Tales from the Completist: The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers
The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers
The Anubis Gates
By Tim Powers
Ace
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

Recently I was cleaning out some back folders on my hard drive and came across an old file named “Writers I Should Really Get Around to Reading the Complete Works of Before I Die;” and one of the people on that list was Tim Powers, whose genre-hybrid works span across the traditional lines of science-fiction, fantasy, horror and the occult to deliver truly unique stories that make a lasting impression, which is what makes him one of the most cultishly beloved writers in the entire industry right now. (Genre fans will probably best know his “Fault Lines” trilogy from the 1990s, a contemporary story about the “secret history” of magic in southern California; non-fans will probably be most familiar with a supernatural pirate novel he wrote in 1987 called On Stranger Tides, which twenty years later was adapted into the fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, to almost no one’s satisfaction.)

Although not his first-ever book (that would be the 1976 traditional sci-fi tale The Skies Discrowned, which I’m reading next), the novel of his that I most recently took on was the first to get him a lot of attention, 1983’s The Anubis Gates which won that year’s Philip K. Dick Award and was nominated for the Locus and BSFA. Like many of his books, Anubis posits that there were a whole series of hidden supernatural things going on that explain the gaps in real history from various famous moments in time that we know of; here, for example, that the birth of Romanticism in the early 1800s coincided with a group of Egypt-worshipping occultists who could do actual real magic, and that their unsuccessful attempt to bring back the pagan god Anubis from the dead resulted in ripping open a series of holes in the fabric of the space-time continuum.

Flash-forward to the early 1980s, then, and we see that a Ted-Turner-type ailing billionaire has actually figured out a way to access these space-time holes, has sold a dozen private “time-traveling tickets” for millions of dollars to his rich friends to help fund his research, and has hired an academic expert on Samuel Taylor Coleridge to be essentially a “tour guide” for this group, who are traveling back to 1810 for a night to attend a lecture by this famous poet and opium addict. Needless to say, things go to hell with this plan just as soon as they get there; and our historian hero Brendan Doyle finds himself permanently stuck in 1810 London, where he must learn to fend for himself while trying to track down a way to return to his own time, avoid the occult magicians who now know that a group from the future have traveled back to their time, and learn more about the hidden agenda that made this dying billionaire want to travel back to this specific moment in history in the first place. (Hint — it has to do with the werewolf-like serial killer who happens to be haunting the back alleys of London’s East End at this same time.)

Like most of Powers’ books, it’s a mondo storyline that sometimes gets so weird and scattered that you can’t possibly imagine how he’s going to tie it all together by the end; but like most of Powers’ books, he eventually does, with a kind of finesse and mastery over the three-act plot that makes most people an instant fan once they’ve read even a single book by him. Powers paints a portrait of early-1800s London here that is so real and concrete-feeling, it seems sometimes like you have literally stepped back in time yourself; and by sticking to the real events and people of this time with the fastidiousness of an academe (one of the other things his books are known for), he delivers not just a fantastical book but a historical one as well, one that looks at the actual things that were going on at that time and simply asks, “And what if a bunch of crazy supernatural things were also happening, at the moments that the historians weren’t around to write about?”

Like most of #TimPowers' books, #TheAnubisGates is a thrilling, page-flipping mondo delight Click To Tweet

A thrilling, page-flipping delight, The Anubis Gates is a fantastic introduction to Powers’ work for those who have never read anything by him before, containing in ur-form pretty much all the elements that have made his subsequent books so beloved in the 35 years since. It’ll be interesting at this point, I think, to jump back to the beginning of his career when he was writing much more straightforward genre tales; then after that, I think I’ll jump forward to the “Fault Lines” books (1992’s Last Call, 1996’s Expiration Date and 1997’s Earthquake Weather), and see him at what many consider the height of his power as a storyteller. If you’re never delved into the career of this fascinating writer yourself, I strongly encourage you to do so.

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Jason Pettus is the owner of CCLaP, and a former novelist, slam poet and travel writer. During the day he is a front-end software developer within the Chicago tech startup community. Goodreads | LibraryThing | Twitter | Instagram | Letterboxd