Gary Gygax is best known as the co-creator of a role-playing game so famous it is woven into the fabric of popular culture: Dungeons and Dragons. He passed away in 2008. Dangerous Journeys: The Anubis Murders was meant as the first in a series of novel tie-ins to a game of the same name.
I revere Gygax for his contributions to gaming and the use of the imagination. About The Anubis Murders, I can confidently say that it’s a good book to have on hand if you think you’ll have a boring bus ride in your future or the camping trip might get rained on, stranding you in your tent.
The paperback version I read was published by Roc in 1992. The story is not particularly dated, and the puzzle solved by Setne Inhetep, the Egyptian (only it’s spelled with the ligature-letter Æ) wizard-detective, is interesting. The bald, copper-skinned, hawk-nosed wizard is accompanied by a female companion named Rachelle who is a Levantine or an Amazon, depending on what page you’re on. She is Inhetep’s bodyguard except when she’s being kidnapped by the bad guys, or his student, and mostly fulfills that most important of sidekick duties, looking wide-eyed and saying, ”Master, explain how you first knew who the villain was.” She is, however, pretty good with a sword, and has good reflexes.
In a hodge-podge fantasy earth, the kingdoms of the Britons are being threatened, their magical practitioners and rulers murdered by an adversary called The Master of Jackals. This adversary is so powerful that he can brush aside the protection spells of the most skilled adepts. He calls upon the Egyptian deities Set and Anubis. Desperate, the kingdom of Lyonesse sends a delegation to Inhetep to ask for his help, partly because he is a powerful, gifted priest-mage and partly because he is a votary of Set and Anubis. This starts the journey to Lyonesse, and later to Cymru (Wales), Hybernia (Ireland) and Caledonia (Scotland).
When I say the fantasy world is a hodge-podge, I do not mean that it is not well thought out. The geography and the magical systems at play here are well-realized. The writing does not pay enough attention, however, to the telling details that would make the world real. At first it seems like we’re in Crusades-era Europe. Then it seems like it must be about fifteenth-century, mainly because of the modes of transportation. Then we get Cockney dialect and underground tunnels, and a mention of Bow Street Runners. I really could not figure it out, and I don’t suppose it really matters. The bald, hawk-nosed, copper-skinned Inhetep begins investigating, and Rachelle is almost immediately tricked out of her room to disappear. Inhetep does the unexpected, continuing to investigate rather than dropping everything to pursue his lost companion. This is a refreshing change in a book of this type.
Much of the text is repetitive. There’s a scene where Inhetep wears a wig because he’s in disguise — it’s a disguise, you see, because he’s bald. Oh, and did I mention he’s hawk-nosed and copper-skinned? At the end of the book, the villain has assumed the shape of Inhetep in order to get close to the King of Lyonesse. We saw the transformation, we are well aware that it is not the real Inhetep in the scene with the king, but then Gygax writes this:
Of course, your Royal Majesty,” the false Inhetep said, inclining his head so as to shield his eyes from King Glydel’s all-too-penetrating stare.
Thank you for that, because I might not have remembered from a page and a half ago that we watched the whole magical impersonation take place, after the villain and his henchmen thoughtfully reviewed their entire evil plan, beginning to end, in a festival of expository dialogue.
Like the setting, the language is inconsistent, ranging from fairly current vernacular to formal Shakespearean diction. It is noticeable, but not overly irritating, mainly because the story is pretty interesting. The underground temple to Set is a great, suspenseful, dramatic scene. There is also a nice bit where Inhetep journeys into the underworld to speak to his gods (but they’re indisposed).
I do not feel any need at all to track down the other two books in this series. The repetitions and telling instead of showing weakened the story, but I still found The Anubis Murders enjoyable. What comes through is a fun mystery, and Gygax’s joy in games of the imagination.