Saturday, July 29, 2006

Book Review - Declare

Declare, by Tim Powers. 2001.

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Declare, if thou hast understanding.


Tim Power’s novels are in the supernatural tradition of Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and Charles Williams’ Descent Into Hell. A descendant of Williams’ The Greater Trumps, Last Call ventured into games of high-stakes Las Vegas poker played with Tarot cards and souls. Expiration Date journeyed through the haunts of ghost-eaters and spiritual warriors, guided by the shade of Thomas Edison. Power’s books describe unnoticed corners of life and discover there eerie hints of a world deeper than the one we see.

What better setting for this kind of tale than the already-shadowy realms of international subterfuge, of cryptography, assassination and suicide pills? Declare’s double agents are cousins to Thursday’s anarchists and secret police officers. Both novels affirm that when people go deep enough into the inner workings of the world, they encounter spiritual realities, active powers and principalities that force them to decide their basic loyalties.

Declare discovers the occult subtext for the long struggle between England and Russia, beginning with the 19th century Great Game and intensifying during the 20th century Cold War. Combining meticulous historical research with far-fetched speculation, Powers imagines agencies hidden within agencies, fighting a decades-long war in the shadows. What did Lawrence of Arabia discover in the desert that threatened his sanity and brought about his assassination? Why were there so many bizarre occurrences surrounding Kim Philby, the influential British spymaster and long-time Soviet traitor? And why did both sides pay so much covert attention to eastern Turkey – or more precisely, to Mount Ararat? Powers draws his answers from the Bible, the Thousand and One Nights, Armenian folk tales, and the complex biographies of real-life spies.

Declare moves back and forth through the life of its protagonist, Andrew Hale, a lapsed Catholic and professor of English literature. The reader learns that he was recruited by the British secret service and sent to infiltrate a Soviet network in wartime Paris. He soon found himself drawn into an even more secret body, known as Operation Declare, and was driven to the edges of life and sanity in postwar Berlin and in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Defeated on the slopes of Mount Ararat in 1948, he is reactivated in 1963 in a last-ditch attempt to complete Declare’s mission.

Powers weaves fact and fiction together so skillfully that the reader is hard pressed to tell where one begins and the other ends. He chooses his historic settings and characters well – it does not strain credulity to imagine that bloodthirsty supernatural beings would have been right at home in the unspeakable horror of Stalin’s purges and in the massacres that were carried out by the NKVD. Nor is it hard to believe that already-unscrupulous leaders and backroom power brokers would seek to harness such beings. In this respect, Declare is also in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, with its pitiless and deluded demon-worshippers. When people ruthlessly seek hidden knowledge for the power which accompanies it, they encounter forces which in turn enslave them.

While Powers includes plenty of excitement and variety to keep things moving, he does tend to repeat himself at times, dropping the same clues more than once. Further, many characters are prone to giving long expository speeches, in which they sound almost indistinguishable from one another. Declare covers a lot of ground, so it’s hard to see how these explanatory sections could be avoided, but they do disrupt one’s immersion in the story to some extent. For the most part, though, the writing is tense and compelling.

While religious elements in the plot are plentiful, Powers also works in a more subtle spiritual journey. One notices that Hale’s Catholicism is perhaps not as lapsed as he likes to think. In the shifting and ambiguous world of espionage, he must determine where his loyalties lie. He is forced to learn the difference between magic and grace, and to choose between coercive power and sacrificial love.

All in all, a great book – creepy, convincing, and thought-provoking.

4.5 out of 5

6 comments:

Jim McCullough said...

Don't miss his earlier Anubis Gates or Stranger Tides or ....each of his books pours at you like a torrent, like trying to take in a ride through Manhattan at NASCAR speeds. Jim McCullough DRE, Our Lady of Grace, Greensboro, NC

Elliot said...

I'm just going to have to break down and order those two off Amazon. I keep trying to find them in used bookstores, but nobody has 'em. I did recently find The Skies Discrowned, his very first novel.

So, now I'm just missing those two, The Stress of Her Regard, and Epitaph in Rust. Whew. That's still a lot...

PS: What does DRE stand for in this context?

Elliot said...

PPS: I originally read it a few years back, and the part that really stuck with me was the plastic toy telephone ringing and then a mysterious voice coming out...

Jim McCullough said...

director of religious education--I administer catechesis for children not in our parochial school, the youth minister reports to me, and half my work is with 25-40 adults preparing to enter the Catholic Church each year, plus some adult ed.
Do keep up the reading recommendations--much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I just started reading Powers in January. So far I'd say Declare is his best book, so good that it almost reaches Canticle for Liebotwitz territory, though I'll have to see if it holds up on re-reading.

Does anyone know of a complete list of Powers' books? Want to make sure I don't miss anything.

-Adam Greenwood

Elliot said...

Hi Adam,
I'll make a new post with a list.

I think Declare is his best book, though Three Days to Never comes close, and The Anubis Gates is really good so far (I've just started.)