprisingly well-researched, theory of ghosts that depends on some odd implications of quantum theory. (Yes; really. Quantum theory. Don’t worry; Powers makes it sound cool.)

2. Declare

Powers’ attached his least inviting title to his most impressive novel, wherein the Cold War turns out to be just one theater in a hot war between angels and demons. The demonology here is enriched by lots of fascinating details from Arab and Russian mythology, and the decisive battle takes place during a search for Noah’s Ark (!) atop Mount Ararat. It turns out angelic beings can be killed, and Powers’ explanation of how that works is ingenious (and too complicated for me to remember).

As before, Declare depends on arcane historical facts, this time from the life of the traitorous spy Kim Philby. Did you know Philby kept a pet fox? Or that his father never had him baptized? Neither did I. But those turn out to be pivotal plot elements.

3. The Anubis Gates

Lord Byron is back, and once again Powers is mining the poet’s life for kooky koincidences. This time, Byron’s biographical minutia is not so important. The heart of the novel involves a fictional professor who meets Coleridge via a time machine. Ultimately, he must defeat Horrabin, one of the world’s great evil clowns (better than Pennywise, believe it or not) and some magicians from ancient Egypt who want to revive their dying pantheon.

For me, it’s the creepy Egyptology that makes this Powers’ masterpiece. Plus Horribin; he’s a truly great horror villain. When you find out what he’s done to innocent children…including his own son…oh boy.

4. On Stranger Tides

I’m not calling this book Powers’ masterpiece, but I’d say this one comes first in pure fun. I read it for the first time only a few months ago, and shee-ooh: it’s the page-turniest page-turner I’ve read in a long time. Blackbeard is the villain, and for once we get odd historical facts I’m well acquainted with.

Plus, it’s a pirate adventure. Powers’ exhaustive research puts you right in the action, with lots of fascinating details about life aboard a sailing ship. Did you know a sailor might welcome a rainstorm at sea? That it would make him, eventually, warmer? (Rain water rinses the salt out of one’s clothing, increasing its insulation. Wow: where did Powers find that out?)

Blackbeard was a maniac. He kept lit matches in his beard. He shot an associate once for “no” reason, and in the end he failed to take basic steps to elude capture. This makes him a perfect candidate for the Powers treatment. As it turns out, in Powers’ telling, the Fountain of Youth explains it all.

These four novels are not the full list by far. I could mention Last Call, wherein a trip to Vegas yields all kinds of information about the history of Tarot cards. But I’ll draw the line here.

My advice to newbies: start with one of the last two books. Do you like dense, puzzle-like plots? If so, read The Anubis Gates. Do you prefer breezy, pulpy entertainment? Then go with On Stranger Tides. And if you dislike both, then, frankly, I got nothing for you and you probably deserve whatever tedious lit fic you end up with. If you don’t like Tim Powers, I don’t like you!