Hello, and sorry for the delay from last week. I wanted to finish the book and get over my cold. I have now done both these things. There was also some drama-brooding, but everyone has drama-brooding, so best get over it and do what I do best:
My verdict is as follows. Book of the year. Hands down, my pick for book of the year, unless there's a genre book that solves all the problems I've been brooding over, or grants all my fondest wishes or something right around the corner. This is easily one of the best things I've read. I'm kind of pissed off I don't own it.
The bad bits have to do with some pacing issues and a tendency Harkaway has to follow multiple threads until he can finally lock down what he's focusing on, but this in no way takes away from the overall presentation, which twists and turns its way along until finally the brake-lines get cut and the book slams home with a climax that is altogether surprising and satisfying. Full analysis below.
"I am not a subtle or a measured man. I am Crazy Joe Spork, and I will bring you down if I have to topple the house around us."
- Joe Spork
All together now:
Sweet hell. That is all*.
I first heard of Nick Harkaway when I came across a fuzzy pink book in Montclair Book Center, its green title bearing the words The Gone-Away World. While I didn't buy it right there, I bided my time and special-ordered it from a larger bookstore. Gone-Away World remains one of my favorite books, and for a variety of reasons that I shan't get into here. That's fodder for another review. When I heard he'd written a second novel, I took a look at it, took a look at my bank account...and promptly set it down for another day. Months later, having found it in The Strand, I once again put it down as I did not have enough money. These proved to be a big mistake, as I finally wanted to review it and had no copy. So finally I checked the local public library, which surprise of surprises happened to have a copy of it.
And now I am kicking myself for not having bought it the first two times it was presented to me, bank account be damned. Yes, dear friends, it's that good.
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway tells the story of Joe Spork, a rather unassuming clockmaker whose father used to be the greatest criminal in London. Not wanting to embrace the destiny his father lay out for him, Joe instead took the path of his grandfather and went into repairing clockworks and automata. He's good at it, and his life, though unrewarding, is comfortable. But then he gets an odd request from an old friend of his, a former associate from the criminal underground named Billy Friend, who gives him an odd clockwork book he calls a "whojimmy".
And then things get weird.
It turns out that the book is actually the trigger to a device that might reshape the universe, part of a plot by Edie Banister, a ninety year old lesbian** secret agent who's been posing as the kindly old lady Joe's been doing repair jobs for all this time. The device is used to unleash...something over the world, but no one's sure what exactly it's supposed to do. Suspicious characters start to call upon Joe for a variety of favors. A cult of mechanist-monks get very interested in Joe and his shop. People start to get horrified when Joe mentions his current project. An Asian supervillain may be involved in the whole mess. And then there are all the mechanical bees flying around and doing something to "reveal the truth of everything".
And if Joe is to survive it all and shut down the "Angelmaker" before it completes its mission, he is going to have to figure out what sort of man he is, and who, exactly, Joe Spork has to become. But with the help of his nigh-omniscient lawyer, a receptionist who seems much more interested in him as a lover than a client, and a rogues' gallery including renegade nuns and old-school criminals, he may just survive and live to fight another day.
The book's main strength is its theme. It's a book that is, from beginning to end, about the nature of identity and being true to one's inner nature. At some point, Joe has to stop running and being manipulated, and the book handles that very well. Everything plays to the central theme of identity-- from the constant conflict Joe has between being a clockmaker but having the knowledge of the criminal underground known as the "Night Market"; to the Ruskinite cult, who keep asking "If I have the mind of Napoleon and the body of Wellington, who am I?" When Joe finally decides to stop running, it's a momentous decision, and one that locks the theme of the book in place. What also helps the theme is the antagonist-- the clockwork bees that the "Angelmaker" works through dispense a sort of universal truth field...being true to everything and battering down the lies. Even the villain has a somewhat fluid concept of identity, though to say any more about such a thing would be revealing spoilers, and the best part of a Nick Harkaway book is when everything comes together.
Then there's the dialogue. All of it is very witty and very well-done. Mercer Cradle, Joe's lawyer, talks in a very plummy sort of way with a lot of "long words" as one character puts it. Joe keeps his sentences short, and his internal monologues long, but his dialogue is peppered with British criminal sayings, and continues to be as the book goes on. Polly, the receptionist who wants to be Joe's lover, states everything as matter-of-fact, with no room for any argument. I'm a sucker for dialogue, and I know I say this a lot, but distinct voice is something that I really appreciate, and all the characters have one. The villains are particularly sinister, each having a fairly gentle voice and yet saying such horrible things in it.
The plot elements come together really well, too. Harkaway may have issues with his pacing, but in the end, he does do a good job of introducing you to the plot, dropping you in, and then moving along in twists and turns until its eventual conclusion. The whole book is constructed as a sort of steampunk thriller taking place in the modern day, with secret criminal cabals and world domination-bent villains, and it works out very well. Between the philosophy, historical references, and the inevitable Pandora's box allusions, the plot packs itself full of interesting moments, never once relenting in either the detail overload or the twists that occur. When the plot starts coming together, you feel like you've been along for the ride, not dragged there, which makes it all the sweeter. Every loose end is tied up, every plot point explored, and it is fantastic.
However, there is that pacing. Much like his earlier book, Nick Harkaway has an issue with pacing and focus. It's better here than it was in The Gone-Away World, but the alternations on Edie Banister seemed unnecessary save for expository purposes, which, while informative and adding more to the world, also detracted from what is essentially Joe Spork choosing his own destiny and running headlong at it against all odds. While Edie plays a pivotal role in both that and the story of the Hakote/Angelmaker/Apprehension Engine, focusing for so long on her seems like it would best be served in another book.
But in the end, the book works far better than I could ever describe it, a mix of thriller, comedy, and straight-out futurism with mythological and philosophical underpinnings. All of it is glorious, and if you don't feel chills down your spine when the book hits its climax and barrels towards the ending, then I doubt your humanity. Buy this book. Buy it for your friends. Buy it for strangers. This is a fantastic book, and I am naming it my book of the year. It was fun from beginning to end, and I'm glad to have finally found it and read it, as we are in the presence of an author who doesn't just act in regular genres, but creates something new out of them***. Read this book, I don't care how. Treasure this damn book. Sweet hell. That is all.
NEXT SATURDAY: The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner
AND AFTER THAT:
Coverage of Comicon 2012
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
Railsea by China Mieville
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
*I may not be the best blog, or the most professional, but I'm the only one I know of with audience participation. Hah.
**Okay, so maybe she's more like a 5.5 on the Kinsey scale.