Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review of Declare by Tim Powers



Tim Powers is one of fantasy and science fiction’s long standing writers.  Never seeming to get his due, however, the award nominations, media presence, delightfully varied and imaginative novels for four-plus decades, and strong recommendations have never been able to push him fully into the radar of mainstream genre readers.  Yet that is precisely where he best fits, and 2000’s Declare is an example why.

Homage to LeCarre with strong elements of the supernatural, Declare is a steadily-paced spy thriller set in Cold War history.  Powers himself perhaps best describing his angle of approach, he takes the search for solar systems, particularly the search for nearby interstellar anomalies as indicators of nearby systems, as his metaphor.  The biographies of British spies Kim Philby, Anthony Burgess, and other historical figures having numerous gaps between them that recurse through WWII and the Cold War, Powers fills them with a story of his own without, in his own words, changing accepted facts.  Anthony Hale the British spy created to cement the pieces together, from the unknowns of his birth to the uncertainty of life as his assignment grows ever more mysterious and dangerous, Powers steadily plays out a line of story that has the reader begging for resolution come the final pages. 

And they get it.  Powers one of the best at closing a plot, undoubtedly extensive preparation occurs prior to writing.  And Declare is no different.  Hale’s attempts at taking down the secret strength of the Soviet empire is packed with beautifully set scenes from around the world that dabble in the mythopoeic supernatural.  While some are drawn out a bit long, there’s no doubt others stick—post-war Berlin, the deserts of Kuwait, post-invasion Paris, and the slopes of Mt. Ararat spring off the page into life that is either based on personal travel or intense immersion in knowledge of the region. 

But Declare remains a plot and character driven novel.  The scenes are beautiful, but the troubled Hale, the dramatic Elena, his enigmatic colleague Kim Philby, and the stories they weave in and around each other arrive at a sense of personal resolution as much as secret Cold War history. Marvelously well-written, the four-plus decades have seen Powers hone his craft ever closer to the impossibility of perfection.  (I’m curious what the British would think, but if I didn’t know better I would think the novel was written by a Brit.)

While some readers may think the first half of the novel is a bit drawn out as Powers builds his characters and backstory, and indeed there are lulls as a deeper undercurrent builds, the setup nevertheless pays off in spades.  Is it better than previous novels?  I personally think The Anubis Gates and Last Call are more original, singular texts, but there are some who feel Declare Powers’ best.   It’s now time for more of the genre community to go out and make up their own mind.

2 comments:

  1. Although the historical, geographical and cultural details of London and Great Britain seem to be well researched, the same, unfortunately, can't be said of his understanding of 'English' English....we do not have sidewalks, we have pavements; trousers do not have cuffs, they have turn-ups; we do not commit an offense, we commit an offence; buildings are not 3 story, they are 3 storey; we do not receive checks, we receive cheques; we do not have theaters, we have theatres; the sky is not gray, it is grey; ground is not plowed, it is ploughed; we do not have neighbors, we have neighbours; a woman would wear a tartan not a plaid skirt; would someone casually hand over £100 for expenses in 1941 - the equivalent of £5,000 today? etcetera, etcetera. If you are going to purport to be an English spy, at least have the courtesy to use the correct English terminology. I'm afraid that the extensive Americanisms betray its source (so it could not have been written by a Brit) and, in the end, I found these (to be fair, minor) irritations jarring enough to prevent me settling into the book at all. I have enjoyed some of his other books but, petty though the reasons, I have been unable to finish the first 100 pages of Declare. I will try again though, in the future. I do have to say, irrespective of the language problems, that he is no Le Carre...he does not have a way with the wonderful nuances of language and character that Le Carre excels in.

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    1. I will not disagree that Le Carre is the better writer on all fronts. But I would argue we are comparing apples to oranges. Declare is intended to be a fantastical secret history, not realist spy fiction. In other words, I find it interesting you did not critique Powers' inclusion of the supernatural, i.e. something that no more exists in reality than do 'plaid skirts' in the UK. Had Powers been more accurate in his philological and cultural details, I agree the book would have been all the better for it. But I don't think the inaccuracy is a show stopper, just bumps in the road.

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