Joe Spork repairs clocks, a far cry from his late father, a flashy London gangster. But when Joe fixes one particularly unusual device, his life is suddenly upended. Joe's client, Edie Banister, is more than just a kindly old lady - she's a former superspy. And the device? It's a 1950s doomsday machine. And having triggered it, Joe now faces the wrath of both the government and a diabolical South Asian dictator, Edie's old arch-nemesis. With Joe's once-quiet world now populated with mad monks, psychopathic serial killers, scientific geniuses, girls in pink leather, and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe, he realizes that the only way to survive is to muster the courage to fight, help Edie complete a mission she gave up years ago, and pick up his father's old gun.
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Here's the thing. I very rarely give a book five stars. As a Mainer, I was brought up to practice moderation. To say I liked a book is fine, but to say I LOVED it is a display of flamboyant emotion my fellow Mainers would look at askance. But there's no help for it; I did love this book.
Now the hard part. What's it about? Well, it's an old-fashioned tale of British Empire swashbuckling adventure (think The Man Who Would Be King, or King Solomon's Mines), a science fiction technology nightmare, a family drama, a coming-of-age story, a jeremiad against contemporary finance-world fiddles and the modern Orwellian state that tortures its citizens to protect our freedoms, a tragedy, a comedy, a romance. Hmm, that's not very helpful in giving you a picture of the book, is it? What if I say it's about a supervillain known as the Opium Khan who, with his "Ruskinites," an army of black-clad man-machines, and aided by the cynical complicity of the modern security state, works tirelessly over decades to achieve the power of a god over all of humanity, all the while countered by ingenious men and women and their steampunkish submarines, trains, various other devices and a network of extremely quirky characters and one ancient, blind, bad-tempered and one-toothed pug? No, I thought not.
Let's try another tack and look at the plot. Joshua Joseph Spork is a young, London clock maker and restorer of various types of clever machines, like Victorian automata. He is the son of the late ingenious and flashy gangster, Matthew "Tommy Gun" Spork, and the grandson of Matthew's disapproving clockmaker father, Daniel. Despite his love for his father and affection for the gangster world of the Night Market, where the criminal underworld meets periodically in a grand secret bazaar, Joe is so determined not to be like him that he has, as he says, dedicated his life to being mild. He's a quiet, law-abiding man, so shy and retiring he can't even bring himself to follow through on the world's most obvious hint when a generously bosomed barmaid places his hand over her heart.
Joe isn't a complete saint, though. He knows the sin of covetousness when he doggedly visits ancient Edie Bannister and feels sure she's working up to offering him some really excellent piece of machinery to work on. And she is, but she might have left it just a little late. What she has is a piece of a device that, like the atomic bomb, has the power to end all wars or destroy the world, depending on who controls it. And, suddenly, a lot of very bad men, including government men, want to be the ones to get their hands on it and are willing to do anything to Edie, Joe and everyone they ever knew to achieve their goal.
There follows a tale of dazzling imagination and invention that takes us back in time to Edie's youth as a highly skilled government agent doing battle with super villain Shem Shem Tsien and falling in love with Joe's genius inventor grandmother––the creator of the sought-after device. This long trip into the past is no digression, though, because everything that happens there is supremely important to Joe's story in the present.
In fact, though this is a long book crammed to the bursting point with anecdotes, people, places and things, not a single bit of it is frippery. It's all a part of the grand and intricate machinery that drives this epic story, one in which Joe ceases to be mild and embraces everything he ever learned from Matthew and his world. Why? So he can save the universe, of course.
All of the characters in this book are deftly drawn, the plot is always easy to follow despite its complexity, and Harkaway writes with a scintillating and abundant style that is just to the good side of florid. I'd say the book would make a crackerjack movie, except you'd miss the playful ingenuity of Harkaway's prose.
Harkaway is the son of famed espionage writer John le Carré. I imagine he knows a thing or two about growing up with a larger-than-life father, and that has added poignancy to Joe's story. Harkaway has chosen to follow his father's career and I'm glad he did. Though I warn you that this book may ruin you for any other reading for awhile. When I finished it, I was still so under its spell that nothing else appealed to me. I think I'll just give up and find a copy of Harkaway's first novel, The Gone-Away World.
A note about the audiobook: Daniel Weyman is the best possible narrator of this book. He understands that this is a story that needs to be ACTED, with absolute abandon, and he throws himself into it with all the energy and dash it deserves.
Some writers I love for their biting irreverant satire, like Vonnegut, Swift and Twain. Some writers I love for their opulent, vivid use of language, like Tom Robbins and Robert Anton Wilson. And some I love for the sheer inventiveness of their storytelling, like Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon.
Nick Harkaway managed all of the above in his first novel, "The Gone Away World" (TGAW).
Therefore, I was both looking forward to - and dreading - Harkaway's second work, "Angelmaker". It seemed like I would almost certainly be disappointed.
I wasn't: if anything, "Angelmaker" represents a tighter, more focused narrative - while maintaining the strengths that made TGAW such a joy. Furthermore, "Angelmaker" isn't hampered by a contrived plot twist that was a sour note for me in TGAW.
As with TGAW, "Angelmaker" flits between genres with ease: is it spy thriller? Sort of. A mystery? Kind of. A sci-fi adventure? A bit. A gangster tale? Somewhat. It really defies category, and that's one of Harkaway's gifts… he plays with the tropes of genre without being constrained by them, and the results are delightful. Finally, Harkaway's characters are rich and amusing, and their dialogue frequently sparkles.
Both of the Audible versions of the books are deftly narrated: some of the best performances among my (several dozen) audiobooks. The narrators are able to breathe life into the character's voices, helping you enjoy them as the distinct personalities that they are.