Ian Tregillis's Reviews > Declare

Declare by Tim Powers
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Feb 21, 12

Five stars: I want to have this book's babies.

If Tim Powers had taken a sabbatical into my subconscious, living like Jane Goodall among the phantoms of my nightly dream life, he couldn't have written a book more perfectly suited for me. Part of me wants to eat his brain and thereby absorb his power. That's how much I enjoyed this book: it makes me wonder what it would be like to eat somebody's brain, and how long I'd have to keep it down before the power transfer became permanent.

It's no secret that I think Tim Powers is a mad genius. I've been known to shoot my mouth off fairly frequently about how I think his take on magic is just plain right. So, admittedly, it's not like my biases were working against this book from the outset. And yet. As much as I enjoy his work in general, this is the one that pressed all of my buttons. How could it not?

The novel begins with a young spy fleeing a failed secret mission atop Mount Ararat. That mount Ararat, which immediately gets my occult Spidey-sense tingling. From there we follow Andrew Hale on a globe-spanning adventure that effortlessly weaves Cold War history, heartbroken spies, magic, Kim Philby, the Dead Sea Scrolls, djinn, MI6, Lawrence of Arabia, The Thousand and One Nights, the Brandenburg Gate, the Special Operations Executive, and Noah's Ark. Noah's freakin' Ark, people!

But wait, there's more. Because as if weaving all of that into a surprisingly plausible secret history isn't by itself a tour de force, Powers pulls it off in the form of a love letter to John LeCarre novels. (Damn, man. What else? Were you riding a unicycle and juggling flaming clubs while you wrote this?) Stylistically, this novel differs a bit from Powers's other outings because this is straight-up espionage literature of the stale beer variety. Powers, an avowed LeCarre fan, knows what he's doing in this arena.

Our hero, Hale, is the son of a disgraced nun, the identity of his father a mystery. At every year's end he suffers nightmares of a vast power thrashing in troubled sleep beneath the desert while the stars wheel overhead. He was baptized in the Jordan river, and that makes him the key to the most secret, longest-running operation in the history of British Intelligence. At age 7, he becomes an unwitting agent of DECLARE.

Hale is an imperfect hero. He isn't suave, he isn't endowed with an improbable surfeit of competence, he isn't the toughest SOB in the room. But he's smart, and sometimes -- at the very highest-stakes table of the Great Game -- that's just enough to get by. Most of all, he's a lonely, brokenhearted man suffering from, if not exactly unrequited love, frustrated and unfulfilled love. More Smiley than Bond, his heart has only ever belonged to one woman: Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga.

They met in occupied Paris, where she was Et Cetera, or Elena, and he Lot, or Marcel. Together they spent several months hiding from the Gestapo, moving from flat to flat, all the while serving a network of Soviet agents (she with the fervor of a true believer, he as a double agent). They were young together, feared for their lives together, huddled together against malevolent magics older than mankind. And then their mission(s) ended. Elena was recalled to Moscow (and almost certain execution), while Hale was recalled to England. When he fails to convince her to come west with him rather than go east to an uncertain fate, he knows he will almost certainly never see her again. But it's too late for him. How, given everything they'd experienced together, could he possibly love anybody else? Hale's devotion to Elena is lovely and touching, an honest portrait of the complex currents of the human heart. He is broken and stunted by the circumstances of his life, unable to move beyond his brief relationship with Elena. This rang very, very true to me.

They do meet again, of course. In Berlin in 1945, and on Mount Ararat a few years later, and in Beirut some years after that.

The fates of Hale and Elena are closely intertwined with that of the third player in these secret machinations: none other than Kim Philby, the most notorious member of the "Cambridge Five" spy ring. And, for my money, this is where Powers's craftsmanship shines. He's playing a game throughout Declare, weaving a supernatural explanation to the many strange (and they are strange) facts surrounding Philby's life. He somehow manages this without ever changing or ignoring the documented facts. Powers outlines all the pieces of this puzzle in an extensive and fascinating author's note. It's that note, as much as anything else, that makes me want to consume his mind.

Powers's djinn -- or are they fallen angels? -- are truly alien and truly scary. Shit gets real when they come on stage.

This novel is very well suited to my tastes, but it isn't immune to criticism. Others don't care for Declare as much as I do, and understandably so. For one thing, the storytelling is very nonlinear, jumping from 1948 to 1963 to 1941 and back to 1963. . . It jumps around enough that I wouldn't be surprised if it turned some people off. It might also be guilty of hiding the football, constantly referring to things known to the POV characters without revealing them to the reader. It does take about half the book before the reader learns just what happened on Mount Ararat, and why. I know people who found that extremely irritating. I can't blame them. For me, personally, the hints were so yummy that I didn't mind waiting for the big reveals later in the book -- and, to my opinion, the revelations are never a letdown. YMMV.

It's also fair to say that the rivalry between Hale and Philby as they vie for Elena C-B's affection isn't particularly enlightened. They gamble for the right to pursue her hand, but they never stop to consider the lady's preferences. Again, I can see how that could color readers' perceptions of the characters. I wasn't quite so bothered by this, because it's quite clear that Hale is truly in love with Elena and that Philby is, quite frankly, a selfish, backstabbing, smarmy, lying, traitorous, asshat. Of course he'd be the kind of guy to see her as a game piece, a symbol of the clashing ideologies behind DECLARE, another object to be won. Hale gambles with him because -- seriously -- who in his right mind would want to see the love of his life accosted by Kim Philby?

So yeah. While it may not be a perfect book, it's as damn close to perfect for this reader as I'm likely to find.

Anchors aweigh, my dear boy.
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Comments (showing 1-30 of 30) (30 new)

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message 1: by Miriam (new)

Miriam makes me wonder what it would be like to eat somebody's brain, and how long I'd have to keep it down before the power transfer became permanent.

There's a short story sort of about this... I think in Masked.

message 2: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Tregillis I guess I shouldn't be surprised. It's probably fairly common to wonder about things like this.

Fresno Bob Declare would be the first book Id recommend to anyone that enjoyed Bitter Seeds, and vice versa. Im really pleased to see that you enjoyed it as well

message 4: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Tregillis Fresno Bob wrote: "Declare would be the first book Id recommend to anyone that enjoyed Bitter Seeds, and vice versa. Im really pleased to see that you enjoyed it as well"

Thank you! I certainly wouldn't put my own work in the same camp as that of Powers, but I guess on these particular books we were working in the same neighborhood of story-space. Probably not surprising that Declare pushed all of my buttons...

If you enjoyed Declare, and if you haven't read them, you might also enjoy Charles Stross's Laundry novels.

Fresno Bob Ian wrote: "Fresno Bob wrote: "Declare would be the first book Id recommend to anyone that enjoyed Bitter Seeds, and vice versa. Im really pleased to see that you enjoyed it as well"

Thank you! I certainly..."

Ha ha, i posted the same thing in The Sword and Laser group on Bitter Seeds

message 6: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Tregillis Ha! We're clearly of the same mind.

message 7: by j (new) - added it

j i have been trying to like this review but goodreads won't let me, so... *like*

message 8: by Ian (new)

Ian " I want to have this book's babies."

Am I the only one who can't stop trying to imagine how that might work, or what the babies might look like?

message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

There's a character in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making who is a wyverary. His mama was a wyvern and his dad a library.

message 10: by j (new) - added it

j a-through-l!

thanks for reminding me, i have an ARC of the sequel i need to read.

message 11: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Tregillis I think CV's Prester John novels also feature books that grow on trees.

His mama was a wyvern and his dad a library.

Which is a standard country music trope, isn't it?

message 12: by [deleted user] (new)


That's just a fabulous cover, among other exciting things.

message 13: by j (new) - added it

j Ceridwen wrote: "SO JEALOUS.

That's just a fabulous cover, among other exciting things."

you can have it when i am done. which i will endeavor to be soon.

message 14: by [deleted user] (new)


I can trade you Stormdancer once I get around to reading it, though you may not care about that. FINALLY WON A FIRSTREADS SINCE FOREVER! So, pretty much I'm bragging here about winning something.

message 15: by j (new) - added it

j it has a pretty cover...

message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

...or like poor karen, who has never won anything, ever.

message 17: by j (new) - added it

j i thought she did finally win one.

message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

Maybe I am misinformed. She does get to go to BEA and other ARC-filled events, so it can't be all bad for her.

message 19: by [deleted user] (new)


message 20: by Jason (new)


If the shoe fits...

message 21: by Ian (new)

Ian I've also never won a firstreads, and I fully admit to being a total loser. Now I'm off to cry over my Top Ramen for lunch ...

message 22: by karen (new)

karen i am. i am a big fat loser.

message 23: by Jason (new)

Jason karen wrote: "i am. i am a big fat loser."

But you are my favorite loser.

Does that help at all?

message 24: by karen (new)

karen i guess.
it has been a long and sad week.
at least i have favorite loser status

message 25: by Jason (new)

Jason And it is only Wednesday! Cheer up, buttercup. You have your minions to please.

Jonathan Peto Rejoice. You people with minions have won.

message 27: by karen (new)

karen not me. still a loser.

message 28: by [deleted user] (last edited Sep 06, 2012 05:32AM) (new)

I'm sorry, Karen. I was just goofing, and you are the very best. I don't want to contribute to sad weeks. :(

message 29: by Jason (new)

Jason cheer up

Oh, wait...

message 30: by karen (new)

karen oh, lordy - i meant i was still a firstreads loser. i'm not sad because of y'all!

and i was a band geek, so suck it.

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