When I started reading Declare, I was already a fan of Tim Powers and admired his books quite a lot. But I was absolutely blown away by the skill he shows in his latest book. It’s easily one of the ten best fantasy novels I’ve ever read; maybe one of the best five.
The novel opens in 1963, when Andrew Hale is called back into service by the British Secret Service. His mission is to go undercover as a renegade spy, so that he can be recruited by the Russians and complete a mission which failed in 1948. Interwoven with this is the story of Hale’s early career as a British spy: first infiltrating the Soviet spy network in World War II Paris, where he meets Elena Ceniza-Bendiga, a Russian spy and the love of his life; then later operating in Berlin and the Middle East on a mysterious project code-named “Declare.” Along with Hale, the reader is drawn into a world of wheels within wheels, secret agencies and super-secret agencies, and supernatural espionage.
Declare is one of those novels where half the suspense is simply trying to figure out what’s going on, and I don’t want to spoil it. Let me just say that Powers manages to link together djinn, Mount Ararat, Kim Philby, the lost city of Wabar, Gilgamesh, ankhs, the Nephelim, and the Soviet Union–and he does it so convincingly that you start wondering if he’s actually on to something. As my father put it, it’s “not that everything you know is wrong, but that everything you think you know is only partially right and that the most important part is skewed off the expected by approaching 90 degrees.”
But Declare isn’t simply an amazingly written fantasy novel. It’s also beautifully and profoundly Catholic, in a way both subtler and more convincing than most religious fantasy. There are no impassioned arguments, no feeling that the author is trying to persuade or inspire you; the world simply is a certain way, and the characters may accept it or not as they choose. This quiet conviction is far more persuasive than any amount of rhetorical fireworks.
In fact, I’d be willing to say that Declare is like Brideshead Revisited with magic–and I do not say that lightly. Like Brideshead, one of its main themes is grace, and the steady, ceaseless call of God. The characters are all sinners, one way or another; they all abandon their faith and make terrible mistakes. Yet there’s still hope for them, and there’s always something pulling them back towards God. “But do you–imagine that you are an atheist–still?” Elena asks Hale at one point. And in the end, he finds that he’s not.
Content-wise, this book is not for little kids: a few characters swear badly, there’s some off-screen extramarital sex, and non-graphic but rather disturbing violence. However, all of these are presented within a sound moral framework, so it’s definitely not going to corrupt anyone.