Review of Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

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I loved The Gone-Away World, as anyone who has read my review will realise. So when I managed to get my hands on Harkaway’s second book, I was delighted. Question is – can Harkaway manage to harness his exuberant prose and sprawling genre mash-up to provide the same breathtaking result?

All Joe Spork wants is a quiet life. He repairs clockwork and lives above his shop in a wet, unknown bit of London. The bills don’t always get paid and he’s single and has no prospects of improving his lot, but at least he’s not trying to compete with the reputation of Mathew ‘Tommy Gun’ Spork, his infamous criminal dad.

Edie Banister lives quietly and wishes she didn’t. She’s nearly ninety and remembers when she wasn’t. She’s a former superspy and now she’s… well… old. Worse yet, the things she fought to save don’t seem to exist anymore, and she’s beginning to wonder if they ever did.

These two main characters pick up this tale of an apocalyptic thriller, fantasy clockpunk, crime caper and spy noire with a Dickensian angelmakertwist – and plunge into this tale. All the things that Edie is, Joe isn’t. And alongside the story of the infernal machine with its golden bees (love the cover, by the way… fabulous!) it really is all about the progression of a struggling clockmaker, beset by guilt and anger over his father’s criminal past, into someone else. Do I feel completely comfortable at the transformation of a quiet, law-abiding man into a reckless lawbreaker? Well, yes, actually. Because it’s Fantasy… Had the prose, structure or characterisation set this book up to remotely reflect reality in any way – then I’d have felt a lot more ambivalent.

Harkaway’s prose is exactly NOT what modern readers are supposed to enjoy. There is more than a nod to a more florid 19th century style with plenty of descriptors scattered throughout; enjoyable and arresting imagery; long passages of descriptions, ranging from the physical appearance of all the main characters to every setting; slightly mannered and unrealistic dialogue – even the humour owes more to Dickens than, say, the likes of Pratchett. But this rich flavour, with the viewpoint veering towards the omniscient – another major no-no, in these days when the authorial voice is supposed to be completely subsumed by the thoughts and words of the protagonists – certainly works most of the time. And although there are sections in the first half where I feel that Harkaway’s writing does slightly silt up the pace, this may also reflect my personal preference for first person protagonists – I certainly don’t recall feeling the same sense of drift in The Gone-Away World, which was narrated in first person point of view.

However, the slightly old fashioned feel to the prose doesn’t mean that this is a cosy book – for all the rollicking adventuring feel, there are some gritty edges to this tale. There are lost loves, lives laid down in vain causes, cynically corrupt Governments – chiefly ours – where Justice is arbitrary and often unfair. There is also a prolonged episode of torture and plenty of graphic violence – and the larger-than-life feel to this book also extends to the darker aspects. Harkaway writes with passion about the lost souls in this tale, so we care because he demands that we do.

Any niggles? There are times during this monster read of over 550 pages, that Harkaway’s control does slip, and the prose stops singing off the page and instead slows everything down; where the dialogue stops being amusingly unexpected and becomes annoying; and where the authorial voice becomes a tad insistent. Overall, though, Harkaway successfully negotiates his way through this ambitious novel and ties everything up completely satisfactorily – which when working on such a large scale is a major achievement. If you haven’t yet treated yourself to this book, go and find a copy – it’ll certainly help you recover from the post-Olympic blues…
8/10

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