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Saturdays in Books

Reviews of speculative fiction, YA, middle grade, and graphic novels, along with stray thoughts, links, and pictures.

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The SFWA European Hall of Fame: Sixteen Contemporary Masterpieces of Science Fiction from the Continent
Kathryn Morrow, James K. Morrow

Review: Declare

Declare - Tim Powers

Note: I have tried to write a review for this book like 6 times now, and even though I recognize that this is a very good book, I keep writing long rambling complaints about it. So I'm adding this note up front - I did like it, the 4 star rating isn't a mistake. Apparently, though, I only want to talk about the parts that annoyed me. 


Declare is a thriller set in an alternate history world that only grants names to a handful of women, and the chosen one is either a white dude or a slightly different white dude. Inconspicuous is the name of the game, which is why the only woman who ever gets to be a POV character has a successful career as a covert operative even after her hair turns shockingly white in her early 20’s. 


(Possibly because she’s the only female spy whose name we ever actually get? The part where Hale’s handler states that one of the foreign agents at a location of interest is a woman, and it might be her kind of made me laugh out loud. Of course it’s her, dude, doesn’t it go without saying that it’s her? Has it ever not been her, ever?)


Also, there’s some supernatural horror stuff.


Early on in this book, I said this would have been shelved as PNR if it had been written by a woman. I stand by that assessment. It bears so many of the hallmarks of the genre, from the “love triangle” that only really has one solution, to sexual availability in another woman marking her as evil, to the HEA being the focus of the last act.


Somewhere in these 534 well researched, well-constructed pages is a novel I would love without reservation. How could I not love something with these strange horrifying creatures? Alas, that novel is about half the length. It’s one of the better romance novels I’ve read. That just isn’t my genre. I suspect secret history may also not be my genre. I continue to be a poor student of history. I really felt like the attention to those details was working against me more so than the romance. That, or maybe information control at the expense of more interesting POV choices?


The first half – oh, god, the first half reads like an exercise in keeping anything I might find fascinating just off the page – is told entirely from one POV character, who is the least informed person in any room. The first half spends agonizing time detailing a romance subplot and failing to portray this protagonist as competent for any sort of covert mission. It’s hundreds of pages of him reacting to stuff he doesn’t know about and discussing poetry, politics, and religion with the only woman besides his mother he’s ever had more than one conversations with. 


If it hadn’t been cut together in such a nonlinear fashion, I would have just wandered off in boredom before getting to the good parts. Even so, the lengthy stretch of time spent in wartime Paris where his time is spent almost entirely sitting in a closet falling madly in love with a woman who is actually out getting shit done? Which we mostly know about through his recollections of her telling him about her day? If I hadn’t trapped myself on two international flights with this, I still might not have made it.


Seriously, I should have at least gotten a sex scene out of having to read through that whole Paris section. But, like the djinn and the details of Hale’s failed mission, obviously that was off the page.


Eventually, she’s a POV character, but that’s around 70% of the way through the book. Seventy percent of the way through 500+ pages. I COULD HAVE GOTTEN PARIS FROM HER POV?!?!?


Would having Elena as a POV character have helped the first half? We eventually get her backstory, but not until fairly late in the book. After we’ve already seen two different men’s version of obsession with her. After we’ve seen those two play a hand of cards with her as a prize.


The second half, though. Fucking amazing. At some point along the way, Hale learned to use a gun and be a spy. And Philby. Jesus, what a douchbag.


I enjoyed the second half quite a bit.


Well, mostly. There’s still the part where most of the mysteries in the novel are all answered in a single chapter by a man telling Hale what’s what because he's spent his entire life figuring out nothing. On the plus side, Hale does get punched in the face a few times during the conversation.


Also, can I ramble a bit about the representation of women in this book? It’s not actually bad, it’s just not good.  


Until it’s just hilarious.


I suppose I should be happy that the occasional background person happens to be female. Honestly, it was nice to see that not every random person Hale encountered was male. But. When the only two women besides the love interest who make more than one appearance are the mother (who dies when he’s a child) and a mysterious evil woman who issues invitations of a sexual nature . . . well.


There are a few other women on the planet, including the woman who approaches Hale to enlist him as a communist operative, but more often than not, they’re more backdrop than character. Even the ones with names aren’t usually present or mentioned more than a single time. The ones who are actual, real women are just included as set dressing for the secret history, and are more likely to be thought about than actually in a scene.


A woman named Sabri Khan makes an appearance around the 65% mark. She walks into a room, turns around, and walks back out of the room.


That’s all she does.


I am not kidding even a little.


That is just one of the many jokes the book makes about its own lack of representation.

Like that time Hale is set up by a pretty girl from St. Hilda’s College? He should have realized something was hokey when, even though her invitation arrived by post, she didn’t get a name.


Here are a few more:

“Don’t write them down, but remember them. One day Theodora will as you about them.”

“Yes, sir, I will, sir.” Andrew was simply postponing the effort of trying to imagine some no doubt frightening looking woman named Theodora interrogating him about his dreams at some future date.

Obviously, the punch line to this gag is that Theodora is the last name of the man he’ll eventually report to.

Hale was entranced with the Dublin accent of one Iris Murdoch, but she was an elegant twenty-two-year-old Somerville student, and he couldn’t imagine suggesting to her that she come out for tea with him sometime.

Hilariously, Iris Murdoch never actually says anything in this book. This sentence is the entirety of her existence in the book. Isn’t her accent charming? Murdoch is a real person, so her inclusion is part of building that well-constructed secret history, but I’m still going to laugh at how she’s included. As a woman whose defining trait isn’t even used on the page.


Even having said all this, I’m giving Declare a lot of stars. I can’t deny that it is a brilliant, amazing work. I would have preferred the version that was a fast paced supernatural spy thriller. I would have preferred the version that had more POV characters sooner.