“The world was getting old and cruel. The great game she had played, the wild, primary-colour roller coaster, had become something harsher. It wasn’t brother monarchs scoring points any more, or empires testing one another, or Vell played, Commander, but vee vill get you next time, you may be sure … What difference does it make if one crowned head replaces another? What matter if the Queen’s nephew displaces the Queen? But now it was different. It was about ideas, and fed by science. An idea could never die. A city, though, could burn, and its people.” (p. 293)
Torn between two family legacies, Londoner Joe Spork turned his back on the glamourous gangster life personified by his father Mathew and instead became a clockwork artificer like his grandfather Daniel. Old age pensioner Edie Banister is a retired spy who fought the Great Game for King and Country across Europe and Asia through the early part of the Twentieth Century, attempting to stop the Opium Khan Shem Shem Tsien. When a very strange, beautiful and exceedingly well-crafted artifact comes into his possession, a clockwork book beloved of a cult called the Ruskinites, Joe finds himself at the centre of a battle for the future of the planet, and must team up with the re-activated Edie and embrace his dormant gangster heritage to save the day.
In the interest of full disclosure, I found myself unable to finish reading Nick Harkaway’s first novel, The Gone-Away World, when I tried it earlier this year. I found the collision of a post-apocalyptic landscape, ninja battles and long-haul trucking just too much to keep hold of in my mind as I read it, so I approached his followup Angelmaker with a little bit of trepidation. Luckily, I couldn’t have been more wrong, as this is a fantastic novel, filled to the brim with eccentric characters and fun detail. It has actually made me want to try again with Gone-Away World, maybe some time in the New Year.
What Angelmaker does incredibly well is balance trappings, characters and events that could have come right out of a Sax Rohmer or Lester Dent pulp saga with the realism, language and character development we have come to expect from “literary” fiction. The result is a super-fun and thoughtful book that is turbocharged with elements that could have easily come off as a pastiche in less skilled hands. The book demonstrates that Harkaway knows exactly why pulp is such a powerful mode to work in, and Joe Spork and Edie Banister are instantly likeable as characters. Their world, which at first seems somewhat drab and boring like our own, soon fills up with adventure and intrigue, as the plot ramps up like a runaway train.
Indeed, as the situation on the city streets starts to warm up and Joe starts to take hold of his gangster legacy, the propulsive, evocative language used by Harkaway starts to resemble that found in books by two of my favourite authors, China Mieville (Perdido Street Station) and Brian Francis Slattery (Spaceman Blues). Harkaway’s got an incredible ear for dialogue, and I found myself really enjoying the Londoner thieves’ argot. It’s also fun to see the heroes of Britain’s golden gangster age come back into the world, which has grown soft on white-collar crime and computers. Harkaway’s evocation of the London Underground through flashbacks to Mathew’s past, and glimpses at the much-diminished Tosher’s Beat and Night Market of the present era are wonderful to read.
I also really enjoyed the inversion of English spy novel stereotypes in the form of Commander Edie Banister, both in her aged present, and in her wild youth. The flashbacks to her past adventures have an almost gender-swapped James Bond quality to them, both in the actions she takes against a megalomaniac bent on world domination and the frequent female companionship Edie finds along the way. Apparently there’s a short story out there with more Edie adventures, and I’d like to read it as soon as I can. In the present, Edie’s knowledge of tradecraft is still very vital, even though her body is not, and the way she deals with crises is very entertaining.
You can really feel the quintessential Englishness Harkaway is playing with here, as he slams together the genre of spy adventure with London crime. I did find myself wishing I knew more about John Ruskin, though, as his theories about design form the ideology of the main antagonists of the book, the Order of John the Maker aka Ruskinites. A little bit more explanation of his worldview of perfectly-designed machines would have made the first half of the book much easier to grasp. Also, while Edie and her erstwhile lover/genius superscientist Frankie Fossoyer are well-fleshed out female characters, I found the figure of Polly, a childhood friend of Joe-turned-femme fatale paralegal, to be more of a collection of cool/sexy cliches than a real person. Still, if you’re a fan of thoughtful stories with a decidedly pulpy bent, this is a great book.