Tag Archives: clockpunk

Review of Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway


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…

Review of Mainspring by Jay Lake


This interesting science fiction, alternate history offering is a twist on the steampunk genre that has become so popular. In Lake’s detailed world the big difference is that God has constructed a clockwork Earth that runs on huge brass runners that follow the equator in the form of a huge wall – so here is an example of clockpunk.

Her Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria still rules New England and her American Possessions; the Royal Navy rules the skies with its might Airships; and Earth still turns on God’s great brass gears of Heaven as it makes its orderly passage around the Lamp of the Sun from Midnight to Midnight and Year to Year.

In the town of New Haven, a Clockmaker’s young apprentice is visited at midnight by a brass Angel, and told that he, and he alone, can find the Key Perilous to rewind the Mainspring of the Earth. If he does not, the planet will wind down, and life will cease.

mainspringAnd there you have it. A classic Quest plot, complete with naïve yet obscurely talented youngster, who finds himself ranged against forces far greater than his own slender resources… Cosily familiar in so many ways. And this is no accident. In tone and plot progression, this book relies on many forerunners of the Hero Quest genre – I was reminded of H. Rider Haggard’s novels when reading this book.

Hethor is an excellent young hero, whose initial assumptions become thoroughly overturned as he progresses through a series of engrossing adventures – including a gripping interlude on an airship, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Told in limited third person POV, the success of this ambitious book lies in Lake’s storytelling skills and ability to weave a complex world through the eyes of an inexperienced youngster without losing pace. No mean feat. And one that Lake pulls off with surefootedness that marks him out as One To Watch.

It takes great technical ability to meld modern tastes with a writing style that more than nods in the direction of its 19th century forebears – and Lake avoids the pitfalls that could have so easily turned Mainspring into a stodgy-though-at-times interesting tale, or wincingly embarrassing read. And if I write that with feeling – it’s because I’ve read them when dipping into the steampunk genre, and a major reason why it isn’t my favourite sub-genre.

Lake manages to immerse us in a Victorian experience without offending modern sensibilities by reprising the darker side of colonial adventuring that makes us uncomfortable these days when we read Haggard’s hero interacting with African inhabitants. He shows the same sensibility when Hethor falls in love – it wouldn’t have taken much to have marred the whole relationship by portraying a sense of superiority by the youngster.

Any grizzles? Well – there are some jarring moments. We always have a sense that Hethor is somehow uniquely talented in being able to sense the clockwork turning of the Earth, but this specialness is never fully explored. And a couple of times, I do feel that Lake leans far too heavily on Hethor’s abilities without actually properly explaining exactly what is going on. It’s a shame, as there are so many aspects of the world-building that are so slickly executed that I don’t believe that Lake didn’t actually know what propelled Hether to be able to do these things – I think these details just got buried in the plot momentum.

During all the adventuring, I was also fascinated by the questions thrown up by the failure in Earth’s mainspring – if God is such a perfect being, why has he produced a fault in the mainspring that creates the deaths of hundreds and thousands of people? Hethor has to work towards his own answers to that question – amid his interaction with some interesting antagonists who have come to a different conclusion.

If you are a fan of steampunk or alternate worlds, then this is a must-read novel. And if you aren’t – then try it anyway. As a slice of high octane adventure in a wonderfully described alternate world it takes a lot of beating.