Thursday, December 13, 2018

Review of Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (2012, Windmill Books)

Joe Spork is the son of a master-criminal, who when he wasn’t conducting daring robberies was running London’s Night Market, a secret place to fence stolen wares. His grandfather was a master-horologist, repairing all manner of clocks and clockwork machines. Joe has chosen to turn his back on father’s mobster world and follow in his grandfather’s footsteps, though he remains friends with some of his father’s associates. His world, however, is turned upside down by Edie, an octogenarian superspy, a secret government department, a cultish group of engineers known as the Ruskinites, the psychopathic ruler of an Indian state, and a complex, clockwork Doomsday machine built by a genius Frenchwoman for the British in the 1950s. Unwittingly, Joe re-activates the machine, triggering several international incidents and making himself the number one most wanted man in Britain. Joe is the only person who can save the world, but he’s well out of his depth and everyone seems to be conspiring against him except for his father’s associates, their law firm, and the woman of his dreams.

It's kind of difficult to describe Angelmaker. The publisher goes with “gangster noir meets howling absurdist comedy”. I think ‘science fiction, thriller, spy adventure and romance’ can be added to that. It’s a big, ambitious tale spanning seventy years, rooted in the exploits of Edie Banister, a British superspy, a kind of female version of James Bond, a genius Frenchwoman who sees the world as numbers and constructs fantastic clockwork machines, and a psychopathic ruler of an Indian state who has ambitions to become a god. Into the legacy of their world is dragged Joe Spork, the son of a master-criminal, and grandson of a master-horologist, who would like to live a nice quiet life. Unhappy with how the world has turned out, Edie tricks Joe into re-activating a Doomsday machine that seeks to improve the world but actually causes personal harm and international incidents. Despite being a patsy, Joe is suddenly a marked man, pursued by a shady government department and a group of mad monks. Harkaway tells the story through two main threads: one following the exploits of Joe Spork as he tries to stay alive and fix the mess he’s created; the other providing a detailed backstory of Edie, her spy career and the history of the Doomsday machine. Woven into the mix are a number of subplots. The result is a sprawling tale packed with invention, philosophy and action. The characters are very nicely developed and some of the set pieces are delightfully done. The plot is clever, multi-layered and complex, yet straightforward to follow. If you like to wallow in thick description, then you’ll love the attention to detail and expansive narrative. Personally, I would have liked it to be tightened up a little throughout, especially in the first two thirds, which felt a little uneven, bloated and indulgent, consisting of interlinked set pieces and containing material that had no real bearing on the story and slowed the momentum of what felt like it should be a thriller. Thankfully the latter third was more even and rooted in the tale. Overall, an engaging and fun, if overly long, read.

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