Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: Declare

I've been on a little bit of an espionage kick lately, particularly in the comics world, with stuff like The Activity and Whiteout: Melt working their way into my reading rotation.  It was only a matter of time before that trend seeped into my book readin' as well and sure enough, there was Blue Fall not too long ago either.  Keeping up with the trend, comes another spy-thriller, this time from Tim Powers.  Declare has sat on my shelf for about a year, collecting much dust, but the book clawed it's way to the top of my to read pile thanks to this little spy-thriller spate I'm on.

This one takes place in the middle of the Cold War and follows an Englishman, Andrew Hale, a cold warrior through and through.  Throughout his entire life, Hale has experienced bizarre dreams, a fact that seemingly played a large role in him being recruited for Her Majesty's secret service.   During WWII Hale was a young double agent tasked with infiltrating the Soviet spy network but found himself caught up in more secret, epic and possibly magical things.

Twenty or so years later, the middle aged Hale, thinking  his espionage days are behind him, finds himself dragged back into the fold and playing the role of rogue spy.  Hale travels to the Arabian desert with the ultimate goal of finishing off Operation Delcare which has haunted him since the 40's. It's a quest that will place him in contact with Communist agents, British spies, and powerfull djinn.  Once again Hale finds himself squaring off against a supernatural power that may or may not be the Soviet Union's guardian angel.

Delcare is a story that is told in two parts.  Powers alternates between the "current day" (1960's) events and Hale's early contact with Operation Declare during WWII.  This makes for a pretty interesting way of telling the story as things from Hale's past that are hinted at or eluded to during the current day thread eventually get fleshed out in the flashback sequences.  I really liked this aspect of the book because it gave me a strong sense of how Hale's past influenced his current day actions and relationships.  It also helped Hale and many of the other principle characters feel more fleshed out.

Though the characters and their motivations were pretty convincing, the love story that takes place in Declare was not.  One minute Hale was working with a pretty young Russian spy, the next minute they are in love.  Why they loved each other, I don't know, and any scene shared by the two characters that followed did nothing to convince me that the love was anything more than a poorly done bit of story telling.

That's not to say that Declare was poorly done as a whole, because it wasn't.  I enjoyed the blending of spy and fantasy elements.  Powers has written one of the more authentic feeling spy thrillers I've ever read, and infused it with some pretty interesting fantasy elements as well.  Like many plots in spy fiction, Declare is riddled with many twists, turns and double crosses...things I'm always a fan of.

The fantasy elements are well done for the most part, but there were a few times the fantastical parts seemed like they were too much.  I think Declare would have been better served had Powers gone the Guy Gavriel Kay route and had fantastical grace-notes wrapped up in myth rather than straight up fantasy elements.  I guess I shouldn't complain about there being too much fantasy in a fantasy novel, so make of that what you will.

Overall, this was a pretty solid book, and it provided some incredibly entertaining moments.  You will have to suffer through a few lengthy info-dumps but you'll be rewarded with an interesting blend of espionage and fantasy from a gifted writer.  Recommended for when you want fantasy, guns, spies, and Cold War espionage all at the same time.

Grade: B

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