For many years, Tim Powers’ work has largely been out of print in the UK, but that began to change in 2010, when Corvus gave Powers’s novel Declare its first UK edition, which quirk of publishing explains how a ten-year-old book ended up as a contender for the Clarke Award. It felt a little odd to see Declare so nominated, but I was optimistic because I’d read and liked a couple of Powers’ novels previously; Declare won the World Fantasy Award, which I’ve generally found a reliable indicator of good fiction; and the Clarke judges had made fine selections elsewhere in the shortlist. I pretty much took it for granted that we had six strong nominees this year.
Well, now I’ll have to eat those words, because I simply cannot see that this book stands up to any of the other shortlisted titles.
One of the hallmarks of Tim Powers’ fiction is the taking the fantastic and slotting it into the gaps in reality to create an alternative and hidden history of the world; in Declare, the author does this against the background of the Cold War. In 1963, a British former (or so he thought) spy named Andrew Hale is reactivated to complete Operation Declare, the previously failed mission to attack the djinns of Mount Ararat.
Declare is a very long book – 560 B-format pages of close-set type in the edition I have – and the key problem it has is being overly stiff with research for much of that length. Overall, I find it a very slow read (not ideal for a book which is part spy thriller), because so much detail is crammed in at the expense of pacing. Actually, come to that, the general stodginess of Declare makes it difficult to appreciate most other aspects of the novel. For example, there’s a proper sense of otherworldliness in some of the scenes featuring djinns (made particularly interesting by the matter-of-fact tone of delivery), but the impact is diluted by all the less effective surrounding material – the more conventionally ‘spy-thrillerish’ sequences don’t work nearly as well for me.
Perhaps if I knew more about, or were more interested in, the details of Kim Philby’s life (around which Powers has constructed the supernatural framework of his novel) – or if I’d read John Le Carré – I might appreciate more of what Powers is doing in the book. But it does seem to me that Declare is too content to assume that sort of interest on the part of its readers, rather than trying to generate it – hence the profusion on detail.
It’s been a while since I read Last Call and The Drawing of the Dark, but I don’t remember their being a chore to read; Declare, on the other hand, was just that.
Tim Powers website
This novel has been shortlisted for the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.
14th April 2011 at 9:51 pm
I zipped through Declare a year or two ago, and felt the same way you did – it was heavy, stodgy, assumed that I already had lots of Cold War knowledge (the things you DON’T learn watching James Bond!). The supernatural parts were wonderful, and I do plan to re-read Declare, although at a much slower pace than the first time around.
My favorite Powers books are Last Call and Anubis Gates, they are pure fun!
18th April 2011 at 4:02 pm
560 pages? I am somewhat familiar with the Cold War, but not intimately and words like stodginess are distinctly worrying. Too much detail can kill a book, and 560 pages permits a lot of detail…
18th April 2011 at 8:27 pm
Redhead: I’m impressed that you managed to zip through it! I think I’ll give The Anubis Gates a try — that seems to be one of Powers’ most highly regarded books.
Max: Indeed. Declare presents an interesting contrast with Skippy Dies, which has 660 pages, but they fly by, and the book never feels weighed down by its length. Declare is the opposite of that.
19th April 2011 at 9:19 pm
I think that’s why I had such trouble with it – because I zipped through it too fast. Anubis Gates is faster paced and lighter reading, I made the mistake of thinking Declare was similar. NOPE.