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by Tim Powers

(Harpertorch, $7.99, 608 pages, paperback, June 2002, ISBN: 0380798360.)

Some books are sleepers.

You'd have expected the latest novel by Tim Powers, one of the most respected of modern fantasists, to be shelved under SF cover scanand Fantasy -- not, as I did find it, tucked away in General Fiction. You'd have thought that a book which had won the World Fantasy Award in 2001 would not have the innocuous cover of a generic spy thriller, only betraying its true genre leanings from the blurb quotes on the back. But some books go deep underground. They go undetected, looking like one kind of book, luring unsuspecting readers, until the moment comes during the course of the story when their secret loyalties emerge.

As genre double agents go, Declare is one of the best. For most of the first half of the novel, it reads like a homage to John Le Carré, a missing instalment in his Smiley books. Powers captures the same geopolitical weariness, the same shabby detail of the British secret service in the decades after WWII, the same spiritual poverty of Le Carré's world of spies, double agents and their casualties. Apart from the odd hint of the lurking supernatural, the book keeps its cover far longer than I would have credited -- and when its true identity is revealed, the fantasy hiding beneath the minute description of Cold War Realpolitik is breathtaking in both its scope and how well it has been engineered into our real history. It is both one of the best spy thrillers and one of the best fantasies to have been released in recent years.

The novel chronicles the life of Englishman Andrew Hale, occasional agent for a super-secret unit within the British intelligence services. Skipping back and forth between Hale's second attempt to infiltrate a mysterious Soviet operation in Turkey in 1963 and the events leading up to his disastrous first attempt in 1948, the book is broken up into episodes which make up a brief history of the Cold War, leading the reader en route from a wartime London and occupied Paris to a post-war Berlin on the eve of the wall being put up to a grim Moscow during the Stalin years. Directed by a paternal but sinister spymaster, Theodora, Hale's life repeatedly weaves in and out of several other vivid lives -- the love of his life, a fictional passionate Communist, Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga, and his rival, the very real British traitor, Kim Philby -- while the story gradually lays bear Hale's Destiny and how it is entwined with the 20th century's greatest secret: Operation Declare. As the novel gradually sheds its spy thriller trappings, Operation Declare reveals the Cold War to be merely the latest front in a larger cosmic war, one that climaxes in a magical confrontation on the slopes of the fabled Mount Ararat in Turkey between Hale and what was really in Noah's Ark.

This is a mole of a book. Powers details the bizarrely close fit between the supernatural and the spy worlds, glorying in his description of the arcana at the heart of both. Each world has its own set of spooks. Each has a devotion to the gnostic knowledge that allows the mundane wider world to be ruled by secret masters. Powers can describe the procedures used by illegal radio operators to dodge the Nazis in Paris and by magicians to avoid the attention of powerful demons as if one were no more extraordinary than other. Moreover, in depicting a world where Smiley and Merlin are equivalent maguses, he has found an ingenious and very literal metaphor for the fall and rise of the Great Powers.

This book is also a mole in history. In all his books, Powers enjoys grafting stories of the fantastic onto accepted history, but this must rank as one of his best tricks. In the full glare of the highly recorded post-war decades, Powers has constructed a clever 'real' history, one that fits the facts of the Cold War so well that the join is hard to detect. From his use of the real Philby as a central character to his revelation of the real reasons why the Berlin Wall was constructed and why the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Powers joyfully creates an occult parallel history. The research seems impeccable. Indeed, the joke is so good that Powers is compelled in an Afterword to document the weirder facts he's dropped in and insist -- tongue well in cheek -- that his account is no less demonstrably plausible than any other. It's the best kind of alternate history -- one that rigorously incorporates actual facts into a version of history that is both outrageously outlandish and deeply true.

As with the best of Powers' books -- not least, Last Call, his other World Fantasy award winner -- Declare tells a mythic story through commonplace detail. Fans of Powers' books will hear the echoes: Hale fits in with many of his other protagonists, a lost soul who's the victim of grander cosmic and personal conspiracies, given one last chance to redeem himself and the poisoned world surrounding him. The repetition of motifs can be a weakness here -- for example, as in Last Call, the action is finally, and rather too obviously, decided on a high-stakes gambling game -- but as a demonstration of Powers' strengths, this is easily one of his most famous achievements. It's also proof that fantasy writers can burrow out of the strictures of traditional fantasy tropes and markets -- long as you have the right mole working for you.

Review by Philip Raines.

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