Angelmaker - Nick Harkaway image
Following the resounding success of my Locus Quest, I faced a dilemma: which reading list to follow it up with? Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously. This book falls into my GIFTS AND GUILTY list.

Regardless of how many books are already queued patiently on my reading list, unexpected gifts and guilt-trips will always see unplanned additions muscling their way in at the front.

I have a friend called Justin (true story); a crazy, loveable Zimbabwean who wears board shorts and sandals, whatever the weather. He has crazy dancing feet. He can wear a bow-tie and mean it. He’s a genius (but not an evil one). He’s also a spy.

When Justin finished his degree (in Maths) he had an interview with the foreign office. He claims nothing came of it, but nobody believes him. In the years that follow, Justin’s life followed the induction programme for being an international man of mystery. He taught maths in Uzbekistan. He worked with the Portuguese military on submarine explosions. He ran the finance department of a landmine clearing charity in Angola. He spent a year living in van, travelling and analysing digital TV signals in every single country in Europe (including the random ones). He went to Japan to visit friends.

He’s currently doing his masters in Paris, studying Genetic Mathematics. That’s the cover story, anyway. We think that having passed his probation period with all that crazy travelling, he’s now settled down to do some proper spy-training, and they’ve given him such a complex masters for his cover story to discourage people from prying.

What, I hear you saying, does this have to do with Angelmaker?

Justin gave me Angelmaker. I know! A crazy kind of spy gave me a crazy kind of spy story! He also gave me The Gone Away World, which is where the story really starts.

How often does a debut novel wow you? Not, “wow, this writer has potential” – but “wow! this writer just came from nowhere and went straight into my all-time favourites list!”

That’s what Harkaway did with The Gone Away World – it’s a truly awesome book and I absolutely loved it. Which is why I was concerned about Angelmaker. Whenever a music artist slams into my awareness like that with a debut album, there always seems to be a ‘sophomore syndrome’ kicking in on the follow up. Do you stick with the acclaimed formula from the debut, or do you push on with your artistic growth and leave fans disappointed that they didn’t get more of the same?

Angelmaker is very broadly down the same eclectic path – combining elements of different genres in new and interesting ways. But the elements combined are different to his debut: a spy thriller, steampunk adventure, and coming-of-age story all splash down in a gangster-themed party. Or something!

To break it down quickly:
- the spy thriller element follows the main supporting character, an octogenarian ex-superspy looking to shut down the doomsday device her ex-lover built (and finish her life-long conflict with her arch-nemises). Amazing! Bonus points for the sidekick pooch.
- the steampunk adventure style comes through in flashbacks of the spy’s early adventures and the amazing steampunk style train/submarine, and the fact that the doomsday device is a kind of quantum clockwork ubertech thingy! The lead guy is a clockwork restoration expert who must step up into the roll of adventure hero
- the coming-of-age story is all about the oscillation of three generations saying “I will not be like my father” and finally reconciling the best of both extremes to really fulfil his own potential
- and the gangster theme is about the father’s life, and all our hero is considered heir to – what he’s spent so long distancing himself from, but must embrace to survive this mad, life-changing quest!

It’s a lot of fun.
It’s superbly written.
It’s unique.
It’s special.
So why didn’t I give it five stars?

I’ve been reading an awful lot of truly superb books since I started focusing on my reading lists, and I guess part of a five-star rating is a gut reaction. Every book I’ve given five-stars to, it’s been a no hesitation, boom, you just know it. For Angelmaker, I hesitated. It’s good. It’s really, really good! But I hesitated. Maybe I didn’t quite connect with the hero. Maybe the steampunk and gangster themes never quite merged satisfactorily, but stand separately throughout. Maybe the doomsday device just didn’t quite deliver on the build-up. Maybe?

None of my vague complaints would knock it down a whole star. Not even all added together… they knock it down maybe 0.6 of a star – so we’re talking about a 4.4-star book, which has to be rounded down to a 4? That’s the closest I can make to sense!

It’s a great book – read it, love it.

Mr Harkaway – I await your next offering with great anticipation!

After this I read: Moon Over Soho