Friday, August 10, 2012

Review: Angelmaker

By Nick Harkaway
Alfred A Knopf March 2012
478 pages
From the library


Joe Spork will do anything to avoid taking up the mantle of his father, the gangster Matthew “Tommy Gun” Spork. Instead, he spends his days repairing clocks just as he was taught by his grandfather. But all of that is about to change. When an elderly lady brings a strange box to him, she also brings a succession of strange and dangerous characters to Joe’s door. His client is not a dotty old lady. She is Edie Banister, a retired spy. And the box she brings is not an ordinary mechanism, but a device that could end the world as we know it. As Joe unknowingly sets events into motion, he will have to decide if he can save Earth by himself or if he can trust the unsavory collection of mobsters, lawyers, and bombshells who soon invade his life.

Harkaway has done an amazing thing in making every single character that graces these pages a captivating one. In some moments, we are in as much awe as Joe that these vibrant people are concerned with a man who repairs clocks and tries to keep his head down. It’s difficult to pick a favorite character in a novel that gives you a nonagenarian spy, a beauty with more moxy than any heroine of film noir, a snarky lawyer, and a criminal with a heart of gold. The good guys have the best of intentions (even if they are thieves) and the bad guys are oh so bad. All of them feel so realistic that you might expect them to knock on your door any day now (although the way this novel goes, it’s probably best if they don’t…you don’t want to set the end of the world in motion.)

The author of this wonderful story has a true gift for description. He takes the reader from the mysterious Night Market, a hangout of the underworld, to the lavish palace of the Opium Kahn, Shem Shem Tsien. There is the perfect balance between creating rich and enticing worlds without slowing down the action of the story. This ambitious book could perhaps be categorized as dense. The reader is treated to so many plots that it could make your head spin. But somehow Mr. Harkaway keeps you on track and, as it turns out, each bit of plot is integral to this imaginative tale.

Have I mentioned that this novel also has a wry sense of humor? This book and the inhabitants of the world between its pages never take themselves too seriously, even when the things happening around them are deadly serious.

“At this attempt to lift his mood, Joe Spork has somehow had enough. He loves Mercer like a brother, but sometimes the plummy, playful verbiage is obnoxious. It conceals emotion. Actually, it mocks emotion, the better to pretend to be above it. Joe Spork jackknifes to his feet and grabs his coat. He has no clear idea of where he will go, but he wants out, out of this ludicrous mayhem and back to his old cosy life. Perhaps he will take a ship to India and open a shop in Mumbai. Perhaps he will shave his head and make clocks in a monastery, or marry a Muslim girl and move to Dubai, where they have a decent respect for clockwork and automata and the men who produce them. Perhaps he will just run through the wet, uncaring streets of London until his furious confusion abates. He doesn’t know what he will do, but being locked up in this cellar is no answer to what rides him, that much he is certain of. He wants Ari to sell him cat poison. He needs to call Joyce and tell her Billy Friend is dead. He needs to see his mother. He needs to sleep.
It would be very nice if someone would hug him, just for a minute.”

So often, tales of really thrilling adventure lack intelligence or characters that you really care about. But who said we couldn’t have it all? Angelmaker succeeds at being a smart spy story with well-developed characters and heart. This is one of my favorite reads this year. 

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