In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads an enjoyable and high-octane fantasy from one of the genre’s most original voices
Here’s a question for you. Have you heard of the poet William Ashbless? He has his own Wikipedia page. Yet he doesn’t exist. He never has. Ashbless was the creation of two writers, Tim Powers and James Blaylock, in the 1970s when they were college students. Unimpressed by the terrible poetry being published in their school magazine, Blaylock and Powers decided to invent their own poet and submit ‘his’ work to the magazine as a joke. It was enthusiastically accepted.
Ashbless features in The Anubis Gates, a 1983 novel written by Powers. Tim Powers is one of the most interesting and individual writers in modern fantasy. Each of his novels offers something markedly different from the previous one: he is not the sort of novelist to churn out the same book a dozen times and rest on his laurels.
And although his name may not be familiar to many people outside of fantasy circles, his impact on contemporary popular culture has been considerable. His 1987 novel On Stranger Tides became, as the title suggests, the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film, but it also inspired the successful Monkey Island video games franchise. Powers was one of a small number of 1980s writers who helped to inspire the now ubiquitous term ‘steampunk’: the origin of the word was in a 1987 letter to Locus magazine which namechecked Tim Powers among other authors.
The Anubis Gates is my first foray into Tim Powers’ febrile imagination, and it won’t be the last. It’s a difficult novel to summarise, with many twists and turns (and Powers is especially good at twists), so I’ll just sketch out the salient details. An American literature professor, Brendan Doyle, who has written a biography of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and is a scholar of a lesser contemporary of Coleridge’s, the poet William Ashbless, is invited by a millionaire named Darrow to come to England for a once-in-a-lifetime – or even out-of-a-lifetime – opportunity.
Darrow has discovered the hidden time portals or ‘gates’ which enable the traveller to skip to another point in time: unlike H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine or Back to the Future, the time traveller’s choices are limited because the gates dictate where, or rather when, you can visit. But it just so happens that one evening in 1810 is accessible via the gates – an evening when Coleridge gave a celebrated lecture in London.
However, after Doyle has travelled to early nineteenth-century London and heard Coleridge waxing lyrical about Milton, things begin to go wrong, and he is kidnapped and ends up missing his ‘gate’ back to the present day.
The adventure that follows barely lets up over the course of 450 pages, containing plot twists aplenty, identity shifts, clowns, magicians, time travel, and much else besides. Running through the novel is Powers’ slightly wry style, not as jokey or satirical as more mainstream comic fantasy authors like Terry Pratchett but signalling, nevertheless, that Powers isn’t taking himself too seriously.
There are two especially good plot twists involving William Ashbless himself and the woman Ashbless became romantically involved with, but to say more than this would be to risk spoiling the surprise. In the words of Anthony Hecht, I may already have said too much.
Powers’ work is curiously preoccupied with alcohol – not as a mere stimulant but as an art form, whether it’s the pear-shape of a bottle of Hennessy cognac, the taste of a good Laphroaig or the sensation of a good Bordeaux. This is the author, after all, who wrote a whole novel about brewing beer – 1979’s The Drawing of the Dark – and The Anubis Gates is also shot through with references to alcohol.
I mention this not because I think it is imbued with symbolic significance necessarily, but it’s a testament to Powers’ acute eye for detail, his skill at summoning a scene and a mood with delicious imagery (quite literally delicious in the case of the Hennessy), and these details are what make the time-travel adventure at the core of The Anubis Gates (FANTASY MASTERWORKS) so thrilling.
The more outlandish the suspension of disbelief required for a narrative, the more of a realist eye for detail the novelist had better be prepared – and able – to bring to their narrative.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.