Declare

Review: Declare, by Tim Powers

Publisher: HarperTorch
Copyright: January 2001
ISBN: 0-380-79836-0
Pages: 591

This is the second World Fantasy Award winner that I've read that's a detailed alternate history. Declare is set more recently than The Dragon Waiting and Powers does a better job of explaining what's going on (helped by using a time in history I'm far more familiar with), but again I had a hard time getting into the story.

Declare is told in two times, weaving together in the story. In 1963, Andrew Hale is a lecturer and a retired deep-cover spy, trying to deal with the reason why he's being reactivated now so many years after the war. In 1941, Andrew Hale is double-agent, recruited by the Soviet Union but secretly loyal to Britain, infiltrating Nazi-occupied Paris. Mixed deeply into both stories is the real-life double-agent Kim Philby, whose life story Powers remains faithful to while providing different, supernatural explanations for some events.

I found the strongest parts of this book by far to be the elements of the supernatural. Powers introduces djinn into the world, involving them into the history of the Soviet Union and treating them as Cold War weapons, subject to at first a struggle between British and Soviet secret agents and then expanding into a three-corner fight also involving the French secret service. The djinn are strikingly described, given a sense of power, majesty, and magnitude that is memorable and believably alien. They do not think, behave, or live in the way that humans do, and this is used to great effect both to impress the reader and to open the way for subtle tricks and strategies in the ongoing secret war. I'm going to remember Powers's concept of trance beat patterns affecting the world for quite a while.

Unfortunately, this is only a small part of the book. Most of the book is a spy novel, owing a great deal apparently to John le Carré. I wanted to enjoy this part as well, but I found my attention constantly wandering. Repeatedly I had to go back and re-read a paragraph because I couldn't remember what happened or where the characters were, and with the intricacy of the plotting, one can lose track of the narrative threads rather easily. By the time exciting things were happening, I'd had a hard enough time following the plot that I'd largely lost interest.

Two factors contributed to this. One is that Powers provides a wealth of detail in his descriptions, for me stepping over the edge into providing too much. At the height of a climatic journey across Mount Ararat, for example, he spends several paragraphs explaining in intimate detail how one of the characters manages to climb across an obstacle. Yet, while the action is painstakingly described, the larger setting and purpose seem oddly vague; for example, not being familiar with the use of mountain climbing equipment, I had to re-read that passage several times to get a mental image of just what the obstacle was. This quickly becomes frustrating, since my mind would hurry past the uninteresting detail and then I'd find myself confused as to what had happened.

Compounding that problem, I never particularly cared what happened to the characters in Declare. Hale, the primary viewpoint character, seems to stumble through life unsure as to what he's doing or why he's doing it. Even at the end when he starts making decisions for himself, it's unclear why or whether those decisions have any more basis than anything else that's happened to him. Few of the other characters are on stage long enough to learn about, and Kim Philby himself is extremely unlikeable. Elena is the best character of the lot by far, with complex and interesting motivations, difficult personal decisions, and quite a bit of character growth over the course of the book. Unfortunately, she isn't in nearly enough of it, and only rarely gets a turn as a viewpoint character.

This is one of those books where I can see why it won an award but just didn't enjoy it much personally. There are some wonderful ideas and memorable images here, Powers wraps up a complex and intricate plot with satisfying thoroughness, and the characters are complex and nuanced. I just could have used less description and a bit more help from the narrator, and quite a bit more of Elena. There are ways of reminding the reader periodically what's going on, of keeping scenes in a larger context and helping the reader not get lost, that I think this book would have benefitted from.

As is, though, I can't generally recommend it. If you particularly like John le Carré, find Kim Philby's life fascinating, or have a high tolerance for lots of description over complex plots, you may want to give this one a try, as it's certainly well-written. Otherwise, I fear that you, like I, may find it somewhat frustrating.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Posted: 2005-01-23 20:53 — Why no comments?

I think Declare would properly be called "Secret History", not "Alternate History" -- the implication is "this is what actually happened in our world, you just weren't told about it." Like The Philadelphia Experiment.

Posted by Jon Lennox at 2005-01-24 12:48

Good point. I don't normally draw that distinction, but it's a worthwhile one. I'll update the web version of the review.

Posted by eagle at 2005-01-24 13:08

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04