British writer Nick Harkaway’s second novel is a steampunk thriller where the “mad science” has been mostly submerged beneath a more conventional present. In Angelmaker, the “thrilling days of yesteryear” were, indeed, thrilling, but the present-day leaves much to be desired. This is especially true for the book’s protagonist, the awkwardly named Joseph Spork, son of Mathew Spork, the thief, and grandson of Daniel Spork, the craftsman. As the book opens, Joseph is muddling along, trying to live down the legacy of the former by embracing that of the latter. Ironically, it’s the sins of the grandfather—or more precisely, the woman Daniel loved—that reach into the present, threatening Joe, those he loves and, ultimately, all of humanity.
If Angelmaker has a flaw, it’s in the initial blend of style and structure. At times, Harkaway’s third-person narrative can prove off-putting as one tries to gain a sense of the dramatic lay of the land. This is especially true in the first 100 pages or so, when the present-day plot development is constantly interrupted with longer and more interesting flashbacks. But, as with any robust piece of speculative fiction, none of the narrative bric-a-brac flung so promiscuously about in the early going is without purpose. Each and every piece is an expository time bomb—primed to go off at this or that juncture and with varying degrees of explosive effect on the plot. Just as the reader’s patience nears exhaustion, a tipping point is reached, and the action and excitement of the past floods the present.
After this flood, Angelmaker is the stuff that steampunk is made of—the heroes are stalwart, the antagonist so villainous he makes even the worst Bond foe seem charmingly amateurish, and the threat monstrously dire. Just as importantly given the genre it inhabits, the devices, constructs and “doodahs” created, used and coveted by all sides involved are marvelously varied, inventive, and either inspiring or sinister (and sometimes both).
As a result, the reader leaves Angelmaker sated as if from multiple meals. This aggregate satisfaction is more akin to the feeling gained from listening to a year of episodes from a 1930s radio drama or from reading a serial’s entire run in a pulp magazine (instead of just one of either). In this manner, Harkaway’s latest book resembles some of the more ornate devices within it—capable of astounding the careful eye and probing mind on multiple levels, and with lasting effect.