The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers, was published in 1983 and won the 1983 Philip K. Dick Award. It is often reported as one of the archetype books of the steampunk genre, though it is definitely not a steampunk in the modern sense. Instead, it is a historical fantasy, in which Powers weaves together fiction and actual historical events to create a tapestry and story of magical mayhem and adventure.
The book starts with some ancient Egyptian magicians attempting to open up a portal to let the old Egyptian gods into the modern times (1800’s) to bring back power to Egypt and take said power from Brittain. The plan goes awry, and opens up multiple portals through time. Then, in the modern era (1983), the protagonist is introduced to this time portals, and begins an adventure that takes him through multiple different times and bodies.
To be honest, it took me a long time to get into this book. I tried reading it once months ago and put it down. It just seemed to be boring to me. Don’t get me wrong – I understand that plots can take time to develop (after all, I’m a known champion for Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn being one of the finest fantasy stories ever written, and it has a notoriously long 190+ page "introduction."), and I understand that Powers has an interesting writing style from his background in English literature. I just wasn’t interested in the story, the characters, or the time period the first time I tried to read it.
I decided to pick the book back up again and told myself, "I’ll read to at least page 100 before I make any decisions about it this time." I approached page 100 and passed it one night without even realizing, and was hooked. I don’t know why this time it was different – there is definitely something to the philosophy that there is a ‘time and place’ for everything, and this was the time and the place for me. It definitely had its slow parts, and there were parts of the book that I don’t really feel were explained very well, but looking at it on the whole, it was a fantastic read.
Spoilers Below – Read at your own Risk
There was one part in particular that I remember sucking me in. Brendan Doyle, in the early 1800’s, was waiting at a tavern for the arrival of the poet William Ashbless. Ashbless never showed up, which prompted Doyle to write one of Ashbless’ poems from memory. It was at that moment that something clicked in my head, and I realized what was going on – that Doyle was Ashbless (or would become him), and that this story was going to get all sorts of funky.
For the most part, all of the time traveling in the book was very well explained and well thought-out, especially in terms of long-term effects. The device for moving through times seemed to have a bit too much handwavium in its flux capacitor, but most of the "logic" in the time traveling worked fine.
The ending was also very poignant – the fact that Doyle, by the time the main part of the story ended, knew that he would never have any true free will (since he must necessarily live out the live of Ashbless as written), was very sad. The epilogue, where we find out that there is still more to his story, made for a very happy turn.
Some parts didn’t work though. There were parts of the story that were written in such a way that I just simply didn’t know what was really going on. I thought Byron was murdered at one point, but at the end of the book, we are told Ashbless and Byron had become great friends. It took me a couple times reading through the scene at the end with Jacky, Dog-Face Joe, and Darrow to comprehend what had happened – that Dog-Face had swapped bodies with Darrow at the wrong time, and had come into an already dead (or dying) body. It was really cool once I figured it out, but the scene was very confusingly written.
I never really bought the Master as any sort of threat either. His actions, and then his death, were all pretty irrelevant to me for the most part. Romany/Romanelli and Horrabin were much more interesting. And they were focused on more, but I don’t really even see the purpose in the Master’s arc in the book.
And finally, Romany’s death by Apep was a little odd to me – it just didn’t seem to be explained well why that happened, and why Doyle was healed afterwards.
Overall, the story was a great read, and I would highly recommend it to literally anyone interested in the fantasy or sci-fi genres.