Tim Powers' masterpiece remains, over 20 years after its first publication, one of modern fantasy's most dazzling acts of the imagination. There have been other novels in the genre about time travel, but none with The Anubis Gates' unique slant on the material, nor its bottomless well of inventiveness. It's literally in a class by itself, a model for others to follow, and it's easy to see how it put Powers on the map.
Powers' plot is so full of ideas and its execution so energetic you wonder how he could cram all of this into a single book. Many fantasy novels are long in the telling, with overly complicated plots to either impress or bore you depending on both your tastes and the author's skill. But you haven't quite seen a literary jigsaw puzzle where the pieces fit as smartly as they do here. Powers draws from everywhere: speculative quantum physics, ancient Egyptian mythology, Romany lore, history and classical literature. Then he mixes it all together with the carefree exuberance of a kid with his first chemistry set. The result, of course, blows up the room — but in the best possible way. For sheer entertainment value, The Anubis Gates is hard to beat.
The story relates the adventures of one Brendan Doyle, a literary scholar and classicist with a mediocre career who is hired by eccentric tycoon J. Cochran Darrow to accompany a trip back in time — through a process involving gates, like holes in the ice over a frozen river — to London, 1810, where he and a group of high-paying clients intend to witness a famous lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Doyle is excited about the trip, not only because he is a Coleridge expert, but because the time period also coincides with the life of an obscure poet, William Ashbless, about whom Doyle wants to write his next book.
Everything goes pear-shaped when Doyle is abducted from the tour group — thus missing his trip back to the present day — by a gang of nasty gypsies, led by one Dr. Romany, who witnesses the tour's arrival and demands to know everything about the time travel techniques involved. For as it turns out, Romany is part of another, more nefarious group utilizing the gates in time. Based in Egypt, a powerful sorcerer has employed agents, both real and artificial (Romany is the ka, or duplicate, of a Dr. Romanelli working in Greece), to damage the British Empire so thoroughly that its subsequent control in Egypt is thwarted, and Egypt can become an independent nation. An elaborate plan involving an attempt on the life of the king, the devaluing of British currency, and even the burning of London itself is in the works. And suddenly Doyle has appeared in the middle of it, an X factor that could upset the applecart.
Powers' storytelling is breathtaking throughout. Doyle, at first, is barely able to survive on London's streets, and falls afoul of a guild of beggars run by the awesomely despicable villain Horribin, who wears (I love this) clown makeup to hide his deformities. An almost endless supply of subplots adds to the fun. There's a serial killer called Dog-Face Joe who is rumored to possess the bodies of his victims. A young woman disguised as a beggar boy intends to track him down to avenge her fianceé. The story takes us from England to Egypt and back, from 1983 to 1810 and even, briefly, back to 1684. We learn there's more than meets the eye to a number of characters, even Darrow, who is not at all out of the picture as we are initially led to believe.
But Powers' masterstroke is the character of William Ashbless himself, whom the stranded Doyle hopes to meet, not merely for academic reasons, but for help in getting him on his feet in a strange century. There's a lovely twist in the plot that, I admit, I kind of saw coming. But doing so only made me appreciate Powers' cleverness as a storyteller all the more. Ashbless is so seamlessly incorporated into the historical London setting, interacting with such contemporary men of letters as Coleridge and Lord Byron, that your first temptation when reading the novel will be to rush to Wikipedia and look this lost poet up. I suspect you'll get a kick out of what you discover.
You owe it to yourself to book a trip through The Anubis Gates as soon as possible. Time, after all, waits for no one.