Sunday, 19 June 2011

'No man can step into the same river twice...' or the Paradox of time travel

 The Anubis Gates
  by Tim Powers

Wow, this was not quite what I expected, but it was certainly a rollicking great adventure of a book.  I was attracted to this title for a couple of reasons, firstly with my rising interest in steampunk I thought it was about time I got around to reading what is regarded as something of a pioneer text within the genre.  The other thing that attracted me to this title was the fact that the story involves Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the bad boy of romantic poetry, Lord Byron, a novel featuring cameos by a couple of the greats of the romantic movement held great appeal.  What did surprise me was the apparent absence of technology in this speculative title,  I have come to expect the term steampunk to be heavily associated with a kind of retro tech and to be essentially sci-fi in terms of its outlook, but this book is much more a fantasy title, with magic rather than science being the dominate motif.  Having made that obvious observation, let me just say that it  in no way detracts from the roller coaster ride of what is a great adventure. 

A time travel novel that sees the main character transported back to 1810 London as a result of gaps or gates in the time stream which have been created by sinister Egyptian magicians and exploited by an equally sinister millionaire in the twentieth century.  The main protagonist, Brendan Doyle becomes involved when he is recruited as a Coleridge expert to escort a fund raising tour into the past, Doyle becomes marooned in a nightmare world where he must struggle to just stay alive, let alone escape back to his own time.  Peopled with fantastic grotesques and cliff hanging incident after incident, this novel has a high octane plot that drives the narrative compulsively and compellingly  forward.  Gypsies, poets, magicians, beggar and thief lords, a clown worthy of our worst nightmares, werewolves and girls disguised as boys, all make this a varied and sensational novel.  This is the kind of speculative novel which makes the term speculative fiction so accurate as a genre descriptive.  Essentially a time travel novel, it deals with the conundrums presented by the possibility of time travel, but also voices our fascination with the past.

I must admit I did not find the character of Brendan Doyle particularly appealing but the mysterious poet William Ashbless was much more compelling.  The novel is a little demanding of the reader in that one of the plot devices involves characters switching bodies and to an extent persona's.  The damaged magician who becomes the werewolf character Dog faced Joe needs to keep finding new bodies in which to hide, due to the excessive hair growth his condition occasions.  Incidentally, other elements in the novel feed into well know London legends, such as the legend of spring heeled Jack, although never explicitly spelled out, the elements are there.  The character of Horrabin the clown is vividly realised, the stuff of nightmares, he haunts the pages and potentially the readers dreams and nightmares, he and the terrifying dungeons of the rats castle, his base certainly haunt the dreams of Coleridge:
"This Fuseli-esque scene, together with the familiar - though extra strong this time - ballon-headed feeling and the warm loseness in his joints, made him certain  that he had once again taken too strong a dose of laudanum and was hallucinating.
In Xanadu, he'd thought  wryly, did STC a morbid dungeon world decree." 

Aside from this 1811 London setting, the plot also sees the main character travel further back in time, to take part in a chase across the frozen Thames at the time of the great frost fairs.  Part of the novel also occurs in Egypt at the time of the massacre of the Mamelukes, giving Powers the opportunity to write great, dramatic scenes.  This is a vividly realised world and a great, (if not literary,) read.  To an extent the novel reminded me of a novel I read several years ago called The List of Seven by Mark Frost.  I went and dug through the three deep stacks of books that fill the bottom shelves of my book shelves in order to dig that title out and will probably dip back into that in the near future.  The Anubis Gates is also a title that will warrant re-reading in the future.

On the back blurb on the edition I have is a quote from a TLS review which I will quote here as it seems to nicely sum up the book:
"An adventure novel ... an impressively intricate time-travel conundrum ... a supernatural thriller ... a literary mystery ... a horror story ... a catastrophe of necromancy and ruin ... virtuoso performance, a display of marvellous fireworks that illuminates everything in flashes."
All and all a great escape!

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