1802 – the Egyptian gods are a diminished force, and the power of magic fades. Sorcerers, wielding magic only at great expense to their own bodies, attempt to restore the potency of their power by bringing the gods, in all their glory, forward in time. Instead, they succeed only in tearing rents in the fabric of time – the Anubis Gates.
Brendan Doyle, a minor American scholar specialising in a little known poet, William Ashbless, is carried from London, 1983, through the gates of time to 1810, ostensibly to serve as a Coleridge expert. The journey is organised by J Cochran Darrow, a wealthy recluse specialising in odd-ball projects, and funded by the ten guests, each of whom has paid a premium for the privilege of witnessing a lecture by Samuel Coleridge in the flesh.
The plan consists of a straightforward there and back again journey of only a few hours, but it goes awry when Doyle is kidnapped by an Egyptian sorcerer, intent on learning who is using the gates in time, and how. Having missed his ‘return flight’, as it were, Doyle finds himself stranded in 1810 London, penniless and alone.
While not unlikeable, Doyle is stranded, destitute, and terribly desperate – a desperation which drives him to take ill-considered risks and make less-than-intelligent decisions. But it is his very aloneness, his very desperation, that draws me to him – can the reader conceive of many worse situations than to be stranded out of time, in a strange culture, with absolutely no means of support?
I have very little concept of what London was like in 1810, but Powers paints a compelling picture with few words, creating less an image of the physical place, than a sense of the people who populate it; the desperation of its denizens, the danger they exude, and the grinding poverty that drives many of them. That sense, that feeling, creates a more visceral setting than any mere description of buildings could do.
This is not to imply the book lacks description, for Powers describes events, and many settings, with phrases evocative enough to turn me green with envy.
London is peopled with a host of characters – who can Doyle trust? Who might he rely on in his time of need? Knowing exactly where the poet, William Ashbless, should be, he hopes to appeal to that man’s generosity, but the poet is mysteriously missing. Has Doyle upset the events of history by returning from the future?
What of the clown, Horrabin, who offers Doyle a job amongst his beggars? His very name hints at horrible unknowns. Is young Jacky more trustworthy? He warns Doyle away from Horrabin, and suggests a place amongst the rival beggar crew. Can Doyle use the Egyptian sorcerers to return to 1983? What does he have to bargain with, except his own life? What of Dog-Face Joe, a rumoured werewolf-type serial killer, to whom Doyle comes perilously close?
And who, on the streets of 1810 London, is whistling Yesterday by The Beatles?
Events come dangerously to a head when the poet, Ashbless, reappears in a startling and unexpected way, setting Doyle’s feet on a path that takes him even further into the past, and then eventually to Cairo. Events now follow the course of history Doyle is familiar with, and he begins to anticipate what comes, thinking he knows how events will unfold – or does he?
The book careens from one disaster, to another ill-conceived decision, to bizarre and yet wildly appropriate plot twist after plot twist. The foreshadowing is impeccable – the clues are there if you know to look for them, but you won’t, until events come to pass. Instead, each new revelation, each new horror, each new clever outcome, will keep you turning page after page to find the answers until, before you know it, you’ve finished the book.
If I were to tell you any more, I’d ruin all the surprises, and they are well worth the wait. They are many, and they are varied, and each new discovery delighted me at its appropriateness, at its suitability, at the way in which each of the puzzle pieces fit neatly together – until the picture, of which Doyle only has a vague outline from 20th century history books, becomes a complete illustration rendered in loving detail.
I read this book in about two days – it was literally unputdownable. The story is exceptional, and the book well-written. The odd waver in the writing barely caused a hitch in my stride, so desperate was I to resolve each conflict, only to find I had dove headfirst into the next.
If you didn’t read this book for Club Fantasci, then you must. 5 stars – I give this book 5 stars. Do you know how often I say that?
Not very often at all.