First posted on October 25, 2016.
I vaguely remember a sitcom called Perfect Strangers when I was young. I remember enjoying it, but it either must not have aged well or it must have been more or less terrible if you had two digits in your age, because since then, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of it. If this seems like an odd thing to discuss instead of the fantasy novel mentioned in the title, you’re right. It really doesn’t have anything to do with The Anubis Gates except that the show was the last time I saw Bronson Pinchot so much as mentioned, and I was shocked when A), it turns out he’s narrating audiobooks now, including Tim Powers The Anubis Gates and B), it turns out he is absolutely amazing as an audiobook narrator. Who would’ve thought that cousin Balky would be so talented?
Prior to picking up The Anubis Gates audiobook, I didn’t actually know much about Tim Powers, either, except that I knew John C. Wright liked him, and that he’s Catholic. Now, I don’t know if Wright considers him specifically to be an influence or not, but The Anubis Gates certainly has some elements I’ve come to associate with Wright: magic in a world where people talk about quantum mechanics, interesting intersections of that magic with Christianity, and an impressive level of education. (Although, to be fair, The Anubis Gates reminds me more of Dan Simmons Hyperion in his approach to literature than Wright.)
Magic has been dying for the last 1800 years at the start of The Anubis Gates. Ever since Christ’s death and resurrection, something has happened that has clamped down on magic, drained the life from it, and made it terribly dangerous to cast. At the turn of the 19th century, The Master, a 4,000 year old sorcerer, has a plan to revitalize magic by summoning the long-dead god Anubis and offering him the body of one his lieutenants to inhabit. You wouldn’t think that such a thing could go wrong, but, shockingly, it does.
Fast forward two hundred years, and the wealthy industrialist J. Cochran Darrow has discovered something unusual: there are holes in time, places where technology and science cease to work, and magic actually begins to work. They’re static locations in time and space, meaning you have to wait for one of the holes to open up before you can exploit them, and then you can only travel to one of the other static “locations.” They’re spread out over about 600 hundred years, distributed in a bell curve, with the peak of that curve around the beginning of the 19th century.
With all these holes in time laying around, why wouldn’t you, say, take rich tourists back in time to see Samuel Taylor Coleridge give a lecture? After figuring out how to work the gates– technology in the present, magical talismans in the past– Darrow hires the protagonist, British literature expert Brendan Doyle, to act as an advisor and guide. Nothing in this book goes off without a hitch, but the tourists, Doyle, and Darrow make their visit, all but unnoticed. Except, of course, for the gypsies in the employ of Dr. Romany. Romany is one of the surviving lieutenants of The Master, and he’s very curious to know how these people made use of the Gates of Anubis. Curious enough to kidnap Doyle and ultimately strand him in the 18th century with no friends and a wagon load of enemies.
The Anubis Gates isn’t a terribly easy novel to sum up. It’s fairly dense and layered, which is both one of its strengths and one of its weaknesses– it’s one of those puzzle time travel mysteries, where you’re trying to figure out how all the pieces come together. It’s very adept at putting those pieces together and not leaving any loose ends that I’m aware of, at any rate. In some ways it reminds me of The Prestige, where the final act begins showing us how all the mysteries can be answered with a few revelations. The Anubis Gates draws its revelations out a bit, so you get some dribs and drabs of “Oh wow!” along the way. But as nice as that is, it also starts to work against the whole concept of a stunning revelation after a while– you start to get the hang of it. You start to remember things that the characters have forgotten, and so while there are great plot twists, it starts to feel a little workmanlike as you’re working through all the time travel stuff towards the end of it.
One thing I wasn’t expecting out of the book were the horror elements. One of Doyle’s antagonists is a clown, Horrabin, who prowls around markets on stilts and heads a beggar’s guild. Horrabin is a sorcerer in his own right, allied with if not actually working for Dr. Romany, and he’s not afraid to “modify” his beggars in order to make them better at their jobs. The novel is rarely graphic, but there are definitely a few queasy moments if you think about them– which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (It is October, after all. Time for scary stuff!) There are some hints of Lovecraft in the mix, too, and they’re played well enough to make my recent discovery of a Lovecraftian spy novel by Powers an exciting prospect.
The Anubis Gates isn’t perfect. But really, I can count the number of novels I don’t have a problem with on one hand, and if you’re looking for an satisfying read, you can definitely do worse. And it’s almost worth getting the audiobook just to hear Pinchot’s surprising vocal magic.