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 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."
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 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.
on 17 February 2016
So I finished this yesterday and I think the fact that it took me nearly a month to read says the most. From things like the Indiana Jones series and Hellboy and the Wolfenstein games I've always liked pulpy stories that involve, a) Nazis and b) the occult. That said, Declare doesn't really fit the bill because although the Occult features majorly Nazis only crop up tangentially due to some of the story being set during World War II. The other thing Declare is not (unless you consider anything with crazy supernatural elements to be so) is pulpy. Powers takes his world building and his commitment to the historical record very seriously. There's no Indy style wise-cracking and certainly no Indy style sense of pace. At times everything moves as slowly as the Parrot glacier on Mount Ararat itself and a lot of the story is delivered in a highly expositionary style. Powers "ironclad" rule is that he can't change things that really happened and does huge amounts of research. Often I felt this research was simply dumped into the text in great undigested chunks of factoids that added nothing to the story but a veneer of authenticity. I've never felt a novel wore its research so heavily before. So a bit of a slog. You keep waiting for things to get weird and occasionly they do pretty well and you keep going in the hope of a really weird Mt Ararat showdown, but on the whole I felt the mixture of spy and weird was too dense a pudding. That said I still would be happy to give another Tim Powers a go at some point.
on 30 January 2014
It’s my favourite book of 2014 so far (even though that’s less than 2 weeks in) and here are some reasons why:
It’s dense but honest. There’s a lot going on in Declare, and a lot that’s alluded to but never fully explained. But Powers set himself a rule when writing this alternate history, that none of the documented events that we know of could be moved or manipulated for his convenience: he had to operate in the restrictions of the world. There’s no point where a giant mecha-Hitler has to descend, deus ex machina style, to save a problem in the plot.
Although described as le Carre meets HP Lovecraft, it’s closer to a Bond film (a succession of well-realized, exotic locations) written by a paranoiac with mystical leanings. The magical elements are rarely the interesting parts of the book; it’s the locations and the characters and the details of spycraft that are so captivating. Also (spoiler alert) it’s not a total gloomfest from start to finish, whereas if you finish a le Carre and there haven’t been a dozen meaningless deaths of principal characters by the end, you feel cheated.
There’s a strong female character. Alas, only one, so there was no chance it could pass the Bechdel Test, but Elena is well-written, interestingly conflicted and a dab hand with a gun.
It’s set between the 1930s and 1962; the build up to the Second World War and then the Cold War. Those don’t seem to have been fun periods to live through, but I,really enjoy reading about them, whether fictional or non fictional accounts. I don’t think it’s just the quality of the writing; modern, techno-obsessed spy thrillers are less charming, but have less palpable menace, than the work of le Carre, Deighton et al, even though now we can look back and see that the ‘inevitable’ nuclear conclusion wasn’t going to happen after all. I could read Deighton all week; I read Clancy all week to laugh at the tin-eared dialogue. Similarly, I found Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds triptych, another WWII/Cold War/paranormal epic to be captivating – perhaps for the same reasons.
Declare feels a more serious work than Stross’ Laundry sequence; more like a proper spy novel compared to a B-movie with cartoonish heroes and monsters. It helps that we don’t see the supernatural elements for quite some time, just ominous phrases like “O Fish, are you faithful to the covenant?” which made me suspect an assault by Lovecraftian Deep Ones, instead of what actually occurs. That’s not to say that the Laundry novels aren’t as enjoyable as Declare, but they definitely feel more pulpy.
Also, Declare’s cast is of (often) real people, such as Kim Philby – perhaps unfeared by thoughts of libel, Powers brings in plenty of people who are recently dead to make things feel more real. The fact that occasional Americanisms, like ‘sidewalk’ and the verb ‘to tromp’ make it in is not so terrible a distraction.
What’s strange to me is that Declare isn’t more famous a book, or indeed recognized as a great work of espionage fiction. Then again, Tim Powers is partially implicated in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, so nobody gets things 100% right.
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.
An interesting mix of old fashioned religious horror, cold war action and paranoid spy thriller. A pacey narrative covering 40 years or so from the 1920s to the 1960s blends John Le Carre, Dennis Wheatley and Alistair MacLean into a compelling and exciting story. I really enjoyed this, a complex and clever work with a satisfying punch. Finished it over a weekend. Recommended.
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 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.