Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review: Declare

Declare, by Tim Powers
9/10, a seamless blend of spy novel and supernatural thriller

O Fish, are you constant to the old covenant?
Return, and we return. Keep faith, and so will we.

The Afterword to "Declare" is every bit as fascinating as the story itself. Intrigued by a book about Soviet double agent Kim Philby, Tim Powers began reading more about the man and his life. He found that the more he read, the more it felt as though Philby's life revolved around a central mystery that nobody had yet written about. Being, as we know, one of the masters of the contemporary supernatural, Powers took it upon himself to write that mystery, and Declare was born.

Powers created Andrew Hale, a British Secret Service agent whose birth in Palestine and baptism in the River Jordan make him perfectly suited for assignment to the supernatural division of the Service, which goes by various acronyms over the course of his association with it. He isn't always told the full truth; in fact, part of the joy of the book is the reader's journey along with Hale as he travels from ordinary espionage to something larger and more frightening.

But his journey is not only a journey of knowledge. Hale's journey is intertwined with that of Philby and Elena Ceniza-Bendiga, the latter a creation of Powers like him. The three of them perform a dizzying dance between the secret services of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France that is occasionally hard to follow, but never so much that it impedes the reader's understanding of the story. Each of them is faced with the question of what is most important in life several times along the course of the book, and Powers brings that question to a satisfying answer with the end.

As always, Powers exhibits a dazzling imagination in the intricate details of his supernatural world. It meshes perfectly with our contemporary world, and its rules have the internal consistency and detail one might expect from a watchmaker. I have a particular affection for magic, especially in a contemporary context (as in urban fantasy), where magical phrases like the one above have layers of meaning and power. Powers expertly doles out just enough information about his world to draw the reader in.

In Declare, Powers adds some terrific characters. Beyond his main three, a host of supporting characters fill the book out and give it life. He moves them through London, Paris, Beirut, and Moscow, each one lovingly described. Sometimes the action is a bit hard to follow, and if there's one flaw in the book, that would be it. But this is a thrilling, satisfying read, and it immerses you in his world so much that you want to go up to someone on the street and say, "O Fish, are you constant to the old covenant?" just to see what they might say in return.

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