The Short Version: Once upon a time, there was a lady spy and a doomsday device. Then there was a gangster son of a clockmaker, who in turn had a son who wanted nothing to do with being a gangster. When the doomsday device is suddenly reactivated in the present and a swarm of mechanized bees who bring the truth descend on the world at large, it’s up to Joe Spork – who just wanted to work in clockwork – to save the world. Good thing he did learn a bit from his dear old dad.
The Review: “If I have the mind of Napoleon and the body of Wellington, who am I?” This is a recurring riddle posed throughout the novel and there is no correct answer. Bothersome, isn’t it? But the level of intellectual engagement demanded by such a question is a perfect example of the intellectual engagement demanded by a Nick Harkaway novel. While the humor and adventure wouldn’t be out of place in a Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett novel – and those guys aren’t exactly slouches in the brains department either – there is a kitchen-sink braininess to both of Mr. Harkaway’s novels thus far. His first, The Gone Away World, is perhaps one of the most fantastically crazy novels I’ve ever read. Ninjas, anti-matter, mutants, theories of self and how the mind interacts with the world… it was some seriously heady stuff for a book that had pink felt on the cover. And I loved it, with a passion that only grows in the time since reading it (even as some of the salient details slip away). So I was very, very excited to hear about a second novel – only, and this is me being totally honest about my ridiculous collector’s impulse so please be kind, I didn’t want to read it in hardcover. Because both the US and UK hardcovers left something to be desired, in my mind.
Yes. A ridiculous mental trap I played on myself there – but, whatever, the time has passed and I picked up the rather more intriguing paperback and now here we are. And while I was expecting more of the same from Mr. Harkaway – in the sense of a nearly overwhelming amount of stuff crammed neatly into the novel’s bounds – I also knew that it wouldn’t be a direct follow-up. I knew spies were involved, for one thing, and seeing as Mr. Harkaway’s father is in fact the grandpappy spymaster, Mr. John le Carré, I began to develop Expectations. Expectations, as I should know by now, are a dangerous thing because they’re rarely accurate. Harkaway hasn’t traded in his flair for the over-the-top fantastic in order to follow in his father’s footsteps. Oh no. If anything, he’s perhaps pushed (a bit too far) the other way: this is the most madcap novel I have read in a long time.
On one hand, it’s a pretty simple apocalypse novel: there’s a doomsday device (side note: how come no one makes intricate doomsday devices anymore? To quote Judi Dench – I mean, M – “Christ, I miss the Cold War.”) and a Regular Joe finds himself in the middle of all sorts of people jockeying for said device, because apparently his family at some point had something to do with creating it. But the balls-out ridiculousness of the plot harkens back to a simpler time, when you could just write a really crazy story and people would just go with it. Edie Bannister and her travails across the globe, battling against Shem Shem Tsien, are the stuff of Tom Swift novels. It’s pure 50s pulp and I almost wish Harkaway had written two novels, allowing Edie her own time to be young and daring and bed hot women around the world whilst battling the forces of Evil – but I also understand why he kept that to a perfectly measured dose. There’s the very real possibility that, given freer reign, it might’ve all gone a bit wibbly and collapsed under the weight of all that frantic tomfoolery. So, okay, there, you convinced me, Harkaway. Well done.
In the present, we’re dealing with mobsters and London (ahhh, underground London… you will never, ever get old. Be it criminal, supernatural, creepy, or just generally a good place to go for a story, you will always be there so long as London isn’t underwater. Thank goodness.) and lawyers and it’s all pretty zippy and there’s a bit of a sense of… something being underdeveloped, here. But I can’t exactly put my finger on what. Perhaps it was Joe, who spends just a little too long before coming to grips with his past. Perhaps it was the confusion about what, exactly, was happening with the damned doomsday device, the Angelmaker. I don’t know, but I do know there were times when I felt like I was clinging onto the mast for dear life in the midst of a storm of ideas and words and events. This is not a bad experience to have and I’d even recommend it for the adventurous reader now and again – but you better be ready, boys and girls. This is one hell of a tempest.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. The whole thing, of course, wraps up rather nicely and with just the amount of fireworks you’d like to see. It’s all rather splendid and any fears that you may’ve had in the first… 250 pages about “how is he ever going to pull this off?” are well and truly put to rest by the end of the novel. How often does that happen, especially when the novelist gets as daring as he does here? Plus, for good measure, there are a few truly cracking bits of innuendo and sexiness – in that classic James Bond kind of way. I mean, I don’t want to be crude, but Polly Cradle can smile at me anytime. It’s all just a lot of fun, for smart people. Enjoy it and try not to think too hard (except about the philosophical bits, because that’s part of the fun).