As a historian, I tend to take a rather dim view of alt-histories. Or rather, I distrust works that tackle "history" head on, seeking to fiddle-faddle about with the notion of changing world events through a simple "what if" thesis. However, this distrust does not extend to those works who use historical periods as a backdrop, as there is a lot of room to play around in the gaps and interstices of historical events that can lead to fun, creative, and thoughtful stories. Thankfully, Tim Powers is one of those rare writers who can research a historical period, find obscure but "true" facts, and then play around with those events, bending interpretations to fit the needs of whatever story he chooses to tell.
Powers' most famous work is The Anubis Gates (1983). It is, among several things, a time-travel novel, a "sensational novel," a 19th century period piece, a tale of Egyptian magic, a werewolf murder mystery, and much more. It is a story that skips, jumps, and hops its way along, creating a frisson of excitement at several points. What it is not is a stolid, "safe" novel, as Powers takes quite a few narrative risks in constructing this story, succeeding for the most part.
The Anubis Gates begins in 1802, with a nefarious Egyptian magician attempting to cast a spell that would reverse England's dominance and would reintroduce the old Egyptian gods back into a world long abandoned by them. Something seems to go somewhat awry with the incantation, as one of the magician's lieutenants is turned into a werewolf that can possess the bodies of its victims. Furthermore, there seem to be a radial spoke of time gaps created, stretching backwards and forewords through time roughly 300 years years in either direction from this event.
The year is now 1983. A struggling academic, Brendan Doyle, whose expertise is on Samuel Coleridge and who desires to research an obscure Regency poet named Ashbless, is contacted by the mysterious head of the DIRE corporation, J. Cochran Darrow, who desires to exploit the newly-discovered time gaps for historical/tourist purposes:
"Right - if there happens to be a gap then. And there. You can't reenter at arbitrary points, only through an existing gap. And," he said with a note of discover's pride, "it is possible to aim for one gap rather than another - it depends on the amount of...propulsion used in exiting from your own gap. And it is possible to pinpoint the locations of the gaps in time and space. They radiate out in a mathematically predictable pattern from their source - whatever that can have been - in early 1802."
Doyle was embarrassed to realize that his palms were damp. "This propulsion you mention," he said thoughtfully, "is it something you can produce?"
Darrow grinned ferociously. "Yes."
Doyle was beginning to see a purpose in the demolished lot outside, all these books, and perhaps even his own presence. "So you're able to go voyaging through history." He smiled uneasily at the old man, trying to imagine J. Cochran Darrow, even old and sick, at large in some previous century. "I fear thee, ancient mariner."
"Yes, that does bring us to Coleridge - and you. Do you know where Coleridge was on the evening of Saturday, the first of September, in 1810?" (p. 29)
Although Doyle does agree eventually to help Darrow and the mission to 1810 to see Coleridge give a speech is successful, Doyle ends up getting detached from the rest of the party. He has to learn how to survive on the streets of 1810 London, while a vicious, monstrous serial killer, Dog-Faced Joe, roams the streets at night, seeming to shift bodies but not his hairy visage. There are other mysteries and horrors to be found, ranging from a criminal boss who dons clown makeup to disguise his facial deformities to other dark forces that seem to want to use these time gaps for their own purposes. And through this, the mystery of who exactly is Ashbless builds throughout this novel.
Powers' prose is excellent throughout. He clearly has researched the time periods he explores (there are brief jumps to other eras), including minutiae that are mysterious in a true, "historical" sense, but when incorporated into the main plot, these become delightful mysteries to solve. His characters are well-drawn, memorable creations who blend almost seamlessly into the historical background. Powers also utilizes elements of the traditional gothic to inform the atmosphere, as there are a few traces of the sort of sensationalist literature that was dominant in England during the Regency period. Although the time skipping might be a bit confusing in places, Powers on the whole integrates it well into the mystery introduced with the Egyptian magician's failed incantation in 1802. The result is a fun, fast-paced read.
If one were to apply the definition of "masterwork" as being a memorable, well-constructed piece that will continue to have meaning and purpose decades or centuries after its creation, then almost certainly The Anubis Gates would qualify. Powers' adroit handling of both the major and minor elements of his story were superb and his mixture of different historical periods into this tale makes for an exciting read beyond just the initial read. Certainly one of the better books in the Fantasy Masterworks series.