BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Clock repairman Joe Spork finds himself pitted against seemingly insurmountable odds when he unwittingly activates a doomsday weapon.
PROS: Original, humorous, lovable characters, and charmingly quaint.
CONS: Takes some time to build up steam and ends rather weakly.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a delightful genre mash-up, the likes of which you are unlikely to find anywhere else.
Joe Spork is a clock repairman, working out of his grandfather’s old warehouse and hiding from a criminal legacy. Joe’s father was the most notorious gangster in all of England in his day, a King of Crooks. Joe has chosen a different path, the path of his grandfather the clock repairman. All his adult life Joe has followed the law and tried to be as inconsequential as possible. But when Joe inadvertently starts the apocalypse it seems as though the universe is conspiring against him. If Joe is to survive and escape the clutches of violent monks and determined government agents operating in the legal grey he will need to fall back on the heritage he has tried so desperately to bury.
Angelmaker is the second novel of Nick Harkaway and comes lauded with praise from such authors as William Gibson and Patrick Ness. Angelmaker is a curious sort of book, a conglomeration of multiple genres and the product of intricate plotting and deep characterization. It is very much so a “literary” sort of novel but remains enjoyable throughout and stays true to the pulp roots which no doubt inspired it. I was so impressed with Harkaway’s writing that halfway through reading Angelmaker I threw down real money to order a copy of his first novel, Gone-Away World. This is the type of fiction that makes you appear smarter for reading. Pulp for the discerning literati in us all, as it were.
Joe Spork is a wonderful character. With a name like that how could you expect any less? Joe is on the wrong side of age thirty-five and still has little idea of who he is as a person. Joe has forsaken his criminal legacy in an attempt to emulate his grandfather. He lives a normal, if somewhat boring, life. As a clock repairman Joe has skills that were marketable a hundred years ago but are now quaint and more than a bit sad. It is these skills however that land Joe in the most dreadful of situations. Joe unintentionally fixes and activates a clockwork doomsday weapon at the behest of his less-than-legitimate friend Billy. This act sets in effect a series of events that will not only change the world, but will also transform Joe. I really appreciate this. I love characters that develop and Joe is no exception. The conversion Joe must make in order to defeat evil and save the day is very well written. Joe is a sympathetic character but a bit of a door-mat to begin with and it is nice to watch him grow into the man he was always meant to be. Angelmaker is a coming of age story in a sense. It is also a story of family.
Joe Spork isn’t the only lovable character within the pages of Angelmaker. Edie Bannister, the octogenarian former spy is also quite enjoyable. The story is split between the perspective of both characters, with Edie’s WWII flashbacks filling in much of the story. The next best character is probably Polly, perhaps the most forward woman ever born. Edie and Polly join the ranks of literature’s best strong females, women of consequence. Mercer Cradle is just the sort of fellow to finally give lawyers a good name. There are more colorful heroes that form an adoptive family of sorts, really strengthening the familial theme of Angelmaker. . The villains are also fun, from the duty bound Rodney Titwhistle and Arvin Cummberbund to the nefarious Opium Khan Shem Shem Tsien.
The plot is as colorful and intricate as the people that inhabit it. The emphasis on clockwork in a modern world populated by laptops and iPhones is charming. I experienced a bout of nostalgia for the days of handmade machines and I wasn’t even alive during that period. This is the beautiful frame for the gangster noir and espionage elements. All the gears move in unison, and support each other with unexpected grace. There are certainly some fantastical elements. The doomsday machine, the Apprehension Engine, is a whimsical weapon of mass destruction that utilizes mechanical bees. There are cultists, criminal empires, zombies, and witches but despite Angelmaker being dubbed an “absurdist comedy” none of these things are as silly as you might expect. Granted, there is a good dose of amusing English comedy, it’s just that there is a lot of serious to accompany the laughter.
Though I liked the chapters told from Edie’s POV they did tend to be long and sort of broke up the flow. I much preferred Joe’s POV which was far more linear and direct. As I mentioned earlier, the plot is intricate and this is pro as well as a con. The pro is that all the gears function appropriately and the end result is a story that bespeaks of proud craftsmanship. The con is that the gears are of varying sizes, some turning faster than others, resulting in a story that requires time to build momentum. Then again, once the plot gets moving you better grab hold tight because you are in for a crazy ride. That is until the finale. The final confrontation is very intense and exciting but over far too quickly given the build up and the resolution isn’t entirely satisfying.
Angelmaker is a beautiful chimera, the sort of pulp fiction novel you can show your snobby literati friends and not fear criticism. This is a thoroughly English novel, from the humor to the characters. Harkaway channels the darkness of that post-9/11 espionage but lightens it with good old fashioned, wholesome British crime. This is a story about coming of age and family, told in a unique voice. Pick this one up, you won’t regret it.