The 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).
As a young man, Alan Hale, working for British Intelligence, failed to stop a mysterious Soviet mission on Mt. Ararat and re-entered civilian life. Twenty years later, he must return to Turkey to accomplish the mission that has haunted him since the end of World War II. Powers (Earthquake Weather), known for his complex fantasy tales, here turns in a classic spy novel with a supernatural twist that ties Lawrence of Arabia to the fall of the Iron Curtain. Fans of John le Carr will appreciate the authentic period detail, meticulous descriptions of the business of espionage, and portraits of actual spies, such as Kim Philby; others will enjoy the suspense and chilling atmosphere of Cold War antics, as well as Powers's intricate chronology and plotting. [The publisher is marketing this as Powers's mainstream breakout novel.--Ed.]--Devon Thomas, Hass Assoc., Ann Arbor, MI Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Powers, for more than 20 years the reigning king of adult historical fantasy (Earthquake Weather, 1997, etc.), surpasses himselfand enters richly promising new territorywith this intricate, inventive tale of Cold War skullduggery and close encounters with malevolent supernatural entities. The increasingly Byzantine action begins in 1963, when a telephone message delivered in code draws Oxford lecturer (and"retired" secret agent) Andrew Hale back into an intrigue that dates from his wartime service. The narrative thereafter shifts among that present time and several past sequencesthe most crucial being a 1948 disaster on Mount Ararat, when men under Hale's command were slaughtered by enemy forces not of this earth. As Hale reenters the duplicitous world of international espionage, Powers gradually reveals the hidden meanings of his former relationships with sinister"contacts" (such as his superior at Whitehall, double-talking James Theodora, and wily Armenian powerbroker Hakob Mammalian); femme fatale Elena Cezina-Bendiga, a Spanish Civil War heroine and passionate Communist ("The Soviet State is my husband, and I am a devoted, obedient wife"); and the historical Kim Philby, the notorious double agent, whose career and personal history eerily parallel Andrew Hale's. T.E. Lawrence also figures here, as do the biblical Ark and various personages and (shifting)"shapes" from The Arabian Nights, as the story careens across Europe and the Middle East, with illuminating side trips to Berlin, Paris, and London during WW II. All this is expertly linked to Operation Declare, designed by British Intelligence to subvert"the Soviet attempt to awaken what slept uneasilyonthetop of Mount Ararat" and unleash its destructive powers. Echoes of Pynchon's V and Gravity's Rainbow (there are many) aside, this is an exciting work, of great originalityand its force is heightened by the skill with which the elusive Philby is characterized and Hale and Elena both made believably complex and potentially tragic figures. There's never been a novel quite like Declare (though comparisons to Neal Stephenson's recent Cryptonomicon will doubtless be made): one of the protean Powers's most absorbing and rewarding creations. Author tour