Slave to a Pleasing Pattern: A review of The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers.

Slave to a Pleasing Pattern: A review of The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers.

HarperCollins 1993, 464 pages.

If the title of this review sounds a bit negative, let me say right off the bat that I really enjoyed this book. It is supremely entertaining. The Anubis Gates is probably one of the better-known standalone fantasy novels of the 1980s. (Copyright date is 1983.) It follows Brendan Doyle, Coleridge expert, as he joins an expedition to use mysterious gates to travel back in time to meet Coleridge and hear him speak. Of course, nothing goes to plan and Doyle ends up travelling through time, space and the underworld, having innumerable adventures, meeting a panoply of monsters and magicians, and in the end becomes somebody else.

Front cover of <em>The Anubis Gates</em> by Tim Powers.

Front cover of The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers.

For breathless adventure, little beats it. There are the excessive coincidences that such a plot needs; London in 1810 was not as big as it is now, but it was a city of a million or more people, and even though the story is restricted to a few localities within the metropolis, key characters still cross each others’ paths with plot-driven regularity. Similarly, there are times when the actions of the protagonist do seem to grow out of the needs of the time travel paradox plot more than out of character, but that is often a problem when time travel crops up and Powers deals with it as well as anybody — partly by the simple expedient of not letting history change. More than once Doyle uses the fact that he knows when he is going to die to convince himself to take some action — well, he thinks, I might as well just let this guy take me prisoner, since I know I won’t die for 30 years yet. So the story takes place in the gaps in the protagonist’s knowledge, with a few episodes here and there acting as fixed points because they are known to have happened. In that sense it it the kind of ‘secret history’ that so beguiles; the idea that there is much more in the world than we know is more convincing and pleasing if it can be made to fit, and contribute, to the history we know, and contradict nothing that we (think we) know. At this Powers is a master.

In general the logic is solid, the action described evocatively and effectively, the writing economical and rises to the heights required at the climaxes.  Magic proves costly to the practitioners — always a good sign in a fantasy, where if magic is too easy and has too few rules then anything can happen and so the story suffers. There are no longeuers to speak of — Doyle seems impossibly resilient — and I’m not sure this is to the story’s benefit. But any quibble is minor in the face of the extraordinary invention and the cavalcade of adventures and marvels.

This is a must-read book for anyone who thinks they like fantasy. Further, if you have read some Powers but just the books that seem fixated on California (Expiration Date, Earthquake Weather… others), this is a welcome change of scene and pace, and in my opinion better for it I must confess.

I read it for the first time twenty years ago and then again just now, and it is odd what I recalled compared to what is really there. The wonderfully horrible Horrabin the clown and his spoon-sized boys, and Doyle’s journey through the underworld, loomed much larger in my memory than their page-counts warranted, while of many other characters I recalled nothing at all, though they played key roles in the plot and in one case married the hero.

Oh, and why not google ‘William Ashbless.’ He’s not the worst poet. (Wink.)

This is how it all ends.


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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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