Number 47 in Gollancz's excellent Fantasy Masterworks series,
The Anubis Gates is arguably the most well known and
most accessible of Powers' works due to its memorable backdrop
and colourful cast of secondary characters.
Brendan Doyle is almost the antithesis of your traditional
sci-fi scholar-hero. Short, bald, in terrible physical shape,
instead of being a groundbreaking physicist he is a decidedly
second-tier academic researching obscure poets of the Romantic
era. However, apoorly received biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
has landed him a unique job opportunity: the chance to guide
a group of millionaires back in time to Regency London in order
to hear the poet give a lecture.
This is worth bearing in mind for anyone who is considering
going to graduate school; you're not hiding from the real world,
you're merely basing your career on the assumption that a time-travelling
billionaire will come along and offer you a job.
Once Doyle gets to the past he quickly stumbles into a shadowy
underground of sorcerous Egyptian secret agents, beggar gangs,
body swapping, murderous gypsies, werewolves, the Knights Templar,
sinister corporations and an evil robot Santa Claus. OK, I'm
joking about the evil Santa. But given the other elements, I
bet I had you going for a second.
Despite a cast of grotesque supporting characters and more
pulpy fantastical elements than you can shake a vorpal sword
at, Powers manages to keep the tone of The Anubis Gates
darkly atmospheric. He achieves this by focusing much of the
plot on Doyle's attempts to survive in the early 19th century
and on his real historical knowledge. The more colourful aspects
of the book are anchored in the real and serve only to make
the setting more engaging and bizarre.
A failure to keep these elements under control might have resulted
in Doyle becoming a form of pulp hero who battles the forces
of ancient Egyptian evil, and it is a short stumble from pulp
to camp. Powers' Regency London never seems camp or farcical,
it simply seems utterly alien and forbidding, even to a Londoner
such as myself. Every page of this book drips with delicious
weirdness. Despite being over 20 years old, it feels as fresh
and as powerful as any contemporary fantasy novel you're likely
to find. It is Powers' talent for the strange that keeps you
turning the pages — which is fortunate as the plotting
is far from simple.
The Anubis Gates has a number of plot lines working
in parallel. Because Powers focuses much of his attention on
Doyle, the reader rarely knows much more than Doyle. Just as
Doyle stumbles through plots and weird happenings, so do we.
Powers has a tendency to pick up a plot line, play with it and
then set it aside until he feels like picking it up again a
hundred pages later.
The result is a book whose plotting is a little bit uneven.
At first it advances slowly, but towards the end plot lines
are tied up quickly and whole new plot lines are opened and
then shut within a matter of pages. The final act of the book
features trips to Elizabethan London, trips to Egypt that may
or may not have happened, mystical underground rivers, the resolution
of romantic sub-plots and a number of action sequences; it all
leaves you wishing that the book was maybe 50 pages longer.
But this is really the only criticism I can think of in what
is an utterly stunning book. The busy ending serves to heighten
the extent to which Doyle is a passive character who is forced
to endlessly react to the weird goings on around him. Indeed,
because of Powers' approach to the paradox of time travel, it
is only with the very end of the book that you get the impression
that Doyle is really in control of his life.
This re-edition comes at the same time as Powers releasing
a new collection of short stories called Strange Itineraries.
This is the perfect opportunity for late arrivals to discover
the joys of Powers' unique ability to twist old mythologies
and create whole new ones. It is a niche in the fantasy market
that also features Neil Gaiman, who is certainly far more prolific
but not as talented as Powers. So if you like Gaiman's work
or are fed up with epic fantasy sagas, it is worth picking up
The Anubis Gates. In fact, everyone should read this
book because then maybe they will realise quite how plain and
unadventurous most fantasy is.