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Declare
Tim Powers
William Morrow, HarperCollins, 528 pages

Declare
Tim Powers
After two less-memorable books, Tim Powers' The Drawing of the Dark was a delight. He went on to produce some of the finest SF there is. These include the alternate history/time travel of The Anubis Gates, the slightly bizarre Dinner at Deviant's Palace and, later the World Fantasy Award winning The Last Call.

Tim Powers Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Drawing of the Dark
SF Site Interview: Tim Powers
SF Site Review: Earthquake Weather
Tim Powers Tribute Site
PUG: Tim Powers Interview
PUG: Excerpt from Earthquake Weather
Review: Expiration Date
Tim Powers Interview

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nick Gevers

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After the dark contemporary intricacy of his trilogy of the Fisher Kings -- Last Call (1992), Expiration Date (1995), and Earthquake Weather (1997) -- Tim Powers returns to Historical Fantasy in Declare, and does so very fruitfully indeed. All the qualities that made his earlier eldritch swashbucklers so impressive are here in full measure: an intense and intimate sense of period or realization of milieu; taut plotting, with human development and destiny as consequential as the ingenuities of concept for which Powers is so famous; and, looming above all, an awareness of history itself as a merciless turning of supernatural wheels, as a play of shadows cast by huge, heinous otherworldly conspiracies. And this time the conspiracy is that of the rebel angels, and the shadow cast is the Cold War.

In many ways, Declare resembles Powers's previous fantasy of history, The Stress of Her Regard (1989). Once more, the speculation is made that, alongside the mundane biological kingdom, another order of life exists, inhabiting and exploiting the domain of the inorganic, manipulating or ignoring us as it chooses. Again, the powers and principalities lurking behind the walls of the world can be enlisted as protectors and inspiration by human factions willing to sacrifice all principle and autonomy in the process; and once some humans are complicit with the medusae and the djinn, all others are drawn in in self-defense. Like the Romantic Poets in The Stress, the Soviets in Declare have accepted the terrible bargain: one powerful djinn queen acts as their patron, safeguarding and expanding the frontiers of the USSR, and the deathly utopian impulse of Communism dictates that Russian agents be sent to Mount Ararat, there to awaken an entire kingdom of afreets and beseech their alliance forever. Against this apocalyptic prospect, the Western powers mobilize key elements of their secret services; and the Cold War is anatomized, bizarrely but with a persuasive awful conviction, as a battle to keep the cork in the genies' bottle.

Perhaps this is an allegory on the evils of Communism; perhaps the ungodly forces Powers' Soviets are keen to unleash stand in the author's symbolic scheme for the secular horrors Stalinism in fact unleashed, and threatened to unleash in still greater measure. Perhaps; certainly, the Soviet system emerges in Declare as a shabby cornucopia of brutal atheistic despair; and Powers is obviously on the side of those of humbly religious (specifically Catholic) sensibility. But never mind such didactic partisanship; the virtue of Declare lies in its status as a brilliantly conceived and through-composed metaphysical thriller, as a masterful secret history of the events that made the world as we know it.

Declare opens cryptically, indulging in a succession of bewildering in medias res immersions of the reader in the desperate scrapes and densely encoded contact procedures of mid-20th century intelligence work. There are allusions to Arab folklore, to intrigues within the British security establishment between the 20s and 1963, to the minutiae of interdenominational Christian disagreements, to inscrutable dreams and the death of T.E. Lawrence. Somehow this all centres on Andrew Hale, a British spy during and after World War II and thereafter an obscure lecturer in English literature. He is, for some reason, marked down from an early age for a role in the secret war against the djinn; his path constantly overlaps that of Kim Philby, the famous Soviet double agent within London's espionage hierarchy; and he is repeatedly led towards the Middle East, a realm of haunted wastelands, and to Mount Ararat most of all. Slowly but superbly, Powers's design unfolds, piece by allusive piece; it becomes ominously apparent who is casting which shadow, and why, and just how those shadows may spread yet further. This is a War far deeper, far Colder, than the Cold War ever superficially seemed; and its gradual, even arduous revelation matches perfectly the difficulty of actual intelligence work, not to mention the hard-earned nature (didacticism again) of spiritual Revelation.

It's obvious that Declare is an homage to the spy novels of John Le Carré (for some analysis of that, see John Clute's review of Declare on SF Weekly); but its added freight of the supernatural takes it in tantalizingly different directions from those of its models. Certainly, the expected pleasures of suspense are abundantly present in Declare: the perilous ventures behind enemy lines, the decryption of elaborately coded messages, the vertiginous glimpses of what motivates the despised other side, the conflicted love and respect of fellow agents for one another, the contorted double double-crosses, the delicious sense the reader can acquire of knowing more than anybody else; but when the antagonist is immortal and immortally evil, much more than ideology and life are at stake. Declare takes the spy thriller higher than it usually goes, and not just to the Ark on Ararat: myth and legend and holy rites and archaic symbolism make the mixture so much richer than normal, and there is a terror in meetings with djinn in ancient ruined cities and Muscovite marketplaces that transcends any mere terror of the KGB. (Although one character's visit to the Lubyanka might make one doubt that.) Tim Powers has produced what is on several levels a transcendent thriller; perhaps John Le Carré should take note.

A final observation: one of these transcendent levels is that, simply, of prose. Powers' descriptions of (surreal) magical events -- voices from the ether, fantastic yet logical apparitions -- are breathtaking, sublimely precise in a manner that recalls Thomas Pynchon in V and Gravity's Rainbow; his evocations of places in history -- Nazi-occupied Paris, Khrushchev's Russia, England in the Depression, postwar Kuwait -- are atmospheric in an eloquent, painterly way; and his dialogue often has a sort of feverish dark elegance. Powers has never written better than in Declare; his status as one of Fantasy's major stylists can no longer be in doubt.

Copyright © 2001 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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