Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Review: Declare by Tim Powers

Declare by Tim Powers
Published: Subterranean Press/William Morrow & Company/HarperCollins (2001), Corvus (2010)
Awards: World Fantasy Award, International Horror Guild Award
Nominated: Locus Fantasy and Nebula Awards
Currently Shortlisted: Arthur C. Clarke Award
The Book:
“As a young double agent infiltrating the Soviet spy network in Nazi-occupied Paris, Andrew Hale finds himself caught up in a secret, even more ruthless war. Two decades later, in 1963, he will be forced to confront again the nightmare that has haunted his adult life: a lethal unfinished operation code-named Declare.

From the corridors of Whitehall to the Arabian desert, from post-war Berlin to the streets of Cold War Moscow, Hale's desperate quest draws him into international politics and gritty espionage tradecraft -- and inexorably drives Hale, the fiery and beautiful Communist agent Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga, and Kim Philby, mysterious traitor to the British cause, to a deadly confrontation on the high glaciers of Mount Ararat, in the very shadow of the fabulous and perilous Ark.”
~From Publisher

This is yet another Clarke Award shortlisted bookDeclare is kind of an interesting choice for the shortlist, not because it isn’t fantastic, but because it was published in 2001.  It was published in the UK only recently, which is why it’s up for awards again this year.  This is the first book I’ve read by Tim Powers, and I am left both amazed and feeling a little intimidated.
My Thoughts:
Declare is both a spy novel about WWII and the Cold War and a dark fantasy.  The two elements seemed to intertwine remarkably well.  The British, French, and Soviet secret services have agents, double agents, and agents under such deep cover that their own organizations don’t even know which category they fall under.  The plot is intricate and filled with careful manipulation, violence, shifting loyalties, and even romance. 
Underneath all the espionage, there are the supernatural elements.  I love the physicality of the magic.  It was not flashy or frivolous, but dangerous, poorly understood, and incredibly eerie. The djinn, also referred to as fallen angels, are at the heart of a secret Cold War, fought through the schemes and many-layered betrayals of the British, French and Soviet spies.  These creatures are deadly destructive, terrifying, and so inhuman that any communication with them is all but impossible.  Rather than casting spells, magic comes in the form of actions, such as beating trance rhythms or carrying ankh-shaped ‘anchors’. 
This story of djinn and spies follows the life of Andrew Hale, but in two different time periods.  One plotline follows his life from his childhood to the first disastrous attempt at Mt. Ararat in 1948.  The second follows his mysterious reactivation over a decade later, where he is asked to end operation Declare once and for all.  There are very rare instances where others briefly become the viewpoint characters, but Andrew Hale is clearly the hero of the story.
While Andrew Hale is a fictional creation, many of the events and people in Declare come from actual historical records. Tim Powers described his method of creating the story as looking for ‘perturbations’ in history, odd events that might suggest some unseen cause.  In his novel, he required that all recorded historical events happen just as they have in reality.  Then, he looked at all of the things in reality that seemed strange, and came up with an elaborate behind-the-scenes story that would account for them.  This strict rule of maintaining observed history applies as equally to momentous events in WWII as it does to recorded details of the lives of real people, such as the real British traitor Kim Philby.  I think that the result is a story that seems incredibly grounded in reality, despite its supernatural leanings. 
Of course, it definitely helps the sense of reality that Powers has clearly done a momentous amount of research on topics ranging from mountaineering, to the Bedouin, to mid-20th century daily life in Britain, France, Russia, and the Middle East.  There’s an incredible amount of detail and description throughout the entire book, bringing the environment alive as much as the characters. 
One possible downside of Powers highly researched, painstakingly described 20th century world is that he expects a lot of his readers.  If you don’t have a lot of knowledge beforehand of European 20th century history, the undercover work of the Soviets against Nazi Germany, the life of Kim Philby, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the life of T.E. Lawrence, Arabic folklore, and various other topics, it might be a good idea to brush up a little with Wikipedia before digging into the novel.  I don’t think that all of this knowledge is absolutely necessary to reading Declare, since most things directly important to the plot are well explained within the novel.  However, if you want to appreciate all the hints and allusions, a wide base of knowledge is a must.  I feel like I actually learned a lot from this novel, and it inspired me to learn more about the events of that period in history.
My Rating: 5/5
I found Declare to be almost overwhelmingly entertaining.  It sounded more or less like a political thriller from the description, but it ended up being so much more complex.  The level of period detail and meticulous scenery is amazing, and the djinn magic was deeply unsettling.  I feel like it’s obvious that a tremendous amount of work went into the creation of this novel, and I think it definitely paid off in the end.  It’s not exactly light reading, but I think that this richly imagined historical fantasy is well worth the time and effort.

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