The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
In short, this is a masterpiece of literature! It mixes fantasy with science fiction and has a multitude of story lines woven together with such intricacy that the resulting tapestry is a true marvel.
The Anubis Gates had me hooked from the beginning. Time travel is introduced very early on with a mixture of gadgetary and philosophical ideas about time travel, with a motivation about as strong as you can get…albeit truly revealed quite late on in the book.
The novel opens with a prologue that reads rather like an opening sequence in a movie – a couple of mysterious characters in ancient Egypt in a fantasy setting with an odd mix of horror and magic. It is abstract and vague, but you know that in time all will become clear…
Brendan Doyle, a literary scholar, is asked by Mr Darrow to go back in time with millionaires who are paying to attend a lecture given by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Doyle’s role, given his academic knowledge, is to provide his expert opinion on the lecture.
Brendan is abducted shortly after the lecture from which moment on he’s thrust into a world where he tries to piece together who he really is, who his kidnapper was, and why he’s of interest to them. This is more complicated than you might imagine thanks to a body changing werewolf (“Dog Face Joe”) hidden identities, magic, a surprising Shakespearean style romance and of course the time travel!
The time travel element
Time travel is introduced early in the novel; there’s no hanging about waiting for it to come, and no annoying confusion from the main character about “ooh-la-di-dah everything is so 18th century, but after 4 chapters I still haven’t worked out what’s going on”. No, thankfully Doyle has his head on straight and gets straight to business and deals with events as best as he is able given his very tricky circumstances!
Doyle is sceptical of time travel so this affords Darrow the opportunity to convince him (and us, the reader) of the reality of it. Darrow describes time as a river and uses this as a really good counter argument to the butterfly effect (i.e. that a small incident in the past (e.g. the flap of a butterfly’s wing) can affect the future on a much larger scale (like causing a hurricane); small disturbances in the river effect the flow downstream (i.e. in the future)…but some ripples are so small that actually it makes no difference to the bigger picture!
The analogy of time being like a river is taken further where Darrow suggests that you can step out of the time river and re-enter it on another part of the river bank. Or that the river could be frozen but that there are holes in the ice which can be passed through.
Despite these beautiful ideas, the aspect of time travel is not the main theme of the book and it is not a vehicle to transport the reader to a different setting for the characters. Rather, it’s a subtle mechanism to move and swap characters around within the plot.
The mechanism of time travel is done so through magical means (or an effect from) which is the first time I’ve come across this method and naturally fits in well with the fantasy part of the novel.
There are many clever time loops and the ontological paradox is taken to the extreme. There are also several examples of the “Hitler paradox” where history cannot be changed, altered, or escaped from. There is a therefore a clear sense of destiny and a strong sense of curiosity, especially in the submissive yet climatic conclusion.
These time travel themes are brilliantly executed and fit well within the general story line.
Although there is one central character, we are also introduced into the thoughts and feelings of several other characters in the novel. This helps to paint a complete three-dimensional picture of the events taking place and creates a deeper understanding of both characters and setting.
There is naturally a lot of swapping between the plots but it is not disruptive, and neither do the shifts seem to be timed to be cliff-hangers. The changes were natural and helped with the chronological narrative – as well as it could be in a time travel novel!
The main story line which comes together at the end wasn’t the one I was expecting…what I thought was the main story turned out to be an initiator, and then as a reoccurring side plot. Very clever!
I think this is a love or hate book (I loved it!). There is a lot of chopping about which means that the main character is difficult to follow at times…in body and in time. I can see that some readers may find this frustrating, as well as the diffusion between fantasy and science fiction.
My only slightly negative point is that I found the Egyptian story line to be a little confusing but that probably reflects more of myself than of the book – I must confess that I’m not really into fantasy so I read these sections very lightly and no doubt I missed some crucial aspects.
That said, the ‘fantastic’ line (is there another adjective for a fantasy section?) played a minor role in the whole scheme of things.