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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Review: Declare

I reported that I was disappointed with Tim Power's latest book, Three Days to Never, but when Charlie Stross recommended Declare at the back of The Atrocity Archives, I had to place a hold at the library.

Once again, Tim Powers chooses to base a novel on a historical figure, this time super-spy and Russian mole, Kim Philby. The approach, however, is more indirect than most of his other novels, perhaps in deference to traditional approaches towards Spy Fiction, such as John le Carre's. We start off with a description of Andrew Hale, a former British intelligence agent who had been groomed since the age of 7 to participate in project Declare.

Before we even meet Kim Philby (though there are plenty of references to Kipling's Kim, which apparently Philby was named after, we get an exploration of Hale's motivations, his past, his experience during World War II infiltrating the Russian spy network in Paris, and the great love of his life, a spy named Elena who swore allegiance to communism. We then get introduced to the conflicts between Philby and Hale, as well as the grand story behind the novel: the supernatural and occult reasons behind Russia's success. Rest assured there is plenty here to satisfy the fantasist, yet when reading up on Philby after finishing the novel, I found that the historical details were exceedingly accurate --- clearly, Tim Powers did his homework here.

The plot is well put together, and Powers succeeds to a large extent in impersonating le Carre. Even the most supernatural action sequences that could have been dressed up were written in a quiet, under-stated fashion. I did find the ending a little predictable, but perhaps the protagonist does deserve a little happiness after his years of service.

This novel is dense, and took me many more days to read than the usual stories. It is recommended for an intriguing view of World War II and its aftermath, an intelligent speculation, excellent characters and characterization, great writing, and for me at least, an excellent re-entry into the genre of spy fiction. Yet you need not be familiar with Kim Philby's life to be able to read it. It is not a page turner in the traditional means, but some novels deserve to be savored, with each chapter contemplated and with the reader putting together pieces of the puzzle as it is revealed to him, and this is one novel deserving of such treatment. I would not be surprised if at the end of this year, I would nominate this the best fiction I've read this year.

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