New York: Ace, 1983, pp. 387.
Along with K.W. Jeter and James Blaylock, Tim Powers has been hailed as a founder of the steampunk genre, principally because of The Anubis Gates.1 In this novel Literature Professor Brendan Doyle is recruited by tycoon J. Cochran Darrow to accompany his party on a trip back in time to 1810, which journey immerses Doyle in not just one, but several, deadly conspiracies colliding with one another.
The characters are mostly one-dimensional--and protagonist Doyle rather forgettable--but together they certainly comprise a large and colorful cast, with Doyle's blandness working by letting him play the "straight man" to the dark and at times grotesque weirdness all around him. Powers's recreation of Regency-era London is rich, lively and engaging (though the more briefly treated Greek and Egyptian settings are less striking, and readers led to expect a world created by an anachronistic steam-based technology by the "steampunk" label will be let down).
Additionally, the novel is densely (and at times head-spinningly) plotted, and once the exposition is through, swiftly paced, with Powers sending his characters leaping through innumerable plot twists with an astonishing lightness of foot. Predictably, the storytelling gets diffuse (with the occasional marring of the flow by a stumble in the often thick description not helpful), and not every plot thread concludes as satisfactorily as might be hoped, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and Powers succeeds in tying it all up novel's end.
Nearly three decades on, in the midst of a steampunk boom, the book cannot appear as groundbreaking as it did in 1983, but for all its weaknesses it remains such a strange, wild and colorful ride to be well worth the read.
1. Jeter is credited with coining the term in an April 1987 letter to Locus magazine. Jeter enjoys this status because of Morlock Night (1979) and Infernal Devices (1987), Blaylock because of the Ignacio Narbondo/Langdon St. Ives stories (comprised of a trilogy of novels--1984's The Digging Leviathan, 1986's Homunculus and 1988's Lord Kelvin's Machine--and the associated short fiction, much of it recently gathered together in the 2008 omnibus The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives).