Friday, November 21, 2014

Book Review: Declare

Over on the Dissecting Worlds channel, we're currently doing a series on Spies and all things Espionage related. We've just recorded the third episode, on the intersection between horror and the spy genre, and when we mentioned this planned episode a couple of months back, one book kept coming up, and it was one that I've never actually heard of. I guess thats kind of appropriate, right? The book was Declare, by Tim Powers, and when at least four people recommend is a "set text" for the subject, then you really have to read it. I'm really, really glad I did. 

Declare is a best described as a cold-war thriller in the mold of John le Carre, mixed in with the sort of Lovecraftian horror that the man himself would of approve of - insidious, unearthly powers that sit on the fringes of the known rather than the "tentacles with everything" approach favoured by a lot of Lovecraft's successors. The bulk of the book is taken up by spycraft and conspiracy, although with an occult flavour, that meshes real history to fictional history in a compelling and surprisingly synergistic way. It also takes in most of the great cold war locations - Divided Berlin, Wartime Paris, Lebannon and the near-East, and some encompasses about 20 years of time-line that it slides elegantly around. 

The story follows Andrew Hale, recruited at an early age by the British Secret Services, and, it transpires, a more secretive part therein, known as Operation Declare. This it part of a long running secret war between Britain and Russia involving a Russian agency that originated as part of the Okhrana (Tsarist Secret Police) but survived into the Communist era, dedicated to keeping Russia safe from invasion via supernatural means. Tightly woven into the story is the real-life figure of Kim Philby, spy, traitor and son of noted Arabist and explorer St John Philby, whose works also play a major part. Powers sets himself an early goal of tying Philby into his historical appearances, which leads to both a sense of veracity, and also takes the story to some interesting and twisty places. 

There is a lot to like in Declare - the paranoid, uncertain life of a spy unsure of who to trust, even on your own side. The shifting, temporary alliances between enemies based on mutual threats, or the desperate moments of improvisation in the face of imminent death of capture, pop up again and again. Powers also manages to name-check a who's who of the spy genre - MI6, of course, but the French, Russian, American and German intelligence agencies all get a look in. T E Lawrence, obviously, but also Alan Turing, the Berlin Wall, the Stalinist Purges, Red Orchestra and of course the Cambridge Spy Ring are all woven together.

On top of this the grand secrets are all to do with powerful entities that reside alongside us, unknowable and powerful, but somehow biddable according to their own set of rules. Its this larger reality that Hale is caught up in, another layer of conspiracy and secrets. I don't want to go into too much detail but it's clever, and cool, and I really liked it. Actually that pretty much sums up the book - probably the best merging of these two genres that I've come across and very much the "set text" for our next episode of Dissecting Worlds!