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Literature / The Anubis Gates

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The Anubis Gates is Tim Powers' breakout novel, first published in 1983.

Literary scholar Brendan Doyle is hired by reclusive millionaire J. Cochran Darrow to provide color commentary on a sight-seeing expedition into the year 1810 through one of the eponymous Gates, a series of gaps through time accidentally created in the 19th century by a cadre of Egyptian sorcerers attempting to overthrow the British Empire. The expedition attracts the attention of the sorcerers, who kidnap Doyle to find out where the travellers come from and how they found out about the Gates. He escapes, but not until the expedition has returned to 1983 and the Gate has closed, leaving him stranded in 1810 London and having to deal with the Egyptian sorcerers, the Body Snatcher Dog-Face Joe, the mystery of the reclusive poet William Ashbless, and the discovery that there was more to the original sight-seeing expedition than he was told.

This novel provides examples of:

  • And You Thought It Was a Game: Coleridge plays an important role in the climax of the story, all the while convinced he's just having a particularly vivid drug trip.
  • Anti-Magic: The Antaeus Brotherhood have a technique for diverting magical attacks away from themselves.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge become entangled in the magical goings-on.
  • Body Snatcher: Dog-Face Joe, who uses ancient Egyptian magic to swap bodies with new victims each time his current body becomes too hairy to hide. One of his victims is Doyle, who ends up in the body history knows as William Ashbless. He even pulls this on Darrow right before his historically-recorded execution, but it doesn't save him in the end.
  • Body Surf: Dog-Face Joe has to do this, because any body he stays in too long will start growing hair all over.
  • Cast from Hit Points: Trying to use serious magic in the 19th century tends to have severely deleterious effects on the physical health of the caster.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Powers sets up a lot of dominoes in chapter two. Some of them are pretty obvious (rumours of a body-surfing serial killer running amok in 1810? No way Doyle will somehow solve that problem); others, a lot more subtle.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Happens to Doyle twice. The second time is strongly implied to be horrific and mostly happens offscreen except for the screaming. We do, however, get a roster of the body parts he's now missing.
  • Compound-Interest Time Travel Gambit: Averted by Darrow's plan. Scheming to travel into the past and invest his wealth there, he also intends to become immortal and watch over his investment, taking full advantage of his economic foresight, rather than trust in compound interest alone.
  • Counterfeit Cash: One of several plots by the Egyptian villains has them trying to throw the UK into crisis by pouring counterfeit money into the banking system.
  • Creator In-Joke: When Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock were in college together, they invented a fake poet named "William Ashbless" to satirize the quality of their college's literary magazine. In The Anubis Gates, he appears as a major character and turns out to, himself, be a fake identity adopted by the past-stranded and body-swapped protagonist.
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right: The fate of Doctor Romany after having been damaged, defeated, and marooned in the (further) past.
  • Cue the Sun: The boat of the sun god Ra emerges from the tunnels into the Thames, turns to the east and dematerializes, leaving behind a miraculously restored Ashbless, just as the sun peeks over the horizon.
  • Designated Bullet: Jacky is out to avenge Dog-Face Joe's murder of Colin Lepovre by shooting Joe with the same gun that killed Colin.
  • Disney Villain Death: In a variation, the leader of the Egyptian sorcerers is last seen falling upward out of sight, as a side-effect of his long use of magic is that his personal gravity has been inverted (to be precise, his body is now more strongly attracted to the moon than to the earth).
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Doyle goes through absolute hell, but ends the story in a much better place than where he started it.
  • Eyes Never Lie: Beth Tichy recognises a monster as her fiancé, transformed, by the expression in his eyes — just after she shoots it.
  • Freaky Friday Sabotage: Dog-Face Joe's modus operandi, poisoning himself before stealing another body.
  • A Glass in the Hand: Subverted: the protagonist tries to break a beer mug in his hand to show how tough he is and intimidate his way out of an awkward situation, but discovers, to his embarrassment and onlookers' amusement, that he isn't quite strong enough. Still defuses the awkward situation, though.
  • Goldfish Poop Gang: Doctor Romany. He's not a nice guy and neither are his aims or his means, but after watching all of his increasingly-desperate plans come apart on him, it's hard not to see him as a little pathetic.
  • Grand Theft Me: Dog-Face Joe does this, and Darrow plans on doing it (with his own son, no less).
  • Historical Fantasy: It starts in the late 1990s, but the majority of the plot takes place in Victorian England.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: James Stuart, Duke of York, albeit offstage. His enmity leads to...
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The Duke Of Monmouth
  • "I Know You're in There Somewhere" Fight: How Doyle overcomes replicant mindslave Byron. While he thinks that what he wants to do is obey his master's sinister commands, Doyle knows what he really wants to do is write poetry.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Implied of Horrabin.
  • I'm Mr. [Future Pop Culture Reference]: A character adopts the alias "Humphrey Bogart" in early-19th-century London. A variation in that the character is not himself a time traveller, but picked up the name from another character who is.
  • In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous: Largely averted, as the only real historical figure Doyle encounters is the one Darrow's expedition deliberately set out to meet, Coleridge. Byron's clone is arguable, since he's not the real Byron, but the fact that the conspirators happened to choose a famous historical figure to clone entirely by chance does tend toward the trope.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: By the end of the book, every single one of the villains is dead.
  • The Magic Goes Away: A massive magical event in the backstory seriously damaged magical potency, and it's steadily faded ever since.
  • Manchurian Agent: The protagonist foils a plot of this nature.
  • Monster Clown: Horrabin, who tortures and mutilates the beggars who serve under him, is implied to have some of them cooked and eaten, and voluntarily serves the villains.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast:
  • No Ontological Inertia: The Egyptian sorcerors have been sustaining themselves with magic for so long that giving it up would cause Critical Existence Failure. Their leader exploits this to stop his minions from cutting their losses and abandoning the plan.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Doyle pretends to be mute in order to hide his conspicuous American accent.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: The protagonist has been mugged by men who think he's a sorcerer moments before he was supposed to return to the present; when he wakes up, groggy and thinking he's in 1983, he demands that he get a phone call to his boss.
    Doyle: Well, call him up, then. His number's in the book.
  • Our Homunculi Are Different: The magical substance paut can be used to create living humanoid beings. Horrabin makes very small servants called the Spoonsize boys for various acts of espionage (and also to serve as the "puppets" in his Punch and Judy show), and the full replica of a human called a ka is fashioned from the same stuff.
  • Power at a Price: Prolonged use of sorcery causes a mystical realignment from the Earth to the Moon. For most of the sorcerers who appear in the novel, the main effect is that it has become physically painful to come into contact with the ground, requiring various inventive methods of locomotion such as swings, stilts, or special shoes. Their leader, who's been at it for centuries, is now more strongly aligned to the Moon to the Earth, and has to stay indoors when the Moon is above the horizon to avoid being sucked away into space.
  • Prophecy Twist: At the beginning, Doyle recalls what he knows about Ashbless, including the discovery of his corpse. At the end, having become Ashbless, Doyle heads out to where he's supposed to die. However, earlier in the story, the villains made a replica of him - which Doyle encounters there and kills in the same manner that Ashbless was supposed to be killed. He leaves the body there to be discovered and walks away, much more optimistic.
  • Public Secret Message: Time travelers in the early 19th century get each other's attentions on busy city streets by whistling Beatles songs.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Richard, the old gypsy who works for Doctor Romany, is very much in on all of his evil schemes, but pretty much a decent guy. Early on in the book, he merely watches as Romany tortures Doyle for information, but when he himself recaptures Doyle later on, he decides to let him go rather than turn him back over to his boss. He also interferes with the attempt to murder Byron in cold blood. When Romany is eventually exiled to the past, his reaction is pretty much relief, and he merely gathers up his people and leaves.
  • Right in Front of Me: The scene in which William Ashbless is introduced to his wife-to-be, immediately after saying something he would have worded much more carefully if he'd known who she was.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Darrow arranges for a bunch of ludicrously-wealthy people to be taken back in time to attend a lecture by Coleridge... only to learn the time portal took them back to a week before that lecture took place. Coleridge is in the building, however, and Doyle suggests that the poet might be able to give an impromptu lecture for the right price. Before Coleridge can object, Darrow offers him a hundred pounds (bear in mind, that's a hundred pounds in 1810 money). The scene cuts to Coleridge giving a lecture to the assembled travelers.
  • Secret History: How Doyle gets around You Already Changed the Past. Since he turns out to be the only source for Ashbless' life, he doesn't need to do what the history books say; he just has to remember what the history books say so he can recite them as Blatant Lies later.
  • Sexless Marriage: Darrow/Dundee and Claire, much to her displeasure.
  • The Slow Path:
    • One of the villains gets stranded in the past and has to come back the long way, winding up as a mad old coot who appears in the story before the fateful time journey, making incomprehensible prophecies and mocking the ambitions of his younger self.
    • Another villain deliberately strands himself in the past (having come up with an unpleasant but effective plan for remaining youthful), with the intention of using his historical knowledge to accumulate wealth and power on his way back to the present.
  • Spooky Sťance: In a Noodle Incident, a seance was being conducted at the site of one of the gaps in time. As these gaps cause magic to start working in their vicinity, this seance presumably got results; just what result, no one knows, as the participants were all found dead the next day, sitting around their ouija board with horrified looks on their faces.
  • Stable Time Loop: Doyle creates one when, having become Ashbless, he copies Ashbless's poetry from memory in the place and at the time Ashbless is supposed to have written it. He has a brief panic when he realizes that this means nobody ever actually wrote the poems, but calms down and concludes that, as long as they exist in some form, history won't care.
  • Stop Worshipping Me: The Egyptian villains' plan is intended to make worship of the ancient Egyptian gods the world's dominant religion. The Egyptian gods' interventions in mortal events tend to hinder the villains and help the protagonist Ashbless.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: The fiancée of one of Dog-Face Joe's victims adopts a male persona and infiltrates London's underworld to hunt him down.
  • Take a Level in Badass: Doyle, roughly about the same time that he accepts that he's stuck in 1810.
  • That Old-Time Prescription: Doyle survives Dog-Faced Joe's Freaky Friday Sabotage by eating a large quantity of charcoal from a fireplace as he knows that activated charcoal is used to treat strychnine poisoning in the 20th century.
  • Time Travel: via the titular gates, a harmonic series of episodic fissures that appear up and down the time stream from an initial temporal accident like the ripples resulting from a rock thrown into a pond.
  • Tongue Trauma: Dog-Face Joe mutilates his own tongue whenever he's about to abandon a body, so that his victim can't go talking about what just happened in the brief time remaining before the poison he takes at the same time does its work.
  • Too Kinky to Torture: Effectively what happens when kidnappers attempt to put opium-addict Samuel Taylor Coleridge out by spiking his tea with laudanum. Instead of falling asleep, Coleridge briefly becomes a Badass Bookworm.
  • Tricked Out Time:
    • Dog-Face Joe avoids his historically-recorded fate, after one of the time-travelers tells him about in payment for services rendered, by setting up a situation in which he appears to die as history records but actually escapes into another body at the last moment. He also changes up his method of Freaky Friday Sabotage so that the distinctive trail of bodies he was leaving behind him ceases with his "death".
    • In the final confrontation, the villains attempt to bribe Doyle over to their side by offering to rescue his wife by tricking out the road accident that killed her.
  • Unexpectedly Real Magic: In a Noodle Incident, a group of dabbling amateur spiritualists were holding a Spooky Sťance near one of the time gateways when it opened up. Proximity to such open gateways causes magic, most of which has long since faded from the world, to become locally functional again. This is implied to be why the seance's participants - none of whom were prepared for a successful outcome - were all found dead the next morning, with looks of shock and horror about what they had summoned on their faces.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Jacky describes the events of the climax as "surviving the condensed works of Dante".
  • Write Back to the Future: The protagonist sends a message from the past to himself, jotting a note on a book in Pig Latin. This isn't so much an attempt to convey information — he'd already seen the note, and been surprised by it, at a previous point in his time-traveling adventure — so much as a way to self-seal a Stable Time Loop and ensure his earlier self will pay attention to that particular book.
  • You Already Changed the Past: Played with. The past is going exactly the way it's supposed to - it's just that the identities and motives of the people involved aren't exactly what historians will record.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Doyle tells someone he cares about the exact date and cause of her death in a drunken argument. He finds it very hard to live with himself afterwards. However the brave way in which she faces her fate gives him the courage to face his own fate later.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Any attempt to change history will result in, at best, a case of You Already Changed the Past. (But what history says about your fate doesn't always mean what it seems to mean, because history is sometimes misguided, never comprehensive and momentous shifts often hinge on tiny actions that no one either noticed at the time or bothered to record later.)
  • You Will Be Beethoven: "William Ashbless" is actually Doyle.