Author: Tim Powers
Thy story is a marvelous one! If it were graven with needles on the corners of the eye, it would serve as a warning to those that can profit by example.
A Cold War era spy thriller/horror/love story, centered around the life of the infamous Soviet spy Kim Philby, where French, American, British and Soviet secret services are viciously fighting for access to a supernatural power – djinn, or nephilim, or fallen angles, residing in remote wildness of Arabian deserts. And the famous Mount Ararat. So, in short, if you want to know why USSR fell in 1991, read Declare ;).
Tim Powers did it again. He found a nexus of happenstance, coincidence, inexplicable historical facts, and, diligently digging around through archives and his own subconscious, created an improbable, but inherently logical explanation to it all. One that involves Thousand Nights and One Night, T.E Lawrence, British Secret Service, Mount Ararat and Dead Sea scrolls, as well as baptism in Jordan River, a disgraced nun, an inhabited fox, the vagaries of Heaviside Layer and a colony of djinn.
Andrew Hale, the main protagonist of this novel, is (almost) a typical everyman. Not overly bright, not overly handsome or charming, not even exceptionally brave – but instead deeply loyal and driven, with a strong moral compass, an inherent, unbreakable humanness – and more than a passing addiction to the Great Game. Raised as a Catholic in 1920s by his mother, a former nun, and his “censorious low-church Anglican” grandfather in Cotswold village of Chipping Camden, the epitome of traditional, rural England, Hale couldn’t help being a reclusive child. Recruited by SIS at the tender age of seven he still lived a normal and secure life, all things considered, until suddenly, without any explanation, being tossed over the Canal to Nazi-occupied Paris as a double agent, posing as a Soviet spy and infiltrating Soviet secret network.
There he learns a good deal more not only about his work as a spy, but also about life in general – and about the secret war, waged in the innermost of the innermost circles of secret services. What only few initiated know is the fact that there lives another sentient race on Earth, inhabiting the upper reaches of air and certain desolate, desert places. Their incredible power is an object of desire for many players of the Great Game – a chance to win once and for all the sovereignty over the world, or maybe even more – a form of secular immortality. To have the djinn, or nephilim, as allies, or even better, as a weapon, is the final, long-term goal of some. To destroy them, once and for all, is the aim of others. But can it even be done? Can you tame the lightning?, asks Powers slyly, creating a horrific display of djinns’ powers and desires, so alien to human understanding, and rides the analogy between the nuclear bomb and fallen angels to a truly impressive conclusion.
Declare starts deceptively slow, but requires from the readers their utmost attention, madly jumping between times and places and constantly hinting at tantalizing secrets. Rest assured, all of them are revealed in the end, and by then one can figure most of it out on their own, if one’s so inclined, for Powers keeps to the internal logic of the novel with an iron resolve. There are no loose ends, nothing which cannot be explained, and if the explanation is otherworldly – all the better.
I enjoyed this hefty book a whole lot. Powers’ incredible writing style, merging poetry and precision to form unique images, truly shines in this novel, with its desert mirages of glorious castles and cursed kings, miniature gold skulls and imaginary meals of stale bread, with the horrors of a stormy night in divided post-war Berlin, with the freezing, ice-bound vistas of Mount Ararat, where the djinn take the form of columns of light. The worldbuilding is impeccable as usual, and the Cold War vibe, with the universal obsession over double agents, the heavily guarded borders everywhere and the general mistrust and misery, is down to a T. The magic here is sparse and its explanation rather scientific, which suited my preferences very well. However, Declare contains also a veritable hoard of mythological and biblical references, and an intriguing, underhanded and very well executed defense of faith along the lines of the famous Pascal’s Wager.
The characters are fleshed out and believable, from Jimmie Theodora, the shadowy agent handler, through the memorable French agent Claude Cassagnac, to my favorite Bedu, bin Jalawi. For all that Declare stemmed from Kim Philby’s story and has him as one of the main protagonists/antagonists, the most believable and fascinating character is Andrew Hale: never asking too many questions, never wanting to know too much, somehow resigned to his role as a pawn in the Great Game – through the aforementioned loyalty, or maybe sheer, deeply hidden addiction to the adrenaline and risk. No James Bond, he – although there might be just a smidge of Henry Jones Junior in him, or T.E. Lawrence. His most redeeming quality is his capacity for love. Not a mad, Romeo-type crush, but a quiet, loyal, half-resigned feeling of being only half of a full person – and a determination surprising even for Hale himself, to be with that other half no matter the cost, or the odds.
Kim Philby makes for a wonderful protagonist/antagonist. Mysterious, pathetic, pitiful and dangerous, he is a perfect foil for our main protagonist, and a perfect mythical double. His snarl and stutter, insecurity hidden deep in the pouchy eyes, and a ferality of a cornered animal hidden beneath the veneer of educated Cambridge man all make for a deeply captivating character, all the more memorable for the mystery in his life. All the inexplicable facts from his life here make sudden sense, and I enjoyed the twisted skill with which Powers wound his own crazy plot around Philby’s real story.
There are only three female characters in the novel, and that counting the indomitable disgraced nun – as well as an inscrutable djinn. But the remaining one, Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga, seems quite enough to fill in the female-shaped space. Intense, dedicated and capable, Elena was one of the best female protagonists that I have encountered in Powers’ books. I haven’t read them all, to be sure, and Last Call still awaits me, but among these few I have read – from my favorite The Anubis Gates through The Drawing of the Dark to The Stress of Her Regard – Elena definitely stands out.
All in all, Declare is a highly enjoyable, immensely satisfying read, with lots of action interspersed with lyrical description, and a trademark Powers’ supernatural conspiracy theory at its core.