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The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
Book Name: The Anubis Gates
Author: Tim Powers
Publisher(s): Ace
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Classic Fantasy / Science Fiction
Release Date: 1983

The Anubis Gates was first released in 1983, and I was fortunate enough to pick up a paperback copy at the time from my local library. Back then, I would read anything that could be classed as fantasy and sci-fi, and this tale of time travel back to the 1800s mixed with magic and the supernatural sounded perfect. I was studying the romantic poets at the time, and the inclusion of Coleridge and Byron in the story allowed my twisted mind to believe it was as much for research – an insight into the life and times of the poets, for however fictional it had to be grounded in some fact – as enjoyment.

And enjoy it I did. So much so that, on seeing it a few months later on the same library shelf, I picked it up and read it again. I enjoyed it even more, although the introduction set in the 1980s seemed to drag a bit, too much preamble before the story properly began. I can count on my fingers and toes how many books I’ve read more than once, but never have I read the same book twice in such rapid succession.

Over the last thirty years (now I feel old…), many of the scenes and images from the book have been in my mind, occasionally flashing up to bring that warmth of nostalgia, a reminder of what rose-tinted glasses see as simpler, better times; and, strangely, I’ve never forgotten the final line, which always brought a smile to my face and left me with a strong feeling of satisfaction.

Of course, the book has remained available all these years. It’s now, quite rightly, one of the Fantasy Masterworks series and has been an ebook for quite some time. I’ve often thought about picking it up again, but I wanted to hold the same version I did all those years ago, with the cover of the clown on stilts and the mummified figure reaching out, as if trying to draw the reader into the story. Chances were, though, that this version was long out of print, and I’d never see it again. It may be time to bite the bullet and pick up a new copy or electronic version. Sounds silly, but neither would have felt the same or right.

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the book section of a local charity shop, one that has its own science fiction and fantasy section. It’s the same shop my books go to when they’re finished, and I like to see which ones have gone. Lately, there’s been a lot of books from the 1980s there, and I was delighted to see the name Tim Powers on a spine that was so faded, the title was barely visible. That same spine was creased and curved with use and age, something I would usually avoid in adding something to my collection, but I was curious to see which book it was.

I eased it from the shelf, and my heart leapt to see that same desiccated hand reaching out for me. It was The Anubis Gates. A lump grew in my throat as scenes and memories came to the fore; sitting in the school library reading about Darrow’s theory of time travel, being in my mum’s car driving to see my grandparents while reading why the magicians couldn’t touch the ground, amongst others. Yet still I wondered; decades later, my opinion jaded by all the books I’ve read since, would The Anubis Gates still be as good as I remembered, or was it just nostalgia giving me the opinion of greatness? Only one way to find out…

The prologue featuring two sorcerers hints at what is to come, but never too much, creating that spark of interest that gets the pages turning. Then we are introduced to the hero Brendan Doyle, an expert on the poet Coleridge, who has been summoned to England by a wealthy millionaire. This man, Darrow, tells Doyle that he has found a way to travel back in time, and wants him to take clients back to 1810 to attend a lecture by Coleridge himself. Doyle, naturally, is skeptical until he meets an old colleague who tells him it is all true; Doyle then agrees, and is whisked back in time with several others.

This part is very dialogue driven, the ‘talky’ part I wanted to get done with as quickly as possible on my second reading, but it works well in setting up the characters and concepts, as well as foreshadowing the twist that will come half way through the book. Doyle, being a scholar, is no action hero, and his willingness to accept the idea of time travel after his initial disbelief is well done. Still, it’s once Doyle arrives in the 1800s when the real fun begins.

Without giving away too much of the plot, let’s just say that Doyle ends up being left behind by the others, trapped in the London of the early 19th century. He meets various characters on his quest to return to his native time, all of them imbued with distinct personalities by Powers, including Coleridge and Lord Byron. Doyle’s knowledge of this time period enable him to engineer meetings with the poets he has studied, but as the story progresses, he begins to realise the effect he is having on the timeline, and vice versa.

What follows is a solid adventure yarn. While it may not be as lyrical as Powers’ later writings, the story carries the reader along at a healthy pace, pausing for breath and introspection at the right moments. Doyle is a believable hero, not just in who he is, but also in his actions and reactions to events; he’s intelligent, downright sneaky at times, never giving up hope despite his circumstances. Other characters are equally well-portrayed. Plaudits must go to Powers for his villains, who aren’t evil for the sake of it, but have believable motivations behind their quests for personal gain. Some are downright nasty, while others do things out of a need for revenge or justice, others still just to find enough money for their next meal.

The final hundred pages are frenetic, as all the ideas are woven together and come to fruition. This, for me, is the book’s one weakness; there is so much going on, in many different places, that it’s difficult to keep track. The passage of time fluctuates – in some cases, months pass between scenes – and we are told about events rather than allowed to experience them. Doyle’s escapades in Egypt, for instance, could have filled a book themselves. I suppose that’s the point that they had to be trimmed down in order for this story to be told in one volume. Perhaps I’m the one who’s at fault, for wanting so much more.

I’m delighted to say that my opinion of this book remains the same, unclouded by nostalgia. For every scene I could remember, there are several that I had forgotten about, enough to make The Anubis Gates as vital and refreshing as it was three decades ago. It’s testament to Tim Powers’ ability to craft an enduring story, one that is worthy of being on the shelves of any fantasy fan. However battered it may be, it’s going back onto mine, but it won’t have to wait another thirty years to be read again.


One Comment

  1. Dustin Bilyk says:

    Loved this review, Alister! Rarely am I moved to purchase after reading someone else’s review, but you’ve done it my good man. This story sounds absolutely delightful 😉


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