ETA: Cracked the code! Confidential to Mr. Harkaway: a patch of ice, eh? A likely story.
Nick Harkaway is back with another satisfyingly-unclassifiable...moreETA: Cracked the code! Confidential to Mr. Harkaway: a patch of ice, eh? A likely story.
Nick Harkaway is back with another satisfyingly-unclassifiable, broadly-scoped-but-detail-conscious, avert-the-apocalypse novel to follow his first, The Gone Away World. That's not to say that one follows the other - they're independent stories - but there is a curious reappearance of maroon Rolls-Royces and a peculiar focus on bees (which had a passing role in The Gone-Away World but feature much more prominently here). I tried hard to read this book without thinking of The Gone-Away World, because the two have nothing to do with each other, but it was difficult. I will admit freely that The Gone-Away World was and is one of my top two favorite books, so any sophomore novel of Harkaway's has to fill big shoes from my perspective. I'm going to try to review Angelmaker on its own, but I'll put some comparisons in at the end, because I think it makes for interesting speculation.
Once again, I can't really tell you what this book is about. Most prominently, there's Joe Spork, son of a flashy gangster of ill repute, who emphatically does not want to follow in his father's shoes, even while inheriting his socks. There's the indefatigable Polly Cradle and her unique fascination with the timing of certain British train lines. There's a horrendously ugly dog who gets carted about (most of the time) by the unlikeliest, most interesting female protagonist of the past (and next?) ten years, Edie Banister. There's a train called the Ada Lovelace (!) and a baby war elephant with rather opportune timing. Most importantly, there's a plot to destroy the world, leveraged by a caricature of a villain (who is nonetheless absolutely deadly and as timeless as Enoch Root) and enabled by Joe Spork's brilliant and achingly sympathetic erstwhile grandmother. And of course, the bees. (It's here that I want to interject, "But wait! I haven't even mentioned the Book, or the veiled monk-like techno-cultists, or the submarine!" Suffice it to say that this book is difficult to sum up, and that it will all come out in the wash.)
It took me 104 pages to stop worrying that Harkaway had grown up so much that he had written exactly the type of book that made me hate High Fidelity so much: the kind with a single, male protagonist in his one-third life crisis who aspires to abide by the law, and complains because he doesn't lead an exciting life of crime and gangsters.
See quote: "This day is the pattern of his life. He is the man who arrives too late. Too late for clockwork in its prime, too late to be a gentleman crook, too late to know his grandmother. Too late to be admitted to the secret places, too late really to enjoy his mother's affection before it slid away into a God-ridden gloom. And too late for whatever revelation was waiting here. He had allowed himself to believe that there might, at last, be a wonder in the world which was intended just for him. Foolishness." p. 85
It takes a train (several trains - chemical transport ones) and an attractive set of toes to do it, but Joe Spork stops resembling Rob Gordon at some point (thank god). The change (not the one at the end - I won't say anything more about that one) is distinct enough that I wonder if mealy-mouthed Joe Spork of pages 1-103 is a purposeful ruse that Harkaway put out to throw people like me off their guard. I'm dubious about that notion, though. It feels more like he's trying to write a different type of book, and slips sort of inevitably into his natural style somewhere along the way. Again, thank god.
So Joe Spork is dragged, increasingly-less-reluctantly into a world that seems to be going to hell in a bad way, and somehow he's the one to spearhead the operation to save it. We bounce back and forth for a while between Joe's modern-day escapades and Edie Banister's prior ones. I will say that this book cannot possibly have enough of Edie Banister. She's just the right balance of feisty and no-nonsense and relatably human. The most achingly poignant scenes in the book happen when she, right along with us, tries to figure out the enigmatic and impossibly brilliant Frankie, and coming up short. I haven't read the Edie Banister short story, but it's on my to-do list this weekend. I tend to find myself utterly devoted to Harkaway's characters. They're at once larger-than-life and utterly human, and they stand no chance of being lumped in with the traditional modern-fiction stereotypes.
The tone throughout is distinctly irreverent, cheeky, and with a sense of its own ridiculousness. See quote:
"...sometimes the plummy, playful verbiage is obnoxious. It conceals emotion. Actually, it mocks emotion, the better to pretend to be above it." p. 177
Ironic or self-mocking? Given Harkaway's approach to emotion and his way with words about it, I tend toward the latter. Actually, I think that's part of what I find so appealing about his novels. He finds words for catastrophic moments and deep emotion, and suddenly the insane world of Angelmaker is a little more believable, because right here is something we can relate to. See quote:
"[something has happened] most awfully, most deliberately, most pointedly, and that is the world now, newborn and hard." p. 105
There's something about this that is quintessentially Harkaway. His characters run up against reality, and they are unlike heroes in that they don't have any special defenses for when the world knocks them silly, and we know how they feel because we are also unlike heroes in that way.
The threads of this story are delightfully steampunk-ish, with absolutely no mention of zombies (well, ok, just once, and it's part of a solid plotline, and unique enough that it might just be a wink-and-a-nod in the direction of that tired genre). They're also incredibly vivid (in line with China Miéville, although not nearly to that extent. Despite the imagery, I found myself wishing for a few ink drawings along the way (for the Book and the whojimmy, in particular).
But! I can't possibly complain, because while there are no drawings, there is a code hidden on the (American) dust jacket! I haven't worked it out yet, but the fine folks at Knopf (http://knopf.knopfdoubleday.com/2012/...) have left a few clues. I suppose I can give up illustrations in favor of a clockwork code on a book about a clockwork book.
Ok, *now* can I compare this to The Gone-Away World?
Full disclosure, as above: The Gone-Away World pretty much tops my list of favorite books (although it is sometimes beaten out by Name of the Wind), review here. That means that any sophomore attempt by Harkaway is pretty much going to pale in comparison. That said, I do still think that Angelmaker is a good book with solid storytelling and an enjoyable sense of fun. It's a much more character-driven book than TGAW in that this is more of a book about what people figuring outtheir relationships to each other while the world goes to pieces (and trying to save it), rather a book about the world going to pieces and people trying to save it (and figuring out their relationships to each other in the process). Whether you happen to like the former approach over the latter or vice versa is just personal preference.
Angelmaker is perhaps a more mature book than TGAW. We see more character development, more self-doubt, less recklessness(though there is still a significant amount of it!). It makes me slightly sad, because we have grown up from the Gone Away World. The issues in this world are the same as in the last one - Bad People who do Bad Stuff to destroy Everything - but as "responsible grown-ups on the wrong side of thirty-five" (p.86), we cannot give them the faces of monsters and call on the School of the Voiceless Dragon to ferret them out and do away with them. This is the world now, newborn and hard.
Enough mawkishness - this is still undoubtedly a book worth your time. It's unlike any other book on the market - wildly imaginative, in equal parts violent and humorous, and I think the author knows it:
"Who creates a superweapon or a superwhatever-it-is and makes it so bloody whimsical?" (p. 203).
Thank you, Nick Harkaway, for making the world so bloody whimsical.
"Mr.Pritchard! What are you doing? is that O-soto-gari? No! It is not! It is a yak mating with a tractor! That is *really* very very not very good!" p. 127
"The man is a brigand in the pay of the Opium Khan; it's not every day he is assailed a willowy white lunatic in forest green, borne along on a wave of fire by a box on wheels. Indeed, there probably aren't many people who have great familiarity with this situation." pp. 245-246. Ha! Amazon's statistically improbable phrase capturer must have a field day with Harkaway's books.
"From within comes a noise like a trombonist being goosed during the overture." p. 261(less)
Only China Miéville can make me dream about tsunamis. Even when I read The Perfect Storm (also highly recommended), I dreamed about boats, not the pow...moreOnly China Miéville can make me dream about tsunamis. Even when I read The Perfect Storm (also highly recommended), I dreamed about boats, not the power of the ocean. That's not to say that there are tsunamis in The Scar. There aren't any. But no one but Miéville can put the sea and all its vastness into my head quite as vividly as that.
The Scar is the story of the floating pirate city Armada and the macabre power flux that determines its fate. The story is carried by Bellis Coldwine, a refugee from New Crobuzon, who has the same bad luck that most of Miéville's character's seem to have when her ship is attacked and commandeered by Armada's scouts. Armada has a rule about passengers of their captured ships: once on, never off, so Bellis is stuck, although she maintains a fervent and slightly annoying single-mindedness about returning to New Crobuzon. In a slightly meandering fashion, the story gets on its feet with a bit of political intrigue, which sets a very long chain of events in motion. The two eerily scarred rulers of Armada's most powerful sector, known only as the Lovers, have a plan, a Big Plan, that relies on several extraordinarily dangerous things going right, and very little at all going wrong. I won't say more than that, because I think the book benefits from those couple of reveals, but suffice to say that what they want to (and do) attempt is awe-inspiring in scale. Along the way, there are lightning elementals, airships, an absolutely horrifying race of mosquito people (the women are brutally vicious blood suckers, the men have sphincters for mouths), rifts between worlds, submersibles, vampires (that don't sparkle), deception on all fronts, mile-wide inter-planar animals, mutiny, and a cast of characters that is barely on this side of likable. Or maybe it's barely on the other side of likable.
I'm having trouble summarizing this story. That's because (and it's been said before), China Miéville's world building is impeccable. It's hard to pin down exactly what that means, also. The level of detail is amazing, but it's not a story that's sodden with them. The politics and culture are all incredibly well fleshed out and the references are all internally consistent, but I'd expect that of any top-notch sci-fi/fantasy writer. It's more that Miéville has just thought of everything. If there were to be a floating, unfindable pirate city in Bas-Lag, of course it would look like Armada. Ask, for example, what its citizens would use for taxis, and you can not only expect that he'll give you dirigibles, but you can also assume that he knows what the fares are for each ride, the schedules for all the lines, and how long you have to train to fly one. The narrative may not give you all of that, but you get the feeling that it's all there anyway.
The Scar is maybe not quite as good as Perdido Street Station. Mainly (and most subjectively), I got fed up pretty early on with Bellis Coldwine. Apart from having an annoying personality (most of the characters in the New Crobuzon books can claim that), she just didn't change at all. Bellis at the beginning was complaining to exactly the same tune as Bellis at the end. I felt like she carried the story in the most literal sense: she was a vehicle for the reader to learn about Armada. Also, more specifically, I really didn't understand her distaste for the Lovers. They were slightly creepy, yes, but I didn't quite connect with her complete (and vocal) disgust.
Of course, Bellis is balanced out by some great elements. Tanner Sack, a prisoner on Bellis's ship who is allowed to live free on Armada is one of them. Watch for a wonderful couple of pages where he gets himself Remade into an amphibian, because they're some of the best in the book. There's also Shekel, who - actually, I can't tell you that. Go get yourself a copy, because this one is definitely recommended.
Note: This is technically a sequel to Perdido Street Station, but although it's probably better to read them in order (there are some references to the events of Perdido in The Scar), it's certainly not necessary.