Postal Reading group
May 2019
Notes on the book The Anubis gates by Tim Powers

The Anubis gates by Tim Powers was first published in 1983, and reprinted in the present Fantasy masterworks series in 2005. The author has written a number of acclaimed books in the genre, although I expect that the book will divide opinion, depending on whether you normally enjoy fantasy books.

The story of the present book begins when Brendan Doyle, a specialist on the poetry of William Ashbless, reluctantly accepts an invitation to act as a guide to time travelling tourists. Before he can return to his own time he is kidnapped and becomes stranded in London in 1810. In an attempt to learn more about Ashbless, the mysterious poet, and return to his own time he must survive the attentions of beggars and Egyptian magicians alike, while exposing an audacious plot to change history.

Firstly, I should admit that I do not normally read books from this genre. Time travel raises too many philosophical conundrums to make for easy reading, while some of the more fantastic creations are often distracting, and worse grotesque. This may, therefore, have affected my judgement of the book, although to be fair I was surprised that the book was a relatively quick read, despite both its length and the presence of abundant fantasy. Time travel is normally a frequent component of science fiction, but the present book clearly does not fit that genre. Indeed, most of the book seems to rely on ‘plain old magic’, rather than technology. The time-travellers seem to suffer the typical fates of the general population in the early 19th century, and even the magicians only seem to escape this to a limited degree.

Even the time-travel component is relatively limited, consisting only of two jumps, from the 1983 back to 1810, and later to 1666 and back again. The method of time-travel seems to be rather haphazard, relying on finding appropriately positioned ‘gaps’. Apart from the obvious problem of failing to return if the gap closes, as happened to Doyle, it seems that there is no way of ensuring a clear ‘landing site’ either. Certainly these don’t seem to be acceptable risks just for the sake of attending a lecture given by a dead author. While this may be a good way of overcoming one of the philosophical objections to time travel: “what happens if you change history?”, it doesn’t seem to have been uniformly applied. A gap which is barely long enough to let you attend a lecture won’t let you interfere with history, but what happens when you get stranded as Doyle does?

A lot of trouble has been taken, particularly before the initial jump from 1983, to ensure that the time-travellers should not appear to be from another time, and to ensure that they can’t change history. Yes, however, the same standards do not appear to have applied to the group of magicians seeking to establish Egypt as a major world power. Similarly, Doyle is convinced that, having become Ashbless, he cannot die until the appointed time in 1846, yet still feels that he has to work hard to thwart the magicians. Alternatively, if Doyle exists in 1810 before he was born in the 20th century, doesn’t that make a nonsense of his dying in 1846? Yes, I’m probably taking it too seriously, and this highlights one of the difficulties I have with fantasy books. However, this is a complicated book, with lots of different threads: time travel, the Egyptian plots, the rival gangs of beggars and the gypsy camp (which seems rather out of place in London in 1810).

Another confusing aspect of this book is the body swapping Dog Face Joe. Just when you think you’ve understood what’s going on, he pops up again in someone else’s body. Although most of his hosts die, some seem to survive, most notably Doyle, although in another body, all the while playing the role of William Ashbless. The sheer number of events in the book seem to be its biggest problem. There is potentially a first rate fantasy epic here, although the author hasn’t taken enough space to realise that potential. Similarly, simplifying the plot and shortening the book could have produced an equally good story.

One of the good aspects of the book is its portrayal of life in London in 1810, complete with the shadier aspects. Of course, I’m sure that the author has exercised considerable artistic licence, and the behaviour of the ‘copy’ of Byron seemed to be unconvincing. Certainly I can’t see anyone being convinced for long enough for the Egyptian plot to have succeeded, although some of the pre-programmed replies were rather amusing; Lord Byron as a finite state machine! Also, the Wikipedia page on William Ashbless makes interesting reading. Apparently the poet was invented by James Blaylock and Tim Powers when they were college students. Both subsequently used the character, apparently independently, in their novels.

In summary, Tim Powers has written an intricate novel which will appeal to devotees of fantasy fiction, but which will probably divide the opinion of other readers. Although I found the story to be excessively complicated, and would have preferred a simpler plot, I was nevertheless pleasantly surprised. Tim Powers is clearly a capable writer, and I can appreciate the his skill in this book, even though it clearly isn’t my favourite genre.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler