The year is 1961, and the Cold War is at its peak. Andrew Hale ekes out a modest living as an academic in England, but a call from an old acquaintance triggers his abandonment of middle-aged obscurity, and his reentry into a world he abandoned when he was a young man, fresh from WW2 and the start of the Cold War: a world of dimly remembered spycraft, old lovers, and above all, a mission left incomplete…
Declare is a John le Carre-esque spy thriller with a healthy dash of mythology and Christian and Islamic theology, where references to the Lubyanka rub shoulders with those to Mount Ararat. Declare’s plot is slow to unfold, alternating between the present of 1961 and Hale’s previous life from his childhood to 1948, but this works splendidly. Powers eschews infodumps, instead letting mysteries develop, layer by layer. Our curiosity mounts about everything, from the backstory to the characters themselves, making it all the more satisfying to discover the answers, bit by bit. And this slow march towards the climax means that when it does come, it is a moment of rousing triumph. There is a single plot hole, but it’s pretty easy to rationalise away. After all, this is not a world where magic is an exercise in engineering, based on well-known rules. The murkiness of the occult in Declare is an integral part of its feel, and who’s to say it might not provide a plug in this case?
Speaking of the book’s feel, it is excellent, as are its setting and ideas. London, Beirut, and occupied Paris come alive equally well, and its combination of plotting (described above) and excellent prose allow us plenty of time to soak in its murderous, intrigue-filled atmosphere. The very, very low-key approach to the fantastic stands in contrast to Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archives, whose hero Bob revels in technobabble and Lovecraftian references; the world of Declare feels very much like our own, and the blending of fact and fiction is almost seamless. (In fact, the afterword explains that Powers sought out real-life mysteries, then constructed the book so as to explain them without contradicting known facts!)
Characterisation is perhaps the only area where the book didn’t really resonate with me. There’s nothing wrong with the book’s cast of characters, who include one memorable historical character, the British traitor Kim Philby; I just didn’t find the leads vivid enough for my liking. This, however, is probably another consequence of the down-to-earth style; flamboyant 007-wannabes need not apply for roles in the world of Declare. Certainly, two minor characters had no problem sticking in my mind, so there’s certainly nothing wrong with Powers’s talents along those lines.
Tim Powers is an obscure author, and Declare is not even his best-known book. This is a pity, because it’s very good. I would recommend it not only to readers of fantasy, but also lovers of spy novels.
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