This book is what I wanted Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to be. The first 40 pages didn't thrill me (I usually can't stand books written in the sim...moreThis book is what I wanted Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to be. The first 40 pages didn't thrill me (I usually can't stand books written in the simple present tense), but once the circus opens its gates, the whole feel of the world changes. The middle section - really up until the last 50 pages or so - is ephemeral, vibrant, imaginative, and manages the balance between real and unreal with the same grace as, say, Charles de Lint, who could have written whole scenes here and I wouldn't have been shocked.
The strength of The Night Circus is (thank goodness!) the circus itself. Sections of the narrative are written as if the reader is exploring the circus as an ordinary visitor, but the sense of wonder really comes from the two main characters and how they interact with both the audience and the circus itself. I will say that you can approach the descriptions of the circus in two ways. You could read them as words on a page, appreciate them for their descriptiveness and imagery, maybe even enjoy them for the ambiance they add. You'd be bored in 100 pages, to be honest. Another tent? Another act? So what? There is another option, which I hope you'll take. Approach this book in the same way that the outsiders approach the circus, and you'll be enthralled right along with them. Read as if you were actually going to a circus: with the expectation that what you see is meant to amaze you. Go along for the ride, and the book turns from good to great.
The two main characters, without giving too much away, are two magicians (the term is debatable) who are set to compete against each other by two other magicians (again, debatable) who have a long-standing feud about...well, it matters, but not as much as what happens once the stage is already set, pun intended. The plot is complex and tightly woven, and the two champions' dance around and towards each other is slow and intricate. It's a treat to read a romance that has so much patience to get where it's going. Not that this is entirely a romance - in fact, the best bits have nothing at all to do with it - but it's refreshing to read about romance in the way that it sometimes happens: slowly, impatiently, and inexorably.
Celia and Marco, the two competitors, are wonderful to read about, yes, but my favorite character has to be Herr Thiessen, the master clockmaker and circus outsider who crafts a clockwork timepiece grand enough to display in the circus's main courtyard. I'll admit, I do have a thing for clocks and watchmakers etc., but Herr Thiessen is the best-written character in the story. He's the reader's way in: an outsider who was called on because of his skill to create something transcendent. He's a believable character - not quite ordinary, no, but if the world were only a tad bit different, and the stars aligned, then maybe, *maybe* it could produce someone like Herr Thiessen. The circus is too grand and too magical to be appearing in your city tomorrow, but Herr Thiessen could be living in Germany right now. I could believe that.
On the whole, this book is deliciously subtle. The individual threads of the plot sometimes seem to be written just for the wonderment of it all - and maybe sometimes they are - but so many of them turn out to be vitally important. Guns are shown in the first act, but maybe you won't recognize that they're guns. Maybe they're not really guns at all, and maybe you might forget all of them before the last act, when they all go off. Four stars for this book - mainly because I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending - and if I'm still thinking about it in 3 or 4 months, I'll revise it to a 5. Damn fine storytelling.(less)
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)