Saturday, September 28, 2013

Tim Powers, Declare


Opening Passage:

The young captain's hands were sticky with blood on the steering wheel as he cautiously backed the jeep in a tight turn off the rutted mud track onto a patch of level snow that shone in the intermittent moonlight on the edge of the gorge, and then his left hand seemed to freeze on to the gear-shift knob after he reached down to clank the lever up into first gear. He had been inching down the mountain path in reverse for an hour, peering over his shoulder at the dark trail, but the looming peak of Mount Ararat had not receded at all, still eclipsed half of the night sky above him, and more than anything else he needed to get away from it.

Summary: Declare is a supernatural espionage thriller, following the fortunes of a spy, Andrew Hale, as he finds himself utterly entangled -- indeed, he has been entangled since his birth -- in an operation, code-named Declare, that goes far beyond any ordinary intelligence operation. On Mount Ararat there is the entrance to a might city of djinn, genies, fallen angels, and the powers of the world are in a constant state of maneuvering in an attempt to control the power they represent. The Russians managed to capture a djinn in 1883, who by the mid-twentieth century guaranteeing the protection of the Soviet Union in exchange for a terrible price of blood. The Berlin Wall is built on human sacrifice to form a bulwark of the Soviet Union. The British and the French are, independently, attempting to destroy the djinn forever.

The djinn are a more primordial form of life than we are, and they speak in Vico's language of the gods: they speak and think with things, so that for a djinn to think something is to make it be in some way, either directly or in representation, so that there thoughts might be anything from little representations in gold to earthquakes and whirlwinds to disturbances and anomalies in the Heaviside layer. and their mere attention is almost shattering, as we find ourselves in the presence of something in comparison with which we cannot help but regard ourselves as insignificant. One of the well-done minor themes throughout the book is that everyone is embarrassed at their involvement in the supernatural, because to meet a djinn is humiliating. It is to be utterly overshadowed and helpless.

Another minor theme throughout is that of rhythm, and I think this is less well done. I suppose the idea is that different rhythms put one in tune, so to speak, with the djinn, so that, for instance, walking with a certain beat makes it difficult for human beings to see you and makes the djinn notice you. It was not very clear the first time I read it, and not much more clear the second time.

There is a great deal going on in the story. I liked the interactions between Andrew Hale and Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga, who have a sort of star-crossed romance, and both of them age very plausibly in the story. I was less interested in the interactions between Hale and Kim Philby. Philby is the historical core of the novel, being a famous traitor in British intelligence who was funneling information to the Soviets. Powers goes through extraordinary lengths to keep Philby's often rather puzzling life true to fact and chronology, which is part of what seems to be behind the complexity of the book. But I find that Philby remains something of an enigma, and not as interesting a character as I think Powers found him. At least, I didn't think him all that interesting.

Favorite Passage:

Bending down over the gorge, he held McNally's body in a hand made of wind, and the upward-tumbling human body, with its random motions and unchanging appearance, was no less expressive than living men were. On another side of the McNally form he could see other men, and their constricted bendings held no meaning, and the clothes and hair that were their substances were as imbecilically constant as the shapes of the cliffs. Thought and identity consisted of moving agitation--the verb in the leap of stones, the whirling of mirth in infinite grains of sand in a storm, questions in falling rain and answers int eh bubbling liberation of water into exploding steam--expressed across miles of desert or turbulent sea; and to this vibrant dialogue men could contribute only accidental statements, like the airplanes and bullets they moved through the air, or the narrow wave-sequences they projected from their mouths to kink the air and from their radios to flatten the fields of the sky. (p. 396)

Recommendation: It's a good book. There are parts that are gripping. I think you get more out of it if you like either supernatural thrillers or spy thrillers, since it's a combination of both. I don't think it is as good as it is sometimes hyped to be; but the genre of which it is a part, secret history, is a very difficult genre to write in, and I think you could argue that it is perhaps the best example of the genre. So I go both ways: Recommended if it comes your way, but I'm not sure it's in any way a must-read.

Tim Powers, Declare, HarperTorch (New York: 2001).


  1. entropy9:01 PM

    I loved this book. Good review!

  2. branemrys8:40 PM

    Ah, so can we expect a NaNo spy novel eventually?

  3. MrsDarwin8:07 AM

    Ee, I don't know if I have the plotting prowess. I'm not sure my writing strengths, whatever they may be, tend to genre craft. Also, the sword of Stillwater hangs over my head night and day, and Brendan has his huge WWI project for next year (not technically a NaNo because he's starting writing come January). Any future NaNos on my part are going to be very eventually.


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