He is the man who arrives too late. Too late for clockwork in its prime, too late to know his grandmother. Too late to be admitted to the secret places, too late to be a gentleman crook, too late really to enjoy his mother’s affection before it slid away into a God-ridden gloom. And too late for whatever odd 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. [location 1985]
This is a hard novel to review, because there's just so much in it. (Also, I took a very long time to finish it, for a number of reasons: the fact that it's still clear in my mind says more about the book's quality than does that protracted reading.)
Clock-mender Joshua Joseph Spork, known as Joe, is the son of an infamous Sixties London gangster. Though Joe tends towards the legal side of life, he still has many friends and contacts on the shadier side. This comes in useful when he's framed for a murder he didn't commit.
Edie Banister is ninety but far from senile. In her WWII heyday she was a code-breaker, spy and assassin. Old habits die hard, which is fortunate for Joe and his new friend Polly, sister of sardonically fearsome lawyer Mercer Cradle.
The eponymous Angelmaker device, a.k.a. the Apprehension Engine, is 'not just some clockwork toy. It is a scientific advance of ludicrous complexity, so secret that no one who knew about it could understand it and no one who would understand it could be allowed to know about it' [location 3651]. It is made of brass and resides in Lostwithiel. Its function is to provide humans with a different perception of reality.
Combine, add elephants and cryptography and governmental misbehaviour and a quest for immortality. No ninjas, as such, but there are zombies in all but name.
[many many false starts removed here! But really, they all mean 'this is COOL / CLEVER / FUNNY'.]
Harkaway's prose is lighter and more comic than Neal Stephenson's, but similarly strewn with a captivating plethora of detail and plot. His sentences are often elegant and his female characters reassuringly credible. (They tend to pass the Bechdel test, too, given the opportunity.) Angelmaker is very readable, and has a flavour all its own: not quite steampunk, not quite thriller, not quite SF or fantasy. Or romance. Nor is it very much like The Gone-Away World, Harkaway's debut novel. I admire variety in an author, and hope his next novel is as surprising as Angelmaker.