by Tim Powers
Tied for 2001 World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel
Stop me if you've heard this one. There's this kid with a mysterious powerful father that he doesn't know who is initiated into a shadowy world of people playing for high stakes. He becomes involved in things he shouldn't have meddled in during his youth and twenty years later is called back to the life he left behind and the mentor who abandoned him because the events that were set in motion two decades before are about to start again. A hand of poker where the pot contained things far more important than cash. Magic lurks behind the mundane and invisible enemies stalk our protagonist through the desert.
Last Call or Declare? You decide.
Okay, it's both. I can't fault the judges too much for this since I read Last Call only a few weeks before reading Declare. That made those similarities very obvious. However instead of mixing poker and magic Declare is about mixing espionage and magic.
Andrew Hale was born to a life in espionage. His childhood was guided by shadowy figures in high places who groomed him as an operative. His career collapsed when Operation: DECLARE went bad one dark night on Mount Ararat. Twenty years later he's called back in to an organization that should not exist and is told that the Soviets are moving on the mountain with the help of one of the most infamous traitors in British history. Hale is assigned to act as a double agent to infiltrate the new operation with little opportunity for preparation before being sent into the maw of danger.
That's a decent foundation for an espionage novel. Powers adds to his novel through flashbacks to Hales career where it is slowly revealed that his cold war is not simply a conflict between governments. Supernatural forces have taken a side in the great game and many factions wish to use them or destroy them.
One thing that Powers gets exactly right in Declare is the atmosphere of paranoia. How much can anyone be trusted? I was constantly guessing and second guessing at what could be really happening and Powers plays fair with the reader. There's no shadowy conspiracy that knows far more than it should; all sides are working with imperfect knowledge that they could have reasonably gathered and agents can't even be certain of how far they can trust their superiors.
Declare is also wonderfully paced. That's one of those things that are hard to appreciate in novels until you can see the difference between someone who has a deft handle on slowly dribbling out knowledge that changes the reader's perceptions and someone who plops infodumps on readers and moves the plot in a jagged fashion. Powers dumps out a jigsaw puzzle for the reader and fills in pieces at just the right point to pull you along. He drops hints and resolves them in a timely fashion; there's only a few things hinted at in the early chapters that the reader doesn't understand by the mid-point of the book but in those revelations new mysteries have been raised. Being able to structure a plot that smoothly is Powers's greatest skill.
Unfortunately I think the paranoid atmosphere and espionage structure harm characterization. When the reader can't trust any characters, even the narrator has to be suspect in this kind of book, it makes it more difficult to connect with them. I was interested in what they were doing but not in who they were.
So what we have in Declare is an interesting espionage novel attached to some not quite as interesting but still very well done fantasy elements. The overall effect I found to be good but your reaction is likely to be determined by your reaction to cold war novels. I recommend it since after this and Last Call I've added Powers to my list of authors who I want to read all of their output.