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The Anubis Gates
Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont, © 2005

Format: Book
By:   Tim Powers
Genre:   Fantasy
Released:   September 2005 re-release
Review Date:   December 01, 2005
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

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.

Rev SF contributor Jonathan McCalmont lies awake at night dreading the appearance of Evil Robot Santas. December is a rough month.

 
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