Andrew Hale, the protagonist of Tim Powers' new novel, is uprooted from his comfortable position as an Oxford professor by a coded telephone call, bringing the past into sharp relief. Recruited as a young boy, via a mysterious family history, into an even-more-clandestine-than-usual section of the British secret service, Hale was encouraged to join the Communist Party as World War II began. Arrest and a seeming defection led to a posting in occupied Paris with a fellow Soviet agent, Elena Ceniza-Bendiga, and introduced Hale to elements far beyond the scope of normal espionage. A series of encounters with double agents and supernatural manifestations punctuated the agent's career, leading to a disastrous mission in Turkey in 1948. Now Hale learns that Operation Declare has been reopened and his duty is to complete the task he began decades before.
In various interviews, fantasy writer Tim Powers has stated his dual thought process for approaching a new topic: 1) "there is no such thing as coincidence"; and 2) "but what were they doing, really?" At a recent appearance in a San Mateo bookstore to promote his new novel, the author whispered conspiratorially [okay, he claimed he had developed laryngitis during the tour, driving South from Seattle with his wife Serena, but this delivery was singularly appropos] about the increasingly bizarre elements he discovered in doing research on the life and career of British double agent Kim Philby, who plays a major part in the novel.
Philby's father's own career and the two men's connections to the Middle East eventually drew in the exploits of T. E. Lawrence, djinn out of The 1,001 Arabian Nights, the Dead Sea scrolls, Mount Ararat, mystic elements of Catholicism, Bedouins in the Arabian desert, and immortality-producing plants, all of which -- and more -- are included in the novel's plot. In the Powers Cold War universe, the Soviet Union is sustained by supernatural powers and the British are well aware of this, arming their agents with protective ankhs as well as fake passports.
Although the story abounds with the author's signature supernatural confrontations and excesses of weirdness, Declare is well-plotted and cohesive, even within the series of flashback episodes which bring the reader through Hale's past adventures to the final efforts of the operation. Andrew Hale himself is one of the author's best-drawn and sympathetic characters (and who, incidentally, keeps all of his body parts). In addition to the growing audience of fantasy readers who appreciate Powers' unique contributions to this genre, Declare will also appeal to fans of John Le Carré, The Sandbaggers and other depictions of Cold War espionage with all of its glorious double-dealing and paranoia.
One of Powers' strengths as a writer is that his research and plot construction are so thorough that, at least while you are reading the story, even the most fantastic elements seem not only real, but obvious. If we don't actually live in a world with these wonders, the reader can rejoice that someone with the intellectual curiosity and enthusiastic imagination of Tim Powers is available to create these worlds for us.