If digital fantasies are now post-cyberpunk, then perhaps Nick Harkaway could be credited with inventing post-steampunk.
ANGELMAKER by Nick Harkaway (Random House)
Nick Harkaway’s 2008 fantasy debut, The Gone-Away World, was a big, rambunctious Christmas pudding of a book, studded with everything from the apocalypse to pirates and ninjas. Had it not been for the publishing industry’s relentless gossip machine, readers would neither have guessed nor cared that Harkaway was John le Carre’s son — it simply would not have been relevant.
Harkaway might be accused of courting comparison in his second outing, Angelmaker, however. Its plot centres on espionage and a key trope is fathers and sons.
Clock-mender Joe Spork is both defiantly shabby and defiantly old-school. He runs a little shop in an obscure corner of London, the premises stuffed with the detritus of a bygone, unwanted and apparently irrelevant technology.
But one day Joe discovers that the old technology could create doomsday machines. Suddenly he is part of the most unlikely world-saving team ever assembled: East End geezers of both sexes, a 90-year-old retired spy and her blind pug dog, a multinational firm of distinctly dodgy lawyers, a nun and a bunch of librarians. Against them are ranged corrupt British bureaucrats, mad monks and a murderous Asian despot.
If digital fantasies are now post-cyberpunk, then perhaps Harkaway could be credited with inventing post-steampunk. In his world, magic is not found in gleaming, mass-produced, steam-powered iron. The power rests in the Ruskinite reaction to that: in handcrafted objects as beautiful as they are unique.
Angelmaker is in many ways a romantic elegy for past worlds. Harkaway’s spies do not crouch, Smiley-like, behind desks in anonymous grey offices. They adopt unlikely disguises, scale minarets and escape in ice-shielded submarines.
His London crooks (of whom Joe’s flamboyant late father, Matthew, was don) belong to the era of Savile Row suits and Tommy guns.
And their city — putting the novel firmly on the urban fantasy landscape — is a place of undiscovered underground tunnels with strange denizens and the mysterious pop-up Night Market where gangsters assemble to trade and network.
These London memories are coloured by a child’s wide-eyed wonder. It was the world young Joe observed, walking in Matthew’s giant shadow. The book is the tale of a fantastic battle, but it is also a moving account of how Joe reaches beyond the shadow to the man.
Fantasy gives Harkaway the freedom to tell the story through picaresque journeys, eccentric metaphors and extravagant plot leaps without the tedious breakfast-table minutiae of the Hampstead Novel.
And maybe that is where Le Carre does become relevant. Thanks to writers like him we know far too much about the grubby, bloody-handed horsetrading of international espionage ever to believe again in the heroic derring-do of early 20th-century spy fiction.
Just as part of Joe Spork’s redemption derives from finally wearing his father’s clothes with his own swagger, so part of this book’s strength comes from building an alternate world in which spying is unapologetically redeemed for adventure and the side of the angels.