The early 19th century. A plot against King George. Egyptian gods, magicians, gypsies, and other mysterious characters on the streets of London in a struggle for control and dominance. Enter a 20th century professor, Brendan Doyle. By turns, he has not only wound up in the thick of events, he has become trapped in that time. Can Doyle foil the plots, survive in the dangerous 19th century world and underworld, and even prosper? And most of all, like Sam Beckett…can Doyle find the right Time Gate to send him back home?
Despite many claiming it as such, Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates is *not* a steampunk novel. Sure, plenty of the action revolves around the 19th century, but there is no alternate technology, no pushing of Victorian society into the future through a funhouse mirror. It’s even set in the wrong period, with the bulk of the novel set in the early 19th century (pre-1837). There is nothing steam nor punk to the novel at all. I read The Anubis Gates before steampunk was a thing, and a re-read some years ago didn’t change my opinion. No, it’s about as much steampunk as the novels of Mary Robinette Kowal, whose Glamourist Histories are set roughly around the same time period.
What the Anubis Gates IS, though, without question, is a time-travel novel. Sure, there is no grand device, and the time travel is point based and mystical. The Time Gates allow one to travel from location to location in space time. It’s one of the most poetic descriptions and uses of time travel I’ve ever read. Let me demonstrate with the man’s own words:
The old man sighed, ran his fingers through his thinning hair, and then gave Doyle a hard stare. “Time,” he said solemnly, “is comparable to a river flowing under a layer of ice. It stretches us out like water weeds, from root to tip, from birth to death, curling around whatever rocks or snags happen to lie in our path; and no one can get out of the river because of the ice roof, and no one can turn back against the current for an instant.”
“Picture it, now: if you could stand outside the time river, on some kind of bank, say, and see through the ice, why then you could walk upstream and see Rome and Nineveh in their heydays, or downstream and see whatever the future holds. Now – pay attention, this is the important part – sometime, something happened to punch holes in the metaphorical ice cover. Don’t ask me how it happened, but spread out across roughly six hundred years there’s a shotgun pattern of gaps . . . . . and if there happens to be a gap when and where you are, it is possible to get out of the time stream at that point, and re-enter at any other gap.”
“I have discovered how to do it.”
This idea of Time Gates would later be re-evoked in me in the Robin D Laws RPG, Feng Shui. In that roleplaying game, characters not only struggle over empowered locations, but over gates in space and time that allow characters access to specific and special locations in the time stream. And to effect control and change over a spot in space time, like the threat of various antagonists in The Anubis Gates, threatens to change all of time thereafter.
The Anubis Gates, though, is much more than a simple time travel novel. Professor Doyle, our protagonist is hired as a guide for millionaire J. Cochran Darrow (the aforementioned old man) and a select group of tourists to see early 19th century London. Doyle is an expert in early Romantic Poets, including the (fictional) William Ashbless, a minor poet compared to the likes of Byron and Coleridge. A chance to meet his literary idol? Of course Doyle jumps at the chance. However, misfortune and catastrophe strike. Doyle winds up missing the time window to return to the 20th century.
And then the novel *really* gets going.
Stranded in 19th century London, Doyle has to deal with beggars societies, magicians, magician duplicates, gypsies, a cult in Egypt seeking his knowledge of the time gates, a most unusual werewolf, the secret of William Ashbless*, and much more.
Although one of his thicker, longer novels, I think that The Anubis Gates is one of Powers’ most accessible novels. It’s complete in one volume and chock full of allusions, magic, and history, begging the reader to learn more after (and with Kindles these days, during) the reading of the novel, and the prose is just gorgeous. The early 1980’s style means that the novel does focus much more on plot and setting than characterization, although the novel has plenty of the latter as well. How can you, for example, resist a character named Dog-Face Joe? Or Horrabin, a dangerous clown running a gang of beggars in London?
Powers would later revisit some of the Romantic poets in The Stress of Her Regard, but as good as that novel is, it’s The Anubis Gates that is easily his greatest work. It’s not that his Earthquake novels, or On Stranger Tides (elements of which got whisked into the newest Pirates of the Caribbean movie), or any of his oeuvre, really, aren’t worth reading. If you are going to try one Powers novel only, The Anubis Gates is the one to spend your time on. Don’t miss your own time gate and get a copy**. And be transported.
*One of the secrets of William Ashbless, though, for those unfamiliar with Powers’ work, is that he gets referenced in a lot of it, either indirectly or by quotations of his fictional oeuvre. Powers’ friend James Blaylock also shares in the fun, doing the same thing. If I had not read The Anubis Gates first, I might’ve thought him a real poet that Powers liked.
**Recently, Subterranean Press issued a beautiful limited edition of the novel, with a map of 19th century London, a slipcase and gorgeous color illustrations. I did not spend the pretty penny to buy a copy when I had the chance, and now wish I had. The novel IS readily available for Kindle in the US, and Kindle and paperback in the UK. And used copies of the novel are found in any reputable used bookstore.
Note: this post is part of the World SF Tour fundraiser. The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers was selected by a lucky donor as part of the 2nd Milestone Perk. You can learn more about the fundraiser and the perks here.