Tim Powers’ fourth novel, 1983’s The Anubis Gates, is a book that I had been meaning to read for years. Chosen for inclusion in both David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels and Jones & Newman’s Horror: 100 Best Books, as well as the recipient of the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award in 1984, the book came with plenty of good word of mouth, to say the least. And, as it turns out, all the ballyhoo back when was fully justified, as this really IS some kind of superb work. As John Clute puts it in the Jones & Newman volume, it is “a book which it is possible (rare praise) to love”; as Pringle writes, it is a “virtuoso performance.” I could not agree more.
In the novel, we meet a middle-aged widower named Brendan Doyle, an expert on Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the (fictional) poet William Ashbless. Doyle is asked by an eccentric millionaire who has come up with a time travel device to journey back to London in the year 1810, to attend a Coleridge lecture with a group of wealthy chrono tourists. Doyle warily agrees and — to make things brief — gets marooned in the past, where he soon becomes enmeshed in the machinations of Egyptian wizards attempting to destroy England. Powers’ way-out plot somehow manages to conflate the brainwashed “ka” of Lord Byron, a body-hopping werewolf, an underground criminal society headed by a deformed clown on stilts, a plucky young vengeance-seeking woman disguised as a man, Egyptian gods, 4″ high “Spoonsize Boys,” fire and wind elementals, the Mameluke slaughter of 1811, a menagerie of freaks, the Beatles (!) and on and on.
And just when the reader thinks this plot could not possibly get any wilder, Powers catapults Doyle back even further, to the year 1684! Indeed, there is no way for anyone to possibly guess what is coming next, in this truly zany romp of a book. Remarkably, every single page of this nearly 400-page affair boasts some startling conversation, plot twist, description or speculation. Powers has done a huge amount of historical research, and his book always has the ring of verisimilitude, despite the outrageousness of the plot.
An originator not only of the so-called “steampunk” literary genre but also of the “secret histories” style of writing, Powers, in this book, puts forth his amusing explanations for London’s Great Fire of 1666, as well as Byron’s apparently simultaneous presences in Greece and London in the autumn of 1810. And although stories with time travel paradoxes can sometimes leave me with a headache, I found this one absolutely delightful. Let me not mince words: The Anubis Gates is a blast, from its opening scene in a London gypsy camp in 1802 to its wonderful, ironic, totally satisfying conclusion in the swamps of Woolwich. Clute was right; I really DO love this book, and indeed am in awe of it. So many wild elements mixed together, such an original and imaginative story line, and the whole thing coming together so completely and perfectly…Tim Powers must be some kind of a freakin’ genius! I’m gonna need more of this guy; possibly his 1979 novel The Drawing of the Dark, which is highly praised in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books….
I would like to add that The Anubis Gates is not an easy read for folks who (like me) choose to look up every historical reference or place name that they encounter. I found a London street map invaluable while reading this book, for example; it’s not necessary, of course, but sure does make for a richer, deeper experience. Thus, I was able to spot one of two flubs that Powers is guilty of in his otherwise perfect work. At one point, he tells us that Coleman Street is east of Bishopsgate Street, whereas a quick look at the map will clearly show that it is west. Powers’ other goof? When he infers on page 353 that Doyle would be attending a literary meeting at the home of renowned publisher John Murray on a Tuesday, and two pages later says it would be on a Monday. (I also find it hard to believe that the word “savvy” was being used in 1684.) Mere quibbles, of course.
For all lovers of science fiction, fantasy, horror, historical fiction and/or poetry, The Anubis Gates should prove a godsend. It is a very generous book, far more intelligent and humorous than it absolutely needs to be, and well deserving of all the accolades that it has recei ved. Oh…and I just love the inclusion of that pig Latin!