Monday, July 07, 2008

Declare - A review

Declare, by Tim Powers

Tim Powers is a big, fat tease.

What I really mean is that Tim Powers is an intriguingly opaque writer who uses a wealth of historical detail to obscure the fact that his fantasy novels are richly over the top.

Powers sets fantastical stories in historical venues, making his novels a sort of history a-go-go. This makes for an immensely refreshing take on fantasy. There are, at the very least, no anemic Gandolph seemalikes. In addition, fitting historical fact to a folkloric/fantastic framework fires curiosity in a most satisfying way. You begin to wonder: how much of this is true? It's an enjoyable puzzle.

His newest novel, Declare, is a rich tapestry of crossed genres, mixing the convolutions of the spy novel, the cover story and double cross, with the odd angles, the pacifications and perambulations, of middle eastern folklore. It's about Gilgamish and Genies and Immortality and Spies and Communism and The Berlin Wall and Baptism and Foxes with Ghosts in them. In describing his supernatural ecosystem, Powers even finds a way to make The Soviet Union even creepier than it actually was.

It's hard to talk about one of Powers' books without describing his entire Oeuvre. He always dabbles in eccentric concepts: The Drawing of the Dark is about a magic beer that safeguards western civilization. Last Call is about Las Vegas gamblers competing to be the Fisher King of America. On Stranger Tides is about Pirates seeking out the Fountain of Youth.

His books mine the elaborate network of superstitions people navigate their lives by: the nervous ticks of gamblers, the trademark personality quirks of pirates, the double blinds of spies. He layers them onto a supernatural pseudo-physics that takes you for a wild ride, mostly because it sounds almost possible in a really bent kind of fashion.

Tim Powers doesn't give you everything up front. The quirks of his supernatural creatures, ghosts and elementals, vampires and djinn, sort of unwind as a novel goes on. By the end, you'll feel you know enough to become a sort of latter day Solomon/Van Helsing.

What he gives you until he gets to that point is a rich background of character and history to set his flights of fancy in.

For instance, Kim Philby, the antagonist of Declare, was a real person. He spied for the British between 1940 and 1963, though it was revealed towards the end of his career (when he defected to the USSR) that he had been counterspying for the Soviets the entire time.

Declare paints an interesting emotional portrait of this non-fictional individual and exploits the most curious parts of his real life. Powers' after word is tantalizing, revealing that Philby did indeed own a fox that smoked cigars and drank whiskey, and which he mourned in a drunken stupor for three days after it was murdered in cold blood. After reading Declare, you might be drawn to read the many biographies and histories written about Philby the spy.

Andrew Hale, the protagonist, just seems real, carrying a decades-long unrequited lust for a fellow spy that he met as a communist in Paris. Tim Powers has masterfully executed a portrait of a man whose emotions are closed off and hampered by his conflicting loyalties. Declare is mostly Hale's story, and at some point it becomes clear that the title refers to Andrew Hale's overarching decisions: He must decide between, and declare his intentions towards, his emotional loyalties, his spiritual loyalties, and his patriotic loyalties.

Though used the most sparingly of any character in the novel, Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga, Hale's romantic declare-ee, is maybe more intriguing because of this. Hale falls in love with her as a British Mole in the Soviet Secret Service infiltrating Nazi occupied Paris, even though she declares herself a "bride of communism."

Her evolution from a communist following her parents murder by the right wing in Spain, to her rebirth as a Catholic after she finds out exactly what kind of supernatural master she is serving in the Soviet Union, becomes the pivot around which antagonist and protagonist turn. Superficially she is their romantic involvement. More specifically she becomes an illustration of the perils and rewards of faith. Philby and Hale's fascination with her crystallizes Philby's cynical opportunism and undoes Hale's near-bovine absolutism.

Declare is powerful reading, pun intended. It is easily one of his more ambitious, complex, and engaging novels, one of a long chain of curiously evocative historical fantasies. Tim Powers understands how to roll out a mystery carefully, and the travails of his quietly passionate characters leave pieces of themselves behind in the reader. The immense scope of Declare, encompassing both history and wonder, human frailty and otherworldly immensity, will interest everyone who cares about the human spirit.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

No comments: