Rings of Anubis

rings of anubisI like many kinds of books, as most readers do. I like time-traveling love stories and Man Booker prize winners, space operas and fairytale retellings, Steinbeck and Rowling and Morrison and Ondaatje, cheap paperbacks and classic reprints. I like many kinds of books because they do many different things (they do despair and hijinks and truth and love and magic), and I need all of them at different times. The thing E. Catherine Tobler’s Rings of Anubis does is simple but often undervalued: it does fun.[1]

Set in a technologically-skewed nineteenth century that has airships and x-rays, Rings of Anubis is essentially about a woman’s quest to recover her missing mother. We meet Eleanor Folley in her thirties, after she’s given up searching for her Egyptian mother and retired to a quiet, bookish life. Enter Virgil Mallory, a handsome werewolf working for a secret society (yes, really), who offers her the chance to continue the quest. Thus the stage is set for a great deal of adventurous romping from Paris to Cairo, solving mysteries and collecting powerful ancient artifacts. See? Fun.

Making a book truly fun takes a great deal of skill, and a certain fearless revelry. Do the lady-archaeologist and the werewolf fall in love? Of course they do, and share a series of sexually-tense scenes which are constantly interrupted by the demands of the plot. Is the secret society riddled with betrayals and secrets? Of course it is. Are there grave-robbings and ancient curses and old lovers with vengeful intent? Yes.

Tobler’s writing throughout is tight, concise, and effective, just the way a genre adventure novel is supposed to be written. Which, truthfully, surprised the hell out of me. I’ve read a few of Tobler’s short stories, and her writing there is subtle, sometimes lyrical, introspective—quite different from Folley and Mallory’s fast-paced, dialogue-packed efficiency. I couldn’t help but miss the lyricism, just a bit.

I have a more serious complaint, although it might not be especially relevant to other readers: I wanted more history in this historical adventure. I don’t mean the nitty-gritty details of historical accuracy—I can’t stand people who watch fantasy movies and say things like THEY DIDN’T HAVE STIRRUPS THEN or THOSE GUNS WOULD HAVE BEEN MUCH SLOWER or almost anything that begins with ACTUALLY—but something meatier, larger, and much more difficult to identify. I wanted to fall into the era and be subsumed in it, both constrained and freed by the bounds of history.

It’s not an easy thing to do, and I think my favorite examples make a collective argument that it requires many, many pages to do well. I’m thinking of Nicola Griffith’s Hild, which is one of the only contemporary books I’ve ever read that truly made the early medieval era medieval, the same way Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell remade Georgian England with such charming clarity, and Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay gave me WWII-era immigrant experiences in New York. Arguably, Rings of Anubis just didn’t have the word count to provide that density of reality, and the poor thing shouldn’t be blamed for being a normal size, and lord knows every historical fantasy isn’t simultaneously a fantastical history.

But…I wanted it to be. Because the setting and character choices were exactly the kinds of things I want to see made real. The end of the nineteenth century, on the battered fringes of the expanding British Empire? A half-Egyptian, half-Irish protagonist, necessarily living a liminal life between metropole and colony, privilege and oppression? Archaeological exploration/exploitation, an activity that perfectly captures the brutal acquisitive mania of empire-building?[2] I wanted all of it, exposed and explored, made tangibly real for my consumption. Instead, Rings of Anubis romps through it at high speed, and history becomes a sand-colored blur seen through an airship window.

Even so—I read the whole thing in two days and look forward to more. The story here is satisfyingly self-contained, all major mysteries solved, villains identified and dealt with, heroes and heroines living to fight another day, but there are more Folley & Mallory adventures planned (a novella-length work has already been released, and the third book is coming out this year). I believe I’ll save them for some day when I need something cheerfully, indulgently, delightfully fun.

[1] Note: E. Catherine Tobler is the editor of Shimmer magazine, which means she’s edited two of my short stories. I also talk to her on Twitter sometimes, and thus I am disclosing preexisting Warm Feelings towards the author. She provided a review copy at my request, because lady archaeologists and Egyptian werewolves sounded hella cool, in exchange for an objective review. Ethics in small-fry book blogging.

[2] If you’re interested in any of these things—the fringes of empire, material history, and liminal lives—Maya Jasanoff’s Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850 is the most phenomenal academic look at the complexity and madness of imperialism I ever ran across.

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