A Miracle Of Rare Device: Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates
Tim Powers writes Secret History Hard Fantasy. He does extraordinary amounts of research for his novels and uncovers strange, inexplicable events that really happened and then builds a story out of explaining why. That sounds very dry and intellectual when I say it like that, but the end result doesn’t read like a textbook or an educational novel—story and character are always center stage.
The Anubis Gates was published in 1983. It won the Phillip K Dick Award that year. It was my first introduction to Powers’ funhouse mirror approach to historical fiction, and it made me a lifelong fan. Unlike most of the works I talk about here, this one is still in print, available as an e-book, an audiobook, and has recently been made into a stage play. So it’s not exactly obscure.
Nonetheless, it is still a novel that slips through the genre cracks and that puts it in Appendix X.
Brendan Doyle is a middle-aged widower and a university professor at Cal State Fullerton. His specialty is the romantic poets. He has just completed a biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and is at work researching the life of a lesser known poet of the same period, William Ashbless. We meet him (after a brief enigmatic prologue that won’t make much sense until we know a lot more about what’s going on) on an airplane en route to London, where he’s going to talk to an eccentric millionaire about a mysterious job.
The millionaire, Mr. Darrow, wants to hire Doyle to give a lecture on Coleridge to a very exclusive group that has been given an unprecedented opportunity to meet Coleridge in person. You see, Darrow has discovered a way to travel through time.
And this is where things start getting complicated.
Tim Powers does not so much plot as engineer his novels. Everything is significant and everything is connected. Watching the events unfold is a delight because what first appears to be random chaos evolves into perfect order, as if by magic. It’s like watching someone throw a handful of gears into the air and having them come down as a working clock that shows the current time. As a writer it intimidates the Hell out of me, but as a reader I find it irresistible.
Doyle does travel back in time to London in 1810, and most of the action takes place there. Power’s very matter-of-fact prose makes the era immersive to the reader. One can almost smell the city—and it doesn’t smell good. London’s criminal underworld (literately underground for much of the action) is dangerous, dirty, and marbled with thick veins of horror.
One of the primary villains of the book, for example, is Horriban, a beggar lord who habitually dresses as a clown and wears makeup to hide the deformities that his father gave him to make him a better beggar. Another is a man called Dog-Faced Joe, who can switch bodies with his victims, but is always recognizable by the thick hair that begins growing all over him as soon as he takes residence in a new form. Then there is the Master, an ancient Egyptian sorcerer who pays a terribly strange price for his powers.
One of the themes in this novel (which also shows up in other Powers novels, especially On Stranger Tides and The Drawing Of The Dark) is that magic didn’t disappear from the world all at once—it decayed over time, growing unpredictable and costly until it represents as much a danger to the caster as to the target. As one of the characters observes, magic is sure to do something, it’s just not likely to be what you expected or wanted it to.
That theme, the tension between the old, dying world of darkness and chaos and the new world of light and order is part of what gives The Anubis Gates its unique feel. Or as one of the characters puts it:
The Boat of Millions of Years, he thought; the boat of the dying sungod Ra, tacking down the western sky to the source of the dark river that runs through the underworld from west to east, through the twelve hours of the night, at the far eastern end of which the boat will tomorrow reappear, bearing a once again youthful, newly reignited sun.
Or, he thought bitterly , removed from us by a distance the universe shouldn’t even be able to encompass, it’s a vast motionless globe of burning gas, around which this little ball of a planet rolls like a pellet of dung propelled by a kephera beetle. Take your pick, he told himself as he started slowly down the hill. . . . But be willing to die for your choice.
While many fantasy authors interpret the supernatural as having a moral dimension, Powers does so with a depth and complexity that is often lacking. The choices faced by his characters are seldom clear, and they are never easy.
I could talk about this book all day, but I think I’ll wrap it up here. As I said above, this novel is so tightly plotted that it’s damned near impossible to say anything significant about the story without giving away spoilers. So just take my word for it. Get it. Read it. Now.
Misha Burnett is the author of Catskinner’s Book, Cannibal Hearts, The Worms Of Heaven, and Gingerbread Wolves, modern fantasy novels collectively known as The Book Of Lost Doors.