Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates (1983)

Anubis-GatesA novel about time-travel set in Regency London, with mad Egyptian sorcerers, hordes of murderous beggars, an evil clown, a dwarf, clones, the Mameluke, fiery ifrits, body-changing werewolf, a young woman posing as a man, Romantic poets and a band of Gypsies. Sounds good? It definitely should :).

The Anubis Gates has plots within plots within plots. It starts innocuously enough, in contemporary England, with a discovery made by an extremely reach eccentric J. Cochran Darrow. Darrow, terminally ill, desperately looks for a way to cure himself. Instead, he (or rather a team of scientists employed by him) discovers gates in time. There is a finite number of them, leading to a finite number of points in the past and future, and they are ruled by a set of immutable, physical rules. Nonetheless, they make time-travel possible. What the famous tycoon does with this breathtaking discovery?

He invites rich people for a trip to a live Coleridge lecture, which the poet delivered in 1810.

To make the experience worthy of the million dollars he charges each of his clients, Darrow invites for a ride a Coleridge expert, English scholar Brendan Doyle. Doyle is a middling academic, not happy with his own work, relieving the trauma of a motorcycle accident, in which his wife Rebecca died, and fascinated by an almost unknown Romantic poet, William Ashbless. Doyle’s ambition is to find out what there is to find about Ashbless, and, armed with the knowledge, to write his opus magnum, Ashbless biography, which would grant him a place of honor among English literature scholars. There are many more knowledgeable academics than him. But Doyle has one main advantage over his fellow Coleridge experts – he believes Darrow.

And so he travels back in time – only to be kidnapped and left in 1810 London at mercy of a band of Gypsies led by a mad Egyptian sorcerer, doctor Romany. He escapes, only to almost drown, be reduced to begging, become a prize for competing factions of beggars, be shot and… But enough of that. You can see he leads a very intensive life, out of sudden. There are people (and not-entirely-people) who are out to get him, one way or another. And it doesn’t help that he’s in his late middle ages, balding, paunchy, and short of breath. And not of an exceptionally sterling character, either.

But this all will change :).

And that’s where Powers’ novel gets its real kick-ass abilities. It rocks the time-travel theme in an almost unparalleled way. Quantum physics, mythology, folklore, history – it all is thrown together, violently mixed and shaken, and left to explode. And it does explode, that’s for sure. Doyle travels in time and space, in identities and characters, in myths and nightmares alike. The best part of it is that the reader travels with him, without the unpleasant realities of being tortured, shot, poisoned or having one’s tongue chewed out :). It is an extremely fun ride, filled with refreshed sf tropes, bits of Egyptian mythology, Romany folklore, popular culture references, favorite horror tricks and a lot of black humor – something for everyone. I enjoyed it immensely, even more than The Stress of Her Regard, I think. The Anubis Gates is definitely less serious, more campy, more fun. It is also less scholarly, less researched and more in the vein of “loosely inspired”. There are significant Dickensian themes, allusions to Freemasonry and Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor (who, and who’s book, were also an inspiration for Pratchett’s novel Dodger).

Byron appears in the novel, as does Coleridge and John Murray, but as cameos: none of them plays as significant role as the Romantic poets featured in The Stress of Her Regard. Poetry, however, once again comes to the fore. Enigmatic William Ashbless figures prominently in the novel, with his unusual poems playing an important role in the main story arc. He is a perfect fit in the Regency London, and a creation I can only admire. It is a rewarding game, really, to figure out which parts of the book feature real events and characters, and which are entirely made up.

The language is detailed and vivid, alternating moments of dread with humor, tongue-in-the-cheek descriptions with poetic impressions, and making something altogether brilliantly chaotic. I think Powers had a great time creating that novel – the sense of fun is almost palpable throughout the book. It is convoluted, the main story arc branches out in every direction, back and forth and sideways, and it may be sometimes difficult to keep the order of events. But I very much appreciate such books where reader is not only asked to participate, but is forced to keep the crazy pace of the author’s imagination, lest he be completely lost.

The Anubis Gates won the 1983 Philip K. Dick Award and 1984 Science Fiction Chronicle Award. The only grudge I have is that it seems to suffer from a mediocre cover curse – the only nice one is prohibitively expensive. If I were Bill Gates… but even then I would think twice or thrice :P. It’s a price of a wind turbine, after all ;).

Score: 10/10

11 thoughts on “Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates (1983)

  1. piotrek

    Ok… I’m glad you liked it. Hell, I enjoyed way more than “The Stress of Her Regard”. But 10/10? Wow, there are few books I’d award a ten out of ten… twenty titles or so? And Powers is not in my top twenty. My initial grade, immediately after reading, was strong 7, I might allow myself to be convinced to raise it to 8…
    It’s all there, the things enumerated in the review, and more, I’d go as far as to say the whole thing is too thick. It felt like Powers did all this research and was determined that none of it was to be wasted. And then he wrote “The Stress…” to get even more out of the time spent in libraries 😉
    At times I thought – ok, I get, enough (or – I don’t get that, but I’m not going to read a ton of history books on non-military history of the XIX cent. 😉 )
    It is fun, definitely worth picking up. But not one of my all-time favourites.


    1. Well, I have definitely more than twenty books worth 10/10 – not too many, surely, but more than twenty. Hell, Zelazny plus Cook plus Erikson plus Tchaikovsky together may probably fill the twenty slots ;). And I don’t even mention non sf/fantasy books.
      One of my all-time favorites is “The Foucault’s Pendulum” by Eco – and the way Powers conjures up his stories reminds me of Eco’s characters from the novel. And I like it thick and convoluted, and researched, especially if it all is done with a charming tongue-in-cheek.
      I think I may even prefer Powers’ books to those of Connie Willis – there’s none of the sentimentalism present in Willis’ novels, and all of Willis’ diligence in research, brilliance and humor, a bit blackened, though. Fun, fun, fun 🙂


      1. piotrek

        “I think I may even prefer Powers’ books to those of Connie Willis ”
        TBH, reading Powers I couldn’t help but wish it was Willis, “Anubis…” lacked her lightness, seemed forced in some places. And I kept thinking – of all the possibilities of time travel, why an Egyptian avenger, wasn’t XIX cent. a little too late for that particular crusade?


  2. Heh, I knew mentioning Willis would get a rise out of you 😀 Egypt – it could have been something different, but the explanation of the link between magic and the Moon – just perfect 🙂


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  7. If even this, “The Anubis Gates is definitely less serious, more campy, more fun. It is also less scholarly, less researched and more in the vein of “loosely inspired”.” didn’t stop you from adoring this one, I think it’s safe to say that it was brilliantly written nonetheless! Awesome review as always. I’ll have to push it higher on my TBR now. Do you own that GORGEOUS edition or was still too expensive to procure in the past years??? 😛 Excellent review, Ola. Thanks for letting me know of this review’s existence! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, Lashaan! 😀
      It’s an absolute gem and my favorite Tim Powers book! 😀 If I didn’t give it 10/10 then I’m getting to this review right now to add the missing stars! 😉

      I WISH I had this edition – alas, by the time I was writing this review it was already sold out…

      Liked by 1 person

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