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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
No one writing today fuses history with fantasy as shrewdly -- or as unpredictably -- as Tim Powers. The best, most representative Powers novels (The Anubis Gates, The Stress of Her Regard, Last Call) focus on anomalous occurrences in the lives of actual historical figures (Byron, Shelley, Bugsy Siegel) and use those occurrences as jumping-off points for an extravagantly imagined series of fictions. The latest Powers novel, Declare, once again employs this distinctive, remarkably flexible technique. The result is one of the finest, most idiosyncratic fantasies of the season.
In Declare, Powers edges into John le Carré territory, straddling genre boundaries to create something surprising and new: a supernatural espionage thriller. Two characters -- one fictional, one real -- dominate the narrative. The first is Andrew Hale, a scholar/spy whose career takes him into -- and out of -- the inner circles of the British Secret Service. The second is Kim Philby, the Soviet mole whose career inspired Le Carré's masterpiece Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Declare opens with a brief, enigmatic prologue set in 1948, in the course of which we see an unidentified man fleeing in terror down the slopes of Mount Ararat, pursued -- quite literally -- by demons. The narrative then jumps ahead some 15 years and introduces us to that fleeing figure: Andrew Hale, a former intelligence agent who has built a successful second career as a university lecturer, and who is about to be reinstated in his original profession. When the phone rings on a quiet London afternoon in 1963, a voice from the past reaches into Hale's new life, drawing him back into a clandestine, long-running intelligence initiative called Operation Declare.
Declare tells the full story of that eponymous operation, moving backward in time to the mysteries of Hale's childhood, and forward to the related mysteries hidden on Mount Ararat. The narrative ranges from wartime London to the Middle East, and is alternately a love story, a war story, a spy story, and a romance of the supernatural. It is also a dramatic account of the adversarial relationship between Philby and Hale, two very different men connected by family secrets, by the political realities of the Cold War, and by the malign influence of ancient, inhuman forces.
No summary could possibly convey the richness, intelligence, and sheer virtuosity of this brilliantly executed novel. No one but Tim Powers could have written it, and his characteristic ingenuity is on full display throughout. Like the best of Powers's earlier work, Declare is a vivid, vibrant hybrid that breaks new ground and makes most of its competitors in the overcrowded fantasy field seem thin, derivative, and fatally underdeveloped.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).