First Published: 2012
Review © 2013 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Spy thriller, Steampunk, Mystery, Science fiction, Comedy, Literature, Pulp
Angelmaker is not easily categorized. It’s certainly a spy thriller but it also has a generous portion of steam punk along with plenty of dry British humor. Some of the elements could come right out of a pulp graphic novel but the writing quality is good enough to elevate this novel to a not so serious work of literature. Somehow, Nick Harkaway makes this blend of genres, action, and comedy work to provide a unique reading experience.
Angelmaker is not a fluffy summer read. It’s well written and complicated. It opens with a very confusing mixture of plotlines and backstories. The main character is Joe Spork, an everyman who is trying to escape from the long shadow of his father who was one of the most famous and powerful gangsters in London. Joe pursues a simple life of repairing and selling clocks like his grandfather. The second main character is an elderly retired British female spy who has a mysterious connection to Joe.
When Joe repairs an extremely complicated and mysterious clockwork mechanism, strange things begin to happen. When one of his best friends ends up dead, he realizes he has got into something more than he bargained for and he’s swept up into events beyond his control. He not only finds himself in mortal danger, he discovers that he has unwittingly unleashed a doomsday machine left over from the 1950’s which threatens the very existence of the world.
The characters in this novel are fleshed out nicely with plenty of background information delivered in flashbacks and back stories. Initially Joe doesn’t show much promise as a main character. He lives a quiet almost reclusive life. He doesn’t have a lot of self-confidence as evidenced by a complete lack of ability to even flirt with women. He is dragged unwillingly into a world of danger and secrets. As the dangers elevate and Joe learns more about what is going on, out of necessity, he eventually begins to embrace the knowledge and skills he learned from his father. While Joe is the patsy for a good portion of the novel, he eventually is forced to rise to the challenge and assume the hero role.
Angelmaker contains a secondary main character in the person of Edie Banister who is an aged top secret British spy who, in her prime, was right out of the James Bond mold except that she has a few flaws. Now, having been retired for years, she still manages to fend well for herself. Her adventures in both the past and present are the most entertaining parts of the first half of the novel.
This brings up the largest weakness of the novel which is that it is mixes plotlines for the two main characters that jump around between incidents mixed with backstories and flashbacks for both which tends to create confusion and does not explain what is going on at present. This is not a novel for impatient readers as it takes a couple of hundred pages for things to start coming together and it seems like every time a mystery is solved, another mystery is discovered.
While Angelmaker can be confusing, the mysteries are also intriguing and keep the reader engaged. The best elements of this novel are the characters along with some quite entertaining action scenes. In addition to the two main characters already mentioned, the villain or villains are also well-drawn and end up being both nasty and formidable.
The steam punk or science fiction elements of this novel include advanced clockwork mechanisms, mechanized bees, and advanced submarines. The technology is not always believable as it seems at times to be right out of comic books as do a few action sequences. However, many of the action sequences are hard hitting and some include downright extreme violence. Don’t get the idea that this is a light-hearted juvenile action story as there are some scenes with dark violence including severe torture.
I highly recommend this novel for those looking for a new reading experience that requires some work but includes a fine mishmash of thriller pulp spy novel with steam punk and bits of dry British humor. When you want to dive into something a bit different, Angelmaker could be just what you’re looking for.