(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 and
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
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.