Monday, January 18, 2010

Novel: Living in the Past

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, Ace Books, 1983.

How I got this book: I got to this book late in life, particularly for a book that is so seminal to a lot of things that I’ve enjoyed – steampunk, historical novels, alternate histories, magic, secret societies, and a lot. I can see why so many of my compatriots enjoy the book, but when it came out I was establishing my writing/designing career and not reading a lot of outside material, so it passed by.

Until the author was slated for a local convention, at which point I borrowed a copy from a friend, and started in. And then I knew I had to buy a copy for myself. And in the end, I was out for that entire weekend with food poisoning and missed the author appearance anyway. Ah, well.

So what about the book? Brendan Doyle is a scholar specializing in the work of the extremely obscure poet William Ashbless, a compatriot of Byron and Coleridge. He’s recruited by a wealthy madman with access to advanced tech, for the stated purpose of taking a dinner party back in time to listen to Coleridge (as a test bed for the time travel idea). Doyle gets trapped in the past and, despite early confidence that his knowledge of the future will allow him to survive 1810 England easily, he finds it is no simple matter.

The reason time travel works the way it works is because of actions by an ancient group of Egyptian sorcerers who punched as series of gates through the frozen river of time (a very nice conceit). They are also responsible for a body-switching werewolf haunting London, along with allies among a gypsy brotherhood, an organization of deformed clown-beggars, and several metaphysical elementals. So Doyle has his hands full, as he ranges between trying to change his supposed past and trying to fulfill it.

Indeed, the book keeps a lot of balls in the air at the same time, such that a plot thread or character may be lost and much be recovered later. And the book has so many potential bad guys that it needs not one, but four resolutions (one of which Doyle is not present for, another which required Coleridge to return to the narrative after a long absence) in order to fully resolve. However, through all of this, Powers plays fair with the reader – indeed part of the fun is figuring out before the protagonist where the plot is going next, and while Doyle can be a bit thick sometimes, he eventually twigs to what is going on.

I can see how this book has become a modern classic in the geek world – it is one of the first (1983) recent books that functions like a mashup, taking esoteric parts of existing histories and putting them into one place. Others have followed, but this one led the way for this type of adventure novel.

More later,