Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

September 2, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
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It’s easy to see why Anubis Gates is a popular book. It was, I think, in many ways ahead of its time. Since its publication in 1983 there has been enough fantasies set in Victorian and pre-Victorian England to found a new subgenre, but this book was there first (all right, I’m not nearly enough of a scholar to know this with any certainty, but it was early at least). Another plus is that it isn’t nearly as cloying in its use of the English setting as many of its successors, making it a much more enjoyable read for those, like me, who are less than enchanted with merry olde England. It also anticipates the so-called “New Weird” movement of Mieville with a wide array of unusual creatures, magical effects, and so on. There are traces of the depression and near nihilism of Mieville without being quite such a downer.

All right, so the book has some of the best features of current fads despite being over twenty years old. But is it good? Well…yes and no. The introduction to the main character seems to indicate a novel in the Hyperion mold, heavily influenced by and allusive to literature. However, ultimately the poetry of Coleridge and Byron turn out to be props for the book’s narrative gymnastics, not pathways toward any higher meaning. For most of the book, the reader might not care, because Powers writes a decent procedural.

Unfortunately, it is just decent. The first problem is the book’s pacing. Some sequences are fantastic page-turners, but too often the narrative bogs down in unmotivated quagmire. The second problem is the lack of a compelling antagonist. Oh, the larger than life characters that oppose the main character are interesting in their own way, but while they commit various petty evils to get what they want it is not immediately obvious why I should desperately want their master plan to cause control of Egypt to revert from Britain to France to fail. Third, while the book’s quirky approach to magic is by turns refreshing and delightful, it takes a back seat to time travel. That’s fair enough, but as soon as you realize the approach the book takes to time travel, the plot becomes extremely predictable. I anticipated pretty much every important point or “surprise” in the final act hundreds of pages in advance. Fourth, the ending is not only without dramatic tension, it is executed in what must be described as a stunningly unsuccessful manner. It’s hard to imagine it having less pathos. Powers does a decent job setting up his dramatis personae and their problems throughout most of the book, so it was hugely disappointing to have it all resolved so poorly. It’s reminiscent of Stephenson’s endings to Snow Crash and Diamond Age, but worse because this book has less of an emphasis on style and needs to stand or fall based on the story.

In spite of its problems, Anubis Gates is a fun if light book, and I’ll be willing to try another Powers book if it comes recommended. If you are fascinated by England in the early 19th century or time travel stories in general, give it a try, but otherwise I’d look elsewhere.

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