Monday, July 26, 2010

The Anubis Gates

I couldn't believe it when a found a copy of Tim Powers' long out of print time travel classic The Anubis Gates in a used bookstore. I immediately purchased it, without any hesitation. It was one of my holy grails of out of print books (another being Tom Tryon's The Other) and I was extremely excited to read it.

Brendon Doyle is a professor of poetry, specializing in the works of mostly forgotten William Ashbless. Doyle is offered a job from the mysterious and crazy Darrow, a wealthy man, wealthy enough to have stumbled upon gaps in history that allow certain people to move back and forth in time. But when Doyle is accidentally left behind in 1810, he is thrust into a war of magicians and beggars and doppelgangers and body-switchers. Will he ever be able to return to the present? And who or what controls the Anubis Gates, the gaps in history?

I've read a lot of time travel literature, and this was allegedly one of the classics, one of the best ever written. Unfortunately for me, the excitement and the hype did not live up the book's promising synopsis. I have never been so disappointed in a time travel novel before.

The novel starts off really strong, stranding the main character in 1810 London, but when the rival beggar gangs and the silly Dickensian cliched plucky orphan gets introduced, the plot grinds to a halt, and leaves the protagonist on the run from bizarre villains who aren't the least bit scary.

At that point, Power is creating excitement and suspense while simultaneously world-building, teaching the audience the rules and the history of this world. However, it's boring. Powers' prose is dull, lifeless, and his main protagonist is blank.

When the real time travel trickery happens, the action and interest picks up again. There's a brief literal detour to the 17th century, which is extremely fun, and fulfills the promise of a couple things planted earlier in the book. However, some of the other time travel tricks are painfully obvious to anybody who has read a time travel novel.

Powers' novel is more of a fantasy novel than a science fiction one. The method of time-locomotion is magical in nature, which lends The Anubis Gates a feel of "anything goes" something I'm not really into for time travel stories.

One of the best elements of The Anubis Gates is related to its nature as a fantasy novel. Powers creates a very complete world for his characters, carefully setting out the rules of magic, and all the backstory necessary to understand how high the stakes are.

This could have been so much better. There's a tendency to drop off interesting characters for new ones, never develop them, and return to to the interesting character if only for a chapter. No single secondary character gets a moment to grow or learn. Even the plucky orphan stays the same until the very end of the novel.

The Anubis Gates suffers from poor boring prose, lifeless characters, and a rather bland time travel plot. What few positive things I can say about this novel do not balance out the sheer disappointment that I felt. I don't think this is a case of mismatched expectations, considering the lavish praise heaped onto this novel. It should have been a lot better.

Oh well. In any case, I'm reading more Margaret Atwood right now and more Robert Charles Wilson. I'm about halfway through Blind Lake so I'll be talking about that soon enough. As always, thanks for reading.

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