Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway, is a wonderful, fun book that’s almost impossible to categorize. It’s science fiction, sort of, it’s steampunk, sort of, it’s alternate history, sort of, it’s a takeoff on your classic James Bond book, sort of . . .It’s in a class by itself, or at least in a class with very few others like it.
The book is about preventing the end of the world.
No, the book is about a man discovering his true heritage and embracing his father’s legacy.
No, the book is about the dangers of ultimate truth.
No, the book is about all the amazing and unbelievable things going on that most of us never realize or imagine.
See what I mean? Every one of those statements is true, but none of them is the complete truth.
It begins with Joe Spork, an unassuming clockmaker who happens to be the son of an infamous gangster, Matthew “Tommy Gun” Spork, and the grandson of a famous clockmaker. He’s living a quiet life in London, trying to keep his head down and become as little like his father as possible.
However, his path crosses that of Edie Bannister, an elderly lady with a demented and grotesque little dog (the dog, Bastion, plays a big part in the plot). She seems perfectly harmless, but appearances can be deceiving, because in her youth she was a great spy and even now she has the key to a machine that could in fact destroy the world, and she uses Joe to set that machine in motion.
You’re probably thinking of something huge and destructive when I mention a doomsday machine, something like a thermonuclear bomb or worse. You will be surprised, then, to learn that the device is actually a truth machine, and it’s operated by these little gold clockwork bees in hives all around the world.
It’s this kind of surprising playing with expectations that makes this book such a delight to read. As Joe inadvertently turns on the machine, he finds himself in a world of trouble, chased by murky government agents as well as creepy automaton-like cultists, helped by Edie and by his father’s law firm (and I have to say right here that I LOVED the lawyer, Mercer, who helps Joe, and that if Stuart Woods’ character, Stone Barrington, had half the power and cleverness Mercer has, he would be a happy man), Polly (Mercer’s sister, who becomes Joe’s partner in more ways than one), a monk in the Ruskinite cult, and a group of former associates of Joe’s gangster father.
And of course there is a supervillain, because there would have to be in a book like this. He is Shem Shem Tsien, a handsome, incredibly intelligent and agile sociopath, an arch nemesis of Edie’s from decades ago and a nemesis of Joe’s for reasons that become clear late in the book. Most supervillains just want to rule the world, but Shem Shem Tsien has bigger ambitions: he wants to be God. He wants to take over the whole universe and, thanks to the device Joe has set in motion, he may actually succeed.
In addition to the riveting plot and the wonderfully quirky characters (many of them women: Edie herself is a prize, and Polly is great fun, but there’s also Joe’s mother, now a nun, and Dotty Catty, Shem Shem Tsien’s mother, among others), the book is alive with great descriptions: the creepy place where the device is kept, the Ada Lovelace, a handmade train with surprising powers, the court of Shem Shem Tsien, the underground market and so forth. The author brings this whole wacky world to life and makes it believable and worth saving.
Set aside a block of time and give yourself the pleasure of reading Angelmaker. You won’t be disappointed.