Powers, for more than 20 years the reigning king of adult historical fantasy (Earthquake Weather, 1997, etc.), surpasses himself—and enters richly promising new territory—with this intricate, inventive tale of Cold War skullduggery and close encounters with malevolent supernatural entities.
The increasingly Byzantine action begins in 1963, when a telephone message delivered in code draws Oxford lecturer (and “retired” secret agent) Andrew Hale back into an intrigue that dates from his wartime service. The narrative thereafter shifts among that present time and several past sequences—the most crucial being a 1948 disaster on Mount Ararat, when men under Hale’s command were slaughtered by enemy forces not of this earth. As Hale reenters the duplicitous world of international espionage, Powers gradually reveals the hidden meanings of his former relationships with sinister “contacts” (such as his superior at Whitehall, double-talking James Theodora, and wily Armenian powerbroker Hakob Mammalian); femme fatale Elena Cezina-Bendiga, a Spanish Civil War heroine and passionate Communist (“The Soviet State is my husband, and I am a devoted, obedient wife”); and the historical Kim Philby, the notorious double agent, whose career and personal history eerily parallel Andrew Hale’s. T.E. Lawrence also figures here, as do the biblical Ark and various personages and (shifting) “shapes” from The Arabian Nights, as the story careens across Europe and the Middle East, with illuminating side trips to Berlin, Paris, and London during WW II. All this is expertly linked to Operation Declare, designed by British Intelligence to subvert “the Soviet attempt to awaken what slept uneasily on the top of Mount Ararat” and unleash its destructive powers. Echoes of Pynchon’s V and Gravity’s Rainbow (there are many) aside, this is an exciting work, of great originality—and its force is heightened by the skill with which the elusive Philby is characterized and Hale and Elena both made believably complex and potentially tragic figures.
There’s never been a novel quite like Declare (though comparisons to Neal Stephenson’s recent Cryptonomicon will doubtless be made): one of the protean Powers’s most absorbing and rewarding creations.