That’s our man’, he said, pointing at Ashbless, ‘and that’s….what was the name, haven’t seen him in a while…Jacky Snapp! – whose involvement in this I’ll want explained…but who’s the sick old bastard?’ The hijackers shrugged, so Ashbless said quietly, ‘He’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a very famous writer, and you’ll be buying more trouble than you can afford if you kill him.’

I’ve been singing the praises of the Fantasy Masterworks series of Gollancz publishing for years now. A carefully selected collection of out-of-print, or underappreciated genre fiction novels, I have yet to encounter a title I did not enjoy. This book is no exception. Tim Powers weaves a tale mixing science fiction and poetry, time travel and Egyptian sorcery, and casts Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge as unwitting heroes.

Brendan Doyle spends his days absorbed in his research of the little-known 19th century poet William Ashbless, or drowning his sorrows in the wake of his wife’s death. Then one day he receives a fantastical proposition. An eccentric millionaire pays him twenty grand to give a lecture on Samuel Coleridge to a select group of poetry lovers – in 1810. Curious and bemused Doyle agrees and finds himself transported back in time! He gives his lecture, even meets the
famous laudanum addicted poet himself, but is kidnapped by a band of gypsies moments before he is due to return to 1983.

Stranded in the 19th century with no means, no useful skills and no access to modern day hygiene, Doyle resigns himself to a life on the streets of London. However, he stumbles onto a conspiracy among Egyptian sorcerers and a criminal plot to assassinate King George. Soon he finds himself targeted by an evil dwarf, cackling homunculi and an army of beggar assassins. His only hope of rescue is to find William Ashbless and seek refuge with the man who’s life he knows intimately from his studies.

But is Ashbless whom he claims to be? And what caused the holes in time that Doyle travelled through to 1810? Who is Dog-Faced-Joe and how is he connected to the Anubis worshipping Egyptian cult that plots to overthrow the British Empire?

Powers has fashioned a rip-roaring yarn that serves up implausible solutions to a number of literary and historical mysteries. What caused Byron’s crippling fever while on his Hellenic tour? Was there another cause behind Coleridge’s demented visions? The failure of Lord Monmouth’s attempted rebellion in the 17th century? Doyle himself is an amusing character, taking a time out from the trauma of being shunted through time to enjoy a fine cigar and jug of ale. There’s a whimsical underlying the labyrinthine plot, with body swapping and Egyptian gods stepping out of the wings during the proceedings to keep the story racing along.

19th century poets are something of a sci fi staple. Douglas Adams also included Samuel Coleridge in his novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and Byron in the company of Mary Shelley appeared in Brian Aldiss’ Frankenstein Unbound. There’s fun to be had with a contemporary figure interacting with these controversial figures, whose mystique far outlasted their words.

Powers serves up neck-breaking changes in plot and contrivance to engage the reader and teases with possible solutions to age-old mysteries as a casual piece of high-brow dressing. Great fun.