on 17 November 2010
Tim Powers has written a number of novels on the theme of mystical influences behind the real world, and Declare is no exception. Protagonist Andrew Hale joins the British Secret Intelligence Service during WWII, serving against Germany and then in the infant Cold War, confronting increasingly strange events that culminate in some desperate mission on the slopes of Mount Ararat in 1948, codenamed Declare. Flash forward to 1963, and Hale is reactivated and thrown into another desperate attempt to finish Declare. Powers weaves the two timelines expertly, so we gradually discover some of the truth with the young and naive Hale, while following the older and more cynical man into the heart of the mystery.
Declare carefully takes as many true events as it can, inserting Andrew Hale and the mysterious forces he faces into the unexplained spaces between official accounts. A central figure is Kim Philby, real-life KGB double agent who worked for MI6 for 20 years before exposure. Powers also gives us real-life Soviet spy rings in Paris, machinations in Arabia, and post-war Berlin. He never leans too heavily on his intensive research, and it just flows and merges beautifully. Without Wikipedia you'd never be able to tell what is real and what is imagination. Hale is a character in the tradition of John Le Carre - insecure, frightened, and very human. The book depends totally on the reader engaging with him, and thankfully he is one of Powers' best characters.
Powers has never had the success he deserves, and Declare is a perfect example of why he should, but never will. It could have been a blockbuster-style spy novel with pulp monsters and sold well with a cheesy cover, but instead he crafts a Le Carre tale of tradecraft with enigmatic and subtly terrifying mystical forces. It's a brilliantly judged book, immersing you in the world and pressing you on to the conclusion. For me, it is his most successful book, where his obsessions with mystique and period detail meld to the best effect.
on 1 June 2011
This was a fantastic achievement. Powers really is a great writer. This worked superbly as both an espionage novel and as occult/fantasy book.
It was slightly slow at the start and but I soon got into it. There were some slightly jarring elements to it, such as the English main character using American words and some very few slight historical inaccuracies.
However those are about the only criticisms that I can make.
The occult and the supernatural elements are very well done and always leave you wanting to know more. The spy and adventure story parts are also very well thought through.
The research that has gone into this book is very impressive and it doesn't overwhelm the plot.
Maybe the best thing that I can about this novel is that it almost seems believable and plausible.
on 29 June 2011
This WWII/Cold War supernatural, espionage thriller was excellent. I've only read two of his books but already I think I'm becoming a Tim Powers fan. I was very impressed by how well the story fit into the gaps between real events -admittedly I've mostly taken the author's word on this, but he seems like a writer who does his research. Declare was intriguing as at first I didn't know quite what was going on (much though I enjoyed The Anubis Gates I did guess a major plot point by the end of the second chapter). The supernatural elements unfolded far more slowly and were initially more subtle. It kept me reading as I wanted to know what was going on.
on 7 August 2010
Don't be confused by the year-dates of the other reviews, or that given on the copyright page: the publisher and Amazon haven't accidentially flipped a 'zero' and a 'one' around the wrong way. This book was first released mass-market in the US in 2001. It has taken until 2010 for its UK release. That is NOT a reflection on the worth of the book (indeed it won several awards and got nominated for a bunch more) but it is a searing indictment of corporate UK publishers. A recent example will suffice: despite some success will her early novels, Scarlett Thomas experienced the full force of the conservatism of UK 'big publishers' who balked at her then new novel, 'The End of Mr. Y'. It took the maverick imprint Canongate to realise the book's potential and to take it and its author's subsequent books into the bestseller charts.
For me the best writers are the ones who mix it up: who wants 'a' horror novel, or 'a' science fiction novel, or 'a' crime novel? Nah, let's just throw a bunch of stuff in a pot and see what comes out. And some of the results in recent years have been fantastic, from Neal Stephenson's 'Baroque Cycle' (a HUGE historial fantasy/alternate history grand slam) to Charles Stross's giddy 'Laundry files' (a supernatural detective science fiction series). People like Dan Simmons and Joe R. Lansdale and China Mieville -
- and Tim Powers. This is the guy whose late-'80s novel, 'On Stranger Tides', has been optioned by Disney as the title and story inspiration for the fourth 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movie - featuring the fountain of youth and zombies!
'Declare' is a dazzling supernatural Cold War espionage novel, which takes the real life figure of Kim Philby and brilliant attempts to construct a 'true story' about what really happened to Kim and the other secret agencies he came into contact with. As the author explains in the fascinating afterword, he took many sources, directly and indirectly related to Philby, and 'read between the lines' whilst never straying from actual known events and dates.
The result is a beautifully realised novel, deliciously layered in detail, with the main action taking place in 1963's Beirut and Turkey, with lengthy chapters stretching back to 1948 filling in the back story. The novel takes in Britain, Kuwait, Berlin, Paris, Moscow and others - but never in broad strokes: Powers puts you RIGHT THERE, especially in the exquistely rendered Paris scenes with Elena, with whom the potagonist, Philby somewhat-rival in the British Secret Service Andrew Hale, has an unfulfilled love interest, and whose chance meetings over the years forms a kind of hidden love story and back bone to the novel, accumulating in the superb Moscow epilogue.
You will find no bumbling spies here: the Russian, French, British and American secret agents are all on the ball, out-tricksing each other at every turn whilst quoting scripture and classical poets, as they uncover the mystery atop Mount Ararat and the VERY different power there that the Russians are trying to harness and unleash.
The recent book from the UK indie press PS Publishing, 'Powers: Secret Histories Bibliography' by John Berlyne, features a fascinating collection of notes and outlines for 'Declare' wherein the reader gets a real sense of the magnitude of the task which Powers undertook with this novel. You'll be hard pushed to find a more intricately plotted, researched and absorbing thriller than this. Very highly recommended. (As an aside, Gauntlet Press are going to have to pull something truly remarkable out of the hat if and when they ever get around to releasing the now seven year delayed 'Fingerprints on the Sky: the illusrated Harlan Ellison bibliography' if they hope to compare with the gorgeous propuction and layout of PS Publishing's Tim Powers bibliography.)
As I said above, the best writers - for me at least - are the ones who cut loose and go nuts, although alas as the Scarlett Thomas incident clearly illustrates multinational corporate publishers, like big movie studios, and loathe to take risks. Despite being a post-World War II espionage thriller partly set in Britain it's taken nearly 10 years for this fine novel to grace our shores. But take heart: there are a number of independent publishers out there whose titles are infilrating the high street book chains as well as the supermarket bestseller lists: this one, Corvus, Quercus (publishers of the Sweddish horror sensation 'Let the Right One In' as well as the 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' trilogy), Solaris and the recent Corsair, whose forthcoming 'Coldbrook' by Tim Lebbon ought it be earmarked on every reader's 'must have' list. Seriously, if you want books that have that 'out there' quality then these are going to be the guys to look to: everyone else seems content to publish celeb bios and cook books.
I'll leave the last word with the Zeno Agency Ltd, who in October last year made this public press announcement concerning a four-book Tim Powers UK deal with Corvus:
"Following DECLARE will be another first UK publication, this time of THREE DAYS TO NEVER, currently scheduled for a January 2011 release, though subject to change. Corvus will then publish a brand new Powers novel sometime later in that year. THE LIGHTS ALONG THE SHORE is set some years after the events of THE STRESS OF HER REGARD, to which it is a loose sequel. STRESS will also be reissued as part of the deal."
"Declare" follows the career of Andrew Hale, literally born into the British secret service and destined to join a decades old operation against a supernatural threat to the West. Powers knits together various unexplained anomalies from the life of Kim Philby, the notorious traitor to MI6, with the life of Lawrence of Arabia, with hints in the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights, and the story of the Ark on Mount Ararat, to name only a few sources. It reminds me of John Buchan's description in Three Hostages (Wordsworth Classics) of how he produced his "shockers" - taking a number of bizarre and seemingly unlinked characters or situations then creating a backstory for them. Powers' backstory takes us from wartime Paris to postwar Berlin, the Middle East before climaxing in 1960s Russia, creating a whole hidden history for the rise and fall of the Soviet Union
If it all sounds unlikely, just take my word for it, he produces a credible and consistent story, one where the familiar Smileyesque world of mirrors and double dealing never quite goes away... while at the same time much deeper and darker secrets are (eventually) exposed than the Circus ever kept.
I spotted one or two cultural glitches with the (presumably American) author's writing about Britain, but they didn't really detract, it would be picky to list them.
Basically, great fun and enjoyable to read.
on 8 May 2016
An interesting clash of the fantasy and spy genres: sort of Le Carre meets Neil Stephenson, with a bit of Neil Gaiman.
It's hard to explain the plot without spoilers, but in short, a small part of the UK Special Operations Executive (that bit of the UK secret state that was tasked with 'setting Europe ablaze' by Winston Churchill) survived being wound up after WWII and exists, clandestinely, within MI6. They worry about the supernatural - in particular, djinns/genies/fallen angels, and whether other states might be using them against the UK and its allies. It runs from before WWII, through that war, and into the Cold War, in a tale tied up with 'Kim' Philby (indeed, the author claims that all locations and events fit with Philby's known movements).
I came to this book after it was name checked by Charles Stross as he explained how he came to write the first of his Laundry File books, about the very, VERY secret British intelligence agency that deals with the supernatural. This has a similar premise but I think is better (and that's not a slight on Stross - I thinking Halting State is superb): it's written more for people who would otherwise be spending their time reading Le Carre, rather than playing computer games.
on 20 January 2001
Ever wondered if there's more to the world than meets the eye? If maybe, beneath the surface, a whole other realm of wild possibilities exists? Tim Powers certainly has, and in Declare he takes us through a joyously inventive trip through the supernatural world underpinning the events of the Cold War. Taking as his lead the life story of the treacherous double agent Kim Philby, Powers' story takes us through war-time Paris, Cold War Berlin, and the supernaturally-charged Middle East as secret agent Andrew Hale, a man with a strange, hidden bond with Philby, struggles to complete a long-running operation called Declare - an operation to prevent the USSR from forming an unstoppable alliance with the djinn, the powerful creatures of Arabian myth. Powers' strength lies in evoking the sensation of huge, supernatural presences existing just off our limits of perception, and the psychological effects on those who become all too aware of their existence. He also perfectly captures a sense of place - in particular, scenes set in the Arabian desert will send shivers down the spine, the reader there, sharing the attention of unknowable creatures. Though some elements perhaps don't work as well as they could - the love story between Hale and a former communist agent feels a little underwritten - the giddyingly complex plot ensures that the reader is never bored, and that when the book is closed for the last time it is done with the satisfaction of having read a fantastic novel. Thoroughly recommended.
on 17 April 2013
This book is written very much in the Le Carre style of gritty detail, which I find hard work and slightly depressing. It does however convey enormous authenticity, and as a result the added supernatural element is really frightening and horrific. I found I preferred to read during the daytime as I had bad dreams if I read chapters before sleeping!
I was delighted by a robust love story in a spy novel and really enjoyed the excellent recreation of the various milieux. However, I am an English pedant, and I wish Mr Powers had had an English friend proof read the novel for him. To have a quintessential upper class Englishman like Kim Philby say "in back" instead of "at the back", or refer to the "draft" when English people call it "conscription" is slack, and a let down when other things seem so accurate.
on 14 June 2016
A big fan of Charles Stross Laundry series, I had to read Declare given the mention is has in the Author's Notes in The Atrocity Archives. I'm no book reviewer, so all I can offer are my thoughts. Its well written, and although I find it heavy going after the light-hearted and humourous approach that Stross takes, it's a compelling read, perhaps best read in busts rather than all at once. The plot is well thought out, the story weaves backwards and forwards in time and place (weaves, rather than jumps, as the characters are all connected), and the book well written, ie no 'author intrusion' through clumsy writing. Tim Powers is a very good author in that each character is unique, with their own foibles and habits - the protagonist, for example, lacks self-confidence in a way that makes one (me, at least!) shout at him, whilst Philby's stammer is so well crafted one can hear him stuttering as the story is read. I enjoyed it. Its neither fast paced nor in-the-face, it's a decade's covering, drawn out thriller. 5 stars even though its not my cup of tea, I can appreciate how good it is.
on 9 June 2014
Declare was one of those books that made me sweat just reading it. The level of concentration required to keep track of this immersive plotline feels like being back at university studying for my finals. But such a reward lies ahead for those who dedicate themselves to this novel. I cannot stop thinking about this book, even two weeks after reading it. I was fully drawn in, and then in the afterword, where I read that Powers had based the narritive of this story on actual historical events down to the day, I was filled with wonder.