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BOOK REVIEWS: September 2000
By Paula Guran

DECLARE
Tim Powers
Edition Reviewed:
Subterranean Press Limited: ISBN 1-892284-79-0/ 544p/$75/ No longer available
Released January 9, 2001
William Morrow/ 528p / $24
ISBN: 0380976528

book cover Tim Powers' DECLARE is both a typical and atypical offering from the talented author. Typically, he combines myth, folklore, magic, accurate history, and his vastly inventive imagination to deliver an intelligent and entertaining novel. But this time he reaches new heights as he fuses a tight but far-ranging espionage plot worthy of John LeCarre with a magical cosmology so "logical" that even Tom Clancy might believe it, Of such stuff are new genres created (Dare we suggest spypunk?). It's 1963 and former British agent Andrew Hale is summoned via coded phone message from his quiet life as an Oxford lecturer back to the "Great Game". As the 1963 plot progresses and Hale's character emerges, the reader also learns of Hale's mysterious background as well as his training and participation in super-secret World War II and postwar missions designed to contain the power of the Soviet Union. And not just political power, but a supernatural power of immense proportion: As Powers has termed it: "Tradecraft meets Lovecraft." The fictional hidden story revolves around the historic Kim Philby, the notorious British traitor, and involves Philby's father, St. John Philby, T. E. Lawrence, the Dead Sea Scrolls, a couple of British prime ministers, and a vegetable soup of spy organizations -- the SIS, MI5, the KGB and GRU, and the French SDECE -- set in London, Kuwait, Berlin, Paris, Moscow, the deserts of Arabia, Mount Ararat, and places in between. Rich characterization, a poignant love story, enthralling adventure, and breathtaking suspense forge this Arabian Nights meets Cold War spies novel into a fascinating tour de force. Powers has created fantasy so plausible it will alter the reader's perception of reality and history. Brilliant.

MOON ON THE WATER: SELECTED STORIES 1972-1999
Mort Castle
DarkTales/ 175p./ $20
ISBN 0-9672029-9-X

book cover Mort Castle knows his craft. Each of the stories in MOON ON THE WATER is a prime example of the late twentieth century American short story. Concise, honed to perfection, Castle's stories range from a dark sentimentality to the mordantly funny. A man lies mortally wounded and facing death in "If You Take My Hand, My Son," but the story makes brings laughter as well as tears. Castle turns a dark slice of all-too-American history, it's prejudice and bloodshed, into a moving tale with "Buckeye Jim in Egypt." The metafictional "Dani's Story" is about "darkness junkies" -- horror writers -- as well as modern life's horror. Castle hits his most poetic and true stride when using jazz as both metaphor and mood as in the elegiac "Bird's Dead" (original to the collection) or lyrical (and eponymous) "Moon on the Water." The tales interweave to an extent and the author quietly builds his vision of the American Dream -- or rather nightmare. The true dream -- and reward for the reader -- is found in the fine writing.

PUNKTOWN
Jeffrey Thomas
Ministry of Whimsy/ 118p / $11.99
ISBN 1-8904-X

book cover In these nine stories set in a noir-ish future on another world, Jeffrey Thomas hangs the flesh of human emotion on a skeleton of science fiction. Sci-fi is only the bare bones; horror is the sinew, muscle and flesh as PUNKTOWN is not so much a societal exploration as an investigation of the human (or near-human) soul. The tropes here are familiar -- clones, memory implant chips, a creature who thrives on the death-throes of its ritually murdered victims, robotic musicians. The language and ambiance is almost too familiar as Thomas's supposedly other-worldly characters drink coffee and mocha cappuccino, smoke cigarettes, use pistols and spray paint, celebrate Christmas and Halloween; some keep to ancient Japanese customs, others wear tuxedos or ski hats; they work as gangsters, artist, cops. Some of the stories are also evocative of stories we already know -- "Immolation" is similar to P.K. Dick's DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?; "The Palace of Nothingness" is reminiscent of Thomas Ligotti; there's something Michael Marshall Smith-ish about a couple of them -- but all-in-all they are emotionally effective, well-told stories with vivid characters. P>


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