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Book Review: Declare by Tim Powers

Such is one of the quotes with which Tim Powers opens Declare, a genre-twisting, hopelessly enigmatic, jewel of a story, which combines espionage, political intrigue, communists, and the supernatural into five hundred pages of esoteric brilliance. Pitched as a Cold War spy thriller, Declare has a level of detail that will make any history buff drool, yet it is melded with as engaging a story as has ever been written. You want to learn about deep-cover communist spy networks in Germany in 1941? Read Declare. You want to learn the sordid history of Kim Philby, British traitor, fox-owner, and member of the Cambridge Five? Read Declare. You want to learn the truth about the fall of communism, Catholicism, immortality, and how the three are related? Uh…what?

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Date Posted: June 29, 2011
Print Edition: June 24, 2011

By Paul Esau (The Cascade) – Email

“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?

Declare, if thou hast understanding.”

-Job 38:4

Such is one of the quotes with which Tim Powers opens Declare, a genre-twisting, hopelessly enigmatic, jewel of a story, which combines espionage, political intrigue, communists, and the supernatural into five hundred pages of esoteric brilliance. Pitched as a Cold War spy thriller, Declare has a level of detail that will make any history buff drool, yet it is melded with as engaging a story as has ever been written. You want to learn about deep-cover communist spy networks in Germany in 1941? Read Declare.  You want to learn the sordid history of Kim Philby, British traitor, fox-owner, and member of the Cambridge Five? Read Declare. You want to learn the truth about the fall of communism, Catholicism, immortality, and how the three are related?  Uh…what?

You see, Declare reveals some historical tidbits that make Area 51 look like a smash-and-grab at the local 711. In Powers’ eyes, the Cold War wasn’t fought over something as pitiful as ideological differences, and T.E. Lawrence’s motorcycle accident was hardly an accident at all. Lenin’s meteoric rise to power was achieved with the help of a terrifying being, code-named “Mother Russia” (who eventually killed him), and humans are neither the most intelligent, nor the most powerful species on Earth. In fact, much of Powers’ weird marriage of science and religion comes down to the existence of a city of beings upon Mt. Ararat in modern Turkey, ancient survivors of the Flood itself. Powers describes these beings as “fallen angels” or “djinn,” remnants of the Nephilim, and the cultivation of their power is the goal of the most secret of the secret services on both sides of the war.

Declare circles and twists through the story of one Andrew Hale, an Englishman troubled with strange visions, an absent father, and the ambiguous attentions of the British Secret Service. It is a shattered narrative scattered across three decades of his life and two separate missions in which he moonlights as a double-agent, yet Powers does an adequate job keeping most of the tangled plot coherent. When he is introduced, Hale is a hard-drinking, embittered man plagued by the horrors of a visit to Ararat, but his innocent twenty-something self in later flashbacks is a believable predecessor. Unfortunately, the chain of events surrounding Hale is not always as systematic, nor as logical as his personal character arc.

This is the big weakness of Powers’ book, though it is not, in fact, a reflection of the author’s talent. Declare is not a book that can be fully digested in a single reading, and certain points remain hopelessly confusing even after two or three, yet Powers fully acknowledges the convoluted nature of his work. In his “Author’s Note” he reveals that the entire work is constructed around the exploits of the historical figure Kim Philby, and he “made it an ironclad rule that [he] could not change or disregard any of the recorded facts, nor rearrange any days of the calendar.” Much of the confusion in the latter stages of Declare is therefore directly correlated to the confused events of Philby’s life, and not a failing of Powers’ brilliance.

And yes, brilliance is the correct word. The sheer joy of Declare is in its utter originality, its construction of an alternate history entirely novel in its mechanics and scope. So much of it, from names and dates right down to espionage practice, is grounded in hard fact, yet even the impossible elements (i.e. freakin’ fallen angels) work almost perfectly. Ultimately it makes sense that Soviet Russia was built upon the machinations of a supernatural and blood-thirsty “guardian angel,” for how else would such an ungainly regime survive for more than a half-century? It makes sense that the Turkish government has been hiding the presence of supernatural entities on Ararat for the last hundred years, and that several of the wars in the Middle East have been fought over their existence. It makes sense that angel blood, apart from its other qualities, can be combined into a substance that grants immortality to those who consume it, and it makes sense that the most secret agencies in the world would be tearing each other apart in their race to claim this power as their own.

In Declare Powers presents a vision of the “the foundations of the Earth” as no one has ever seen them before. This book deserves your time.

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