1983’s The Anubis Gates is the first of Tim Powers’ Anubis Gates series1.
1801: Determined to make Egypt great again, magicians Doctor Romany and Amenophis Fikee travel to England to conduct a ceremony which, if successful, will sweep the British Empire and its loathsome peers from the face of the Earth, then restore the old Egyptian gods in their full glory. The result is a catastrophe whose effects are felt across time.
Having failed again to sabotage the British Empire, the surviving schemers turn to other plots.
1983: recently bereaved Professor Brendan Doyle is recruited by J. Cochran Darrow for a bizarre-sounding task. Darrow claims to have discovered a sequence of temporal gates. Stepping into one can deliver travelers to any other gate. Darrow proposes to convey fellow millionaires to an 1810 Samuel Taylor Coleridge lecture. An expert on the literature of the period, Doyle is to provide informed commentary.
Time travel is a welcome, if unlikely, distraction from recent losses. Doyle accompanies Darrow and his clients back to 1810. Previous forays into the past were insufficiently subtle. Romany is aware that someone is using the gates, if not that they are time traveling. Romany has Doyle kidnapped for painful interrogation.
The Egyptians are ruthless and magically adept; they are also unlucky and incompetent. Doyle escapes their clutches. By the time he has done so, the 1810 gate has closed. He is trapped in the early 19th century.
Since this is the very period he studies, Doyle might seem well suited to the period. A comprehensive knowledge of Georgian and Victorian literature, with a focus on the life and works of William Ashbless, proves difficult to monetize. Doyle becomes one of England’s army of beggars.
Georgian conditions alone might ensure a short lifespan for Doyle. It is unlikely he will get to test that. Romany and his allies are extremely keen to talk to Doyle. Also, Doyle has a rare talent for stumbling into Romany’s other plots, such as the one involving a certain Lord Byron. Were this not complication enough, Darrow’s true purpose in visiting the 19th century could be threatened by Doyle; therefore, Darrow’s men have orders to kill the academic on sight.
Fortuitously, Doyle is on course to meet Dog Face Joe. Less fortuitously, Dog Face Joe is a notorious serial killer whose next victim could be one Brennan Doyle, formerly of the 20th century.
Period Piece observation: 19th England was not particularly inclusive in vocabulary or views.
One could learn quite a lot about how not to run large, important projects from people like Darrow and Romany.
Until I reread The Anubis Gates, it never occurred to me to wonder if it had influenced the design of the Fung Shui tabletop roleplaying game. There are a number of similarities in the background. Of course, this could be coincidence.
The Anubis Gates followed 1979’s Drawing of the Dark. Whereas one could see in Dark a rough draft of later Powers, Anubis is arguably the first true Tim Powers book, showing off all his proclivities2 and talents to great effect.
Among those tendencies, a surprising density of plot. Most authors would be happy to have time travel or magic, a megalomaniac oligarch, a scheming cabal of mages, a relentless serial killer, a terrifyingly beggar king, a woman disguised as a man seeking vengeance for her dead fiancé … as the plot seeds of at least five novels. Powers includes every single one of the above — and more. It’s a rare character who does not have two or three plots on the go. Powers manages to cram all of that into 387 pages.
Powers also further develops his habit of playing with unexplained historical episodes, such as the appearance of Byron in England at a time when he was known to be abroad. While he strives to remain within the borders of known history, Powers indulges his imagination when it comes to occult explanations of the seemingly inexplicable.
The result is a tremendously energetic novel whose intertwined plots race along at breakneck speed. It might be that Powers got one or two details wrong. I don’t know because at no point did I care to set the novel down to doublecheck his research. It’s always a big risk to revisit old favorites. This one, at least, still stands up to scrutiny.
1: The existence of the two later pieces in the Anubis series, Nobody’s Home (2014) and The Properties of Rooftop Air (2020), is something of which I was unaware until I composed this review.
2: A Powers proclivity: delight in physically brutalizing his protagonists.