This week I read Tim Powers’ Declare, a book Charles Stross avoided reading lest it warp The Atrocity Archives when he wrote it. It’s my favourite book of 2014 so far (even though that’s less than 2 weeks in) and here are some reasons why:
It’s dense but honest. There’s a lot going on in Declare, and a lot that’s alluded to but never fully explained. But Powers set himself a rule when writing this alternate history, that none of the documented events that we know of could be moved or manipulated for his convenience: he had to operate in the restrictions of the world. There’s no point where a giant mecha-Hitler has to descend, deus ex machina style, to save a problem in the plot.
Although described as le Carre meets HP Lovecraft, it’s closer to a Bond film (a succession of well-realized, exotic locations) written by a paranoiac with mystical leanings. The magical elements are rarely the interesting parts of the book; it’s the locations and the characters and the details of spycraft that are so captivating. Also (spoiler alert) it’s not a total gloomfest from start to finish, whereas if you finish a le Carre and there haven’t been a dozen meaningless deaths of principal characters by the end, you feel cheated.
There’s a strong female character. Alas, only one, so there was no chance it could pass the Bechdel Test, but Elena is well-written, interestingly conflicted and a dab hand with a gun.
It’s set between the 1930s and 1962; the build up to the Second World War and then the Cold War. Those don’t seem to have been fun periods to live through, but I,really enjoy reading about them, whether fictional or non fictional accounts. I don’t think it’s just the quality of the writing; modern, techno-obsessed spy thrillers are less charming, but have less palpable menace, than the work of le Carre, Deighton et al, even though now we can look back and see that the ‘inevitable’ nuclear conclusion wasn’t going to happen after all. I could read Deighton all week; I read Clancy all week to laugh at the tin-eared dialogue. Similarly, I found Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds triptych, another WWII/Cold War/paranormal epic to be captivating – perhaps for the same reasons.
Declare feels a more serious work than Stross’ Laundry sequence; more like a proper spy novel compared to a B-movie with cartoonish heroes and monsters. It helps that we don’t see the supernatural elements for quite some time, just ominous phrases like “O Fish, are you faithful to the covenant?” which made me suspect an assault by Lovecraftian Deep Ones, instead of what actually occurs. That’s not to say that the Laundry novels aren’t as enjoyable as Declare, but they definitely feel more pulpy.
Also, Declare’s cast is of (often) real people, such as Kim Philby – perhaps unfeared by thoughts of libel, Powers brings in plenty of people who are recently dead to make things feel more real. The fact that occasional Americanisms, like ‘sidewalk’ and the verb ‘to tromp’ make it in is not so terrible a distraction.
What’s strange to me is that Declare isn’t more famous a book, or indeed recognized as a great work of espionage fiction. Then again, Tim Powers is partially implicated in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, so nobody gets things 100% right.