The Anubis Gates - Tim Powers
In the same way that he seamlessly blended pirates, voodoo and ancient magic in On Stranger Tides, Powers does just as well with this fabulous mix of Egyptian myth, gypsies, scary clowns, time travel, shape-shifting and Regency poets. In early nineteenth-century England, two ancient Egyptian magicians attempt a spell to restore the power of their gods, dormant for thousands of years. This misfires, and punctures scattered holes in the fabric of time. One of these is discovered by an eccentric millionaire in the late twentieth century, who plans a money-making time-tourism trip to watch a lecture by Coleridge; he employs Coleridge expert Brendan Doyle as a guide. However, the magicians are still at large, now leading a band of gypsies and beggars, and are very interested in the results of their spell; when Doyle misses his return trip to the present, he is suddenly the focus of some very unwelcome attention. And there's also the problem of the missing poet William Ashbless, and the elusive serial killer Dog-face Joe...
This book was written in the early Eighties and pre-dates most of the time-travel tropes that have since become a staple of film and cult TV. You'd think that the theme would look pretty tired by now, especially in a book that was written before we all got wise to the usual time-travelling continuity tricks, but Powers - very impressively - still manages to stick a couple of surprises in, even when we think we know what's coming. The addition of the Egyptian myths and the understated horrors of the beggars' guild was also quite inspired, and takes this far outside the realm of more mundane time-travel tales; it's barely science fiction at all. The dark and filthy streets of Regency London are conjured up extremely effectively, and all the historical details are very well researched - it's clear that Powers knew his stuff.
While the main plot with Doyle was highly enjoyable, a few of the side-plots were less so; particularly, the Egyptian magicians' schemes to do away with the King all seemed a little stupid and I found it hard to care. The section in Cairo, detailing Muhammad Ali's seizure of power from the Mamelukes, also seemed rather unnecessary and little more than the author showing off how much research he'd done; fair enough if you're writing Flashman but it didn't fit too well here. Still, this was a fantastic read, and it's also interesting to see where Terry Pratchett got a lot of his ideas from, as Powers's London clearly led to the bastard offspring that is Ankh-Morpork. No disputing Anubis Gates's position as a Fantasy Masterwork.