The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers

The Anubis Gates, by Tim PowersI picked up this book based on recommendations from random internet folks commenting on The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. Both books use time-travel subtly, such that the reader isn’t distracted by mind-numbing technical descriptions, and aren’t plagued with plot holes caused by miscreants such as the grandfather paradox, but that’s where the similarities end.

The Anubis Gates chronicles the adventures of Brendan Doyle, an English professor inadvertently caught in the intrigues of a cabal of sorcerers seeking to restore the Egyptian gods to the power and glory that was stolen from them by the Christians. Add a dash of the supernatural in the form of magic and unsolved paranormal phenomena, and a dose of historical fiction provided by a roster of notable 19th century figures including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron and Muhammad Ali (no, not the boxer), and you should have a book that’s brimming with possibilities.

In spite of this, I found the book to be unsatisfying. Whereas every paragraph of Time Traveler’s Wife was an essential part of the story, I found myself thinking several times that certain sections were added just to reinforce the point that there is only a single temporal continuity. Pacing and characterisations were uneven, with some side plots – e.g. the beggar clown-king Horrabin’s quest for power through an alliance with one of the sorcerers – receiving way too many words for way too little pay-off, and the much more interesting character of Jacky, a.k.a. Elizabeth Jacqueline Tichy – who dresses up as a beggar boy to avenge the death of her fiancé – given woefully little space.

I also have an aversion to historical fiction that treats the supernatural as real. For example, while I generally think well of the movie The Prestige, it still troubles me that the cleverness of it stems from what is essentially a deus ex machina plot device (I won’t give it away here for those who haven’t seen it). The book makes much of sorcery as a dying art, probably to do with the waning power of the Egyptians. However, the way Powers describes it, with various occult paraphernalia and constantly iterated explanations about the effects (or lack) of magical power, is to magic in fiction what scientific descriptions about quantum theory and the like are to other books about time travel.

So despite its rambling nature and lengthy descriptions of even the most pedestrian events, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle still holds the spot as the best “fiction set in historical England” that I’ve read. Oddly, because it’s not one of my favourite genres or anything, I have yet another book in my “unread” pile that’s set in a similar period: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, my copy of which, I discovered just now, features an introduction by Audrey Niffenegger! God, I’m having another one of those Truman Show moments…


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