My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Review based upon a reading of the original hardcover when it was published years ago, coupled with a recent listening of the Audiobooks.com version.
Tim Powers is one of those go-to contemporary writers for me, in company with Jack McDevitt, Iain Banks, Michael Shea, and Gene Wolfe. This is a group of authors that I will read almost everything they write based upon their previous accomplishments, and will start their books with a generally positive, nay, eager, opinion of the work.
DECLARE is a hard right turn in Tim Power’s literary style. Powers has played around a bit with time-streams in previous works, and he certainly is a writer that likes to infuse a story with legendary and magical elements, portrayed in a “magical realism” style that I have consistently found entertaining. DECLARE features many of these elements, but leaps backward and forward in the time stream so much (1930s-1941-1945-1948-1955-1962, etc) that I often found myself scratching my head and stopping, trying to figure out WHEN I’m reading as well as WHERE. It’s like a literary equivalent of Christopher Nolan’s MEMENTO. DECLARE shifts focus quite a bit. Primarily it’s a magical interpertation of the defining moments of the Cold War, integrating a mystical version of the British Secret Service, the Russian Ohkrana, DJinns, and the “Fifth Man” crisis of the 1950s.
Powers is a dab hand with his characters in all his books– portraying them as confused, arrogant, and often in a negative manner, and they are still riveting. The “anti-hero” trend has increased in the last several books published, and in general, I like it. The inclusion of the historical Kim Philby (one of history’s scumbags) as a POV character in DECLARE became a bit tedious. Power’s Philby is an insufferable ass, selfish, self-conscious, arrogant and cowardly, not unlike the real deal. It’s clear Powers read Philby’s self-serving biography at some point, because he does put us in his shoes and allows us access to his justifications for his actions. The other characters (Elena, Alan Hale, et al) are intriguing cyphers given to bizarre outbursts with very little setup. I didn’t get behind any of them at any point.
So, is this a love story? A spy story? A fantasy story? SHRUG. It’s a fantasy spy story that bounces through time and is told is Power’s classic elegiacal style. I found it to be not as riveting as some of his earlier work, nor as deeply realized as his modern “Fisher King” sequence, but still a lot of fun despite the presence of some despicable characters. DECLARE is not the best Powers book I have read, but definitely time enjoyed and worth the investment in reading.