A 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 ;).