Friday, February 24, 2012

Review: The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
Published: Ace Books, 1983, Chatto & Windus, 1983
Awards Won: Philip K. Dick Award
Awards Nominated: British Science Fiction Association Award, Locus Fantasy Award

The Book: 

“One day, twentieth-century English professor Brendan Doyle, on the basis of his status as a fairly mediocre expert on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, receives an unbelievable job offer from a rich old eccentric.  He is asked to escort a group of equivalently wealthy travelers on a field trip to 1810 London, where they will attend an evening lecture by the great poet.  To Doyle’s surprise, it appears the old man is not a crackpot—Doyle is actually transported back in time.

The evening seems to be going well, until a gypsy kidnapping causes Doyle to miss his ride home.  Doyle now finds that being a student of history may not help him survive the real thing, especially when there appears to be so much that was unrecorded.  Doyle must find some way to navigate his new life’s landscape of horrific beggar clans, gypsy sorcerers, period poets, and the body-snatching murderer known as ‘Dog-Face Joe’.  As he does so, he finds himself drawn unwillingly into the adventure of a lifetime—one that may well claim his, in the end.” ~Allie

After I read Powers excellent dark fantasy spy novel, Declare, I was determined to read more of his work. The Anubis Gates definitely lives up to my expectations.  I’d also like to note that I think this work has aged very well. When I read it, I just assumed it was a relatively recent work, and I was shocked when I saw that the novel was older than I am.  Part of that is surely due to the story mostly taking place in the early 1800s, but I also think this kind of adventure story is the sort that will always have an audience.

My Thoughts:

I was a little surprised to see that both science fiction and fantasy awards recognized The Anubis Gates, since I would personally classify it as firmly fantasy. The story does feature time travel, but the time travel is basically powered by magic, not science.  I don’t mean that to sound like a criticism, though, as The Anubis Gates is a very enjoyable fantasy adventure.  Like Declare, the magic system of The Anubis Gates is very tangible and dangerous, and the story has some of the same dark, violent atmosphere.  However, despite this sinister edge, The Anubis Gates somehow also manages to be a rather playful and enthusiastic story.  The constant threats of torture, disfigurement, or death are balanced out by humor, action, and the protagonist’s unstoppable optimism.

The protagonist, Brendan Doyle, is the typical ordinary guy who gets reluctantly swept up in an adventure.  Though Doyle’s a pretty common character type, I still found his personality to be very engaging. He certainly makes plenty of mistakes, but I was impressed with his resilience and adaptability in dreadful circumstances.  Also, his slightly detached, optimistic view of the situation did a lot towards shifting the tone of the story away from horror and towards adventure.  

Aside from Doyle, the story was full of memorable and vivid characters. The fast-paced, plot-driven nature of the story didn’t lend itself to particularly deep character development, but there was just enough background on each character to pique the reader’s interest. One of my favorite minor characters was a young woman who was masquerading as a boy to get revenge for her murdered fiancé.  There were also plenty of characters that were fun to hate, such as the elusive murderer, Dog-Face Joe, or the sadistic Horrabin, a beggar king who covered up his disfigurement by dressing as a clown. Even the most minor of characters seemed to have their own agenda, and Doyle couldn't seem to help but get tangled up with all of them.   

While there is a lot of creativity in The Anubis Gates, it also has many similarities to other fantasy and action-adventure stories.  As a result, some of the major plot twists tended to be a little predictable.  For instance, Brendan Doyle’s transition from ordinary academic to reluctant hero is pretty standard for this kind of story. I also felt that the motivations and actions of the ‘main’ group of antagonists were a little too simple and familiar, in an action-movie kind of way.  However, there were so many different characters, all with their own goals, that I didn’t mind the simple villains all that much.  While some specific twists and elements may seem very familiar, I thought that there were still plenty of pleasant surprises to enjoy along the way.

My Rating: 4/5

The Anubis Gates is a fast-paced, imaginative, adventure story, featuring a middling academic, Brendan Doyle, who’s stuck in a supernatural take on early 1800s England.  Doyle has a much rougher time than he initially expects, but his resilience, resourcefulness, and general pro-active attitude all make him a very entertaining protagonist.  Powers’ fictional 1800s are filled with all sorts of interesting characters: sorcerers, beggars, gypsies, poets, murderers, time travelers, cross-dressers and more.  The Anubis Gates is a highly entertaining novel, though its use of several common adventure plot-elements does render a few of its twists predictable.  Altogether, it is a timeless kind of story that I imagine will continue to be enjoyed by people for many more years to come. 


  1. I've read Anubis Gates a few times, and am totally craving a re-read! Along with Last Call, it's one of my favorite Powers books. great review!

  2. Thanks for your comment! Hmm, maybe I should make Last Call the next book I read by Powers, then :).

  3. That good? It's one of those books that I've been putting off reading for some time already. I just never get round to it. I guess it's high time to to finally pick it up!

  4. I thought it was a lot of fun, at least! I hope you like it, too :).