I didn’t expect this to be as much fun as it was. The jacket blurb talks about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Regency London and, even though it also mentions time-travelling tourists, it all sounded a little too much like my A-Level English Lit classes to be thoroughly enjoyable. And yet that’s exactly what it was. This is the most fun I’ve had since reading A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer back in March (albeit way, way darker), in terms of rip-roaring, can’t tear myself away, capital ‘F’, Fun.
So the blurb does this book no justice at all. Having said that, I don’t know how anyone could succinctly sum up The Anubis Gates in a way that would really tempt someone to read it. Any effort to lay out clearly the multiple, intertwined plots with the aim of luring someone in just results in headaches all round – I know, I tried to explain it to Thumbs and got into a right knot. Yes, time travel (by magical rather than scientific means) is a big element of the storyline, vital to the goings-on described. Magic and sorcerers abound. There are lots of characters with multiple assumed identities, and a number of mysteries to be solved, (which is where it all starts to get a bit complicated), but none of this really captures the adventure and pace of the story. My blurb would read something like: “This book’s awesome. Don’t ask questions, just read it and see for yourself”, which isn’t very helpful, but sometimes you do just need to bully people into reading something when it’s so good you want to tell the poor unsuspecting stranger standing behind you in the supermarket queue all about it.
Growing up, time-travel stories made me very cross. I mostly blame this on the Back to the Future and Terminator movies. And Timecop. My very literal, rule-loving childhood brain couldn’t handle all Marty McFly’s chaotic zipping about making everything different, nor Kyle Reese’s closed loop dad-of-leader-of-the-Resistance-sent-back-by-leader-of-the-Resistance-to-become-dad-of-leader-of-the-Resistance-arghhhhhhgurgle (which, honestly, I still have trouble with); and as for Timecop, the less said the better. Anyway, after years of arguing with everyone I know and love about how much time-travel stories suck, I read Connie Willis’ Blackout/ All Clear (Why? Because Jo Walton told me to naturally) and watched Primer (because my brother got very excited about it), and was so entertained and distracted that I’ve kind of chilled out about the whole thing now. As long as I don’t think about it too much, as long as it makes some kind of surface sense, I’ll roll with it. I put it down to being much older and lazier than I once was. Anyway, I like Tim Powers’ image of time as an iced-over river, and time-travel as moving between holes in the ice – climb out of the flow onto the ice and you can drop through another hole into a different part of the time stream. My simple brain could keep hold of that image, which was just as well because then Powers’ went and got all Terminator-screwy with his plotting and my ears started to bleed. I risk giving too much away if I say any more, so let’s just finish this untidy thought off with the fact that there are some excellent surprises, and some things that you may see coming, but it’s all very well done and not too important to your enjoyment of the story if you don’t quite get it. (If you have questions, just tell yourself the answer is magic, like I did, and you’ll be fine).
What I can talk about without spoiling anything is the superb array of characters in the book. Our hero, Brendan Doyle, starts out not being particularly interesting or inspiring, but as the book moves on he becomes progressively more kick-ass, and by the end I loved him. I mean, this dude is beaten up repeatedly, loses an ear, is stabbed through the foot, poisoned and mutilated, gets shot on several occasions, and is finally brutally, near-fatally tortured, and yet he survives all of it. In a time without decent sanitation or healthcare services. He gets the prize for most abused character I’ve read about this year (possibly ever … I’ll have to think about that). He’s not the only great character though, the book’s swarming with them: there’s the beggar boy Jacky, out for revenge hunting the terrifying murderer Dog-face Joe; there’s the beggar kings Copenhagen Jack and the stilt-walking, clown-faced Horrabin; the mysterious Master and his servants Amenophis Fikee and Doctor Romany/Romanelli; the gypsy Damnable Richard and his little wooden monkey; the wealthy, scheming J. Cochrane Darrow; the enigmatic poet William Ashbless, and his contemporaries Coleridge and Byron; not to mention a number of hairy, mad ape-men, the creatures known as Horrabin’s Mistakes and his Spoonsize Boys; the Eyeless Sisters and the wonderful Big Biter; or my personal favourites the mischievous, toy-loving yags. It’s absolutely jam-packed with brain-searingly memorable characters.
It’s also creepy as a creepy thing with lots of legs, on your face, in the dark. I try to get an extra half-hour’s reading done before bed most days, and reading this before lights-out made for some very interesting mental images to drift off with. Every time I went to bed I seemed to have just reached another part of the story featuring Horrabin, and he and his Rat’s Castle are all kinds of spooky. The most intense part of the book for me was Jacky’s capture and escape from Horrabin in his lair – I swear I held my breath the whole way through – and I couldn’t sleep at all after that. Long after I’ve forgotten the finer details of The Anubis Gates, when I’m old and grey and trying to get to sleep, I think Horrabin will still be in there, grinning horribly out at me. He’s a keeper (*shudder*), and worthy of anything dreamed up by Clive Barker.
What else can I say? This is a book that feels like it was as much fun for Powers’ to write as it was for me to read. I don’t know if all of his books are like this as The Anubis Gates is the only one I’ve read so far, but it’s made me want to read more of his work, and I’m surprised this isn’t a book more widely talked about. I should definitely have heard about it before now. Those books that stand out for me are the ones that leave me with clear, full-colour, visual impressions, and this is one of those books. I’m going to be bullying as many people as possible into reading it … starting with you:
This book’s awesome. Don’t ask questions, just read it and see for yourself.