Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

angelmakerThis complex, multi-layered novel is a combination of steampunk fantasy and spy thriller with a healthy slug of Victorian engineering and clockwork technology. It features Joe Spork, an unlikely, reluctant hero, whose quiet life – he’s a horologist – and his background as the son of a mobster – don’t predispose him to risk or danger of any sort. He knows (or thinks he knows) where they can lead and he does his best to avoid them. He devotes his time to keeping his struggling business going and waging war on a local cat, whose mission in life is to cause him as much trouble as a cat can. Despite himself, over the course of this meaty novel, he becomes a super-hero, in whose hands the future of the universe lies. Although Nick Harkaway’s touch with character occasionally lets him down, when it comes to Joe, he doesn’t falter. Joe is sometimes passive and often hapless, but he’s always sympathetic.

Joe’s part of London is unnamed, but damp, near the river and very distinctly London, as are many of the other locations in the novel. Those who enjoy the London novel as a genre in its own right will probably appreciate Angelmaker’s strong sense of place and Harkaway’s flair for location. The personality of the city comes through, along with its energy and its dark side. While Joe’s London is not like ours, it runs parallel with it and some things are the same. One of those things is the sense of a thriving underworld, which is both at odds with officialdom and interdependent with it. Another is the sense of a world that is falling off its axis; in our world, we think of climate change, an over-mighty state and colony collapse among honeybees. In the world of Angelmaker, some of those things are prevalent in the way we understand them. The case of Jean Charles de Menenzes is alluded to for example. However, others manifest themselves with a steampunk twist; there is a problem with clockwork bees which goes to the heart of the existential threat facing the world and the wider universe.

Running parallel with Joe’s story is that of Edie Bannister, sometime spy with a career dating back to the Second World War and Bletchley Park and now a very elderly lady. Edie is on her own with her memories and her dog Bastion, a blind, heroically belligerent little pug. In one important respect, Edie is more of a superhero at the outset than Joe; she has an arch-nemesis, a super-villain by the name of Shem Shem Tsien, although that is only one of the names he goes by. He is the archetypal cultured barbarian, a man who combines the glamour of a matinee idol with the demeanour of an Ottoman potentate. He loves power; the possession and the use of it delight him as ends in themselves and he will do anything, no matter how horrific, to get it. In Joe’s time, he is in pursuit of the Apprehension Engine or Angelmaker, but first, he has to get past Edie Bannister.

Their relationship is an odd one, a sort of ritualised dance which echoes courtship as they pursue and attempt to kill each other. It has been going on for such a long time it is hard to imagine either of them being complete without the other, although the ultimate end has to be one (or both) of their deaths. It is a tantalising relationship, but I found Edie more compelling than Tsien; the basis for his malevolence is a little thin and some readers might find that as villains go, he is more Fu Manchu than Lord Voldemort. He could, in fact, be deemed a little stereotypical, but my biggest problem  with him was the lack of any motivation beyond his enjoyment of power and his loathing of anyone who tries to take it from him.

However, just as Edie has certain advantages, so does Shem Shem Tsien. He has his Ruskinites, a body of monks, whose philanthropic origins have long been obscured. They now dedicate themselves to the pursuit of cosmic mayhem and the opportunities it offers the right or the wrong people. There is a whiff of the Dementors about these dreadful, shadowy beings, however, unlike them, they are not just floating rags, they can talk and communicate with their victims. Joe’s first encounter with one, early in the novel, is a horrible warning of trouble to come.

Angelmaker is a feast for the imagination and if Harkaway’s  characterisation is sometimes a little weak, the novel has enough plot and background detail to keep it barrelling along.

Cornerstone Digital. 2012.  ISBN: B006ZWWFHS. London. 478pp

3 comments on “Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

  1. Kate
    December 13, 2012

    I’m amazed: folk are STILL writing Fu Manchu villains of the Orient? That might explain your feeling of stereotyping and poor characterisation, because once a character is parked in a category, there ain’t no hope except cliché and predictability. What a shame. The rest of the book sounds excellent.

  2. Jackie
    December 13, 2012

    This book does sound intriguing, especially with the animal characters so well drawn. But I’m a little leery that the villain & his minions might frighten me. (I’m such a wimp) I have been wanting to read some Steampunk novels, so I might have a look at this one to see if I could handle it.

  3. Jackie
    December 13, 2012

    Forgot to say how eye-catching that cover is. The colors & repeated circular composition with the bees & gramaphone is very arty & Steampunky.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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