Friday, March 20, 2015

Anglemaker, by Nick Harkaway

Joe Spork is a quiet, unassuming clock-repairer and the protagonist of Nick Harkaway's novel Anglemaker. When we meet him, Joe is a creature of distinctly untested mettle. This changes dramatically when he meets the dreaded Opium Khan, aka Shem Shem Tsien, a possibly immortal, definitely voluble, downright Bondian super-villain given to boastful self-mythologizing.

“Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a boy born in the nation of Addeh Sikkim, in the royal palace, who wanted nothing more than to lead his people into a new world of prosperity and hope. He was suited to the task: clever and able and well-favored.” The Opium Khan looked nostalgic.

“I locked him in a steel box and burned him alive.”

Joe is an unwitting, mostly unwilling, certainly confused hero and like the rest of us, remains in the dark about just what the hell is going on for the bulk of Angelmaker’s nearly 500 pages. Joe is the only son of London’s most notorious gangster (Harkaway is John le Carre’s son). An identity he rejects in favor of a quiet, honest life among his flywheels and jewelers’ loupes. But like one of Shakspear’s fated characters, Joe is inevitably pulled into a battle of good against evil; a battle for the very existence of mankind.

Harkaway splits the novel's first half between Joe’s present day and the Cold War era, in which a young female superspy faces off against the aforementioned Shem Shem Tsien. When sinister officials grind Joe up in the gears of the State, and when he finally gets pushed far enough to fight back, we find ourselves thinking ‘finally!’

Harkaway’s book, in its disregard of verisimilitude and generic constraint is utterly immune to precis. It isn’t steampunk. It isn’t fantasy or science fiction. It isn’t speculative. Some have called it "existential."

From its frantic oscillation between plausibility and fantasy emerges an odd, unique composite that seems to deserve its own genre. The plot is a jigsaw of pulpish tropes: there are enigmatic hooded monks; female superspies; devilish machines; London gangsters; an underground (both figuratively and geographically) criminal society operating with its own morality; and the small matter of a doomsday device involving lots and lots of tiny mechanical bees, and which Joe's tinkering unwittingly sets into motion.

When all is said and done, it is an enjoyable read, but truth to tell, there are times during Harkaway’s highly encumbered plot and prose when tedium edges up on the reader, and there is temptation to just scan what seems extraneous circumlocution and get on with it.
This review borrows liberally from reviews by others, among them: James Purdon, Glen Weldon, and David Barnett.

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