Friday, 3 May 2013

Review: Declare

Declare by Tim Powers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a long three-star book with a much shorter four-star book trapped inside it.

I was puzzled by the first half, until I read in the afterword that the author was a fan of John le Carre. I haven't read any of le Carre's books, but I understand they're considered slow-moving, with a lot of detail about the minutia of real-world spycraft and military equipment. That is exactly what Declare is, up to about half-way through, though with occasional hints of the supernatural.

Because I was reading a Tim Powers book, the supernatural was exactly what I was expecting, looking for, and hoping for, and it was only that hope that kept me going through the excessively detailed descriptions of absolutely everything.

In Declare, a man can't just get into a helicopter. We have to be told what make of helicopter it was, and what kind of engine it has ("There was no shaking or vibration from the engine, and Hale realized that it was some kind of turbine, not one of the piston engines that had powered the old Sikorskis and Bristols he had flown in after the war"), and that it has wooden rotors, even though none of this is relevant to anything. It's all atmosphere, and the atmosphere is so thick I found it hard to breathe.

There may not be such a thing as doing too much research, but there is certainly such a thing as sharing too much of your research with the reader. Connie Willis is often close to crossing that line. Tim Powers, in Declare, crosses it early on and never really crosses back.

What would have enhanced my enjoyment a lot more than knowing everything about every period reference and bit of military hardware would have been if Powers had taken a fraction of the trouble to get some basics of British English right, like using the term "aeroplane" instead of "airplane" (or "plane", if he needed a neutral version), not continually using the phrase "off of", and not having a very pretentious, very British man who was educated at Eton and Cambridge say "sure".

Apart from calling the Armenian man "Mammalian", which sounds like taking the piss, and muddling up the order in which events were narrated more than I felt was necessary, that's the sum of what I didn't like about the book. However, because it occurred throughout the book, and especially in the first half, it did reduce my enjoyment considerably.

On to what Powers has done well. He has constructed a brilliant and entertaining "secret history" around the documented life of Kim Philby, the real-life British double agent who defected to the Soviet Union. Philby himself is a minor character for the first half of the book, and a secondary character in the second half. The main character is the entirely fictional Andrew Hale, likeable for his loyalty, somewhat hapless, but competent and brave in a pinch.

The secret history even manages to explain why Philby and his colleague and fellow defector Guy Burgess were such unpleasant human beings.

The order of narration, as I said, isn't linear. My favourite Tim Powers book is The Anubis Gates, which involves time travel, so I knew that Powers was a master of weaving together plot threads from different time periods. However, I didn't think he needed to do it quite as much as he did here. It became a Dance of the Seven Veils, hinting at more to be revealed later without quite showing it. I suppose it helped me persevere through the bits I wasn't enjoying, so that may justify it.

I realize that the massive detail that I didn't like may be someone else's favourite thing, but if I had been Powers' editor I would have had him cut a good half of the first part of the book (which wouldn't have been that difficult), jump around less in time, and fix up the most obvious Americanisms.

If I had been the editor of the ebook edition that I read, by the way, I would have spellchecked it. It's obviously scanned from a print book, and although the scanning has worked well for the most part, there are frequently spaces in the middle of words where, presumably, they broke over line boundaries. It's one more irritation in a book that was already annoying me enough.

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