I came to Tim Powers’ Declare on the strength of a friend’s recommendation, and also Charles Stross’ comparison to his own work in The Atrocity Archives. Although the subject matter of espionage plus supernatural elements was certainly similar to Stross’ “Laundry” novels, I was surprised to find myself comparing Declare to a very different, and altogether more popular book: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Both are bulky, character-oriented novels rooted in the socio-political frames of particular periods; both are self-consciously English; both have emotional depth; both mix in some real historical persons as characters; both introduce their central supernatural elements in a gradual manner; and in both cases those elements are anchored in archaic intelligences and their complex relations with humanity. I would even compare the narrative role that Powers assigns to T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) to that occupied by the Raven King in Clarke’s book. And both Powers and Clarke are performing a comparable sort of transcendent pastiche: adding magic to the LeCarre spy thriller on the one hand and to the Austen saga of realist satire on the other. Powers gets more points for fidelity to history, Clarke for verisimilitude of magic.
Comparisons aside, I did very much enjoy Declare. It was not a flawless book. There was a certain attribution of supernatural efficacy to Christian piety and sacraments that was never properly justified, and I occasionally found a sentence in laughable need of easy repair. (An example of both from p. 486: “He opened his mouth to speak the first words of the Our Father, but realized that he had forgotten them.”) But there is a healthy and profitable use of dramatic irony — attentive readers can stay a half-step ahead of the central characters — and Powers manages to instill a real numinosity into the higher orders of espionage that he invents for World War II and the Cold War. The psychology of double-agency is a long-standing interest of mine, and Powers makes it central to his novel in a way that I appreciated. The recruitment and induction of spies (“agent-runners”) is presented through an explicitly initiatory framework that should be accessible and engaging to those who share those interests with me as well.