Here's a rare thing: a review of a bona fide adult book on Pink Me. Suitable for teenagers? You decide. (There's a breakdown at the bottom of this review.)
I wish I could write the review this book deserves, as Nick Harkaway (not his real name) wrote the review that Neal Stephenson's Reamde deserved - the one I was in the process of writing in my head. Stephenson's book was an action novel taken to absurd lengths, a nonstop global car/boat/bike chase firefight populated by real characters, most of whom you had to fall in love with. Ergo, I think it's no coincidence that Harkaway (still not his real name) felt he had some solid ground upon which to stand while surveying the fatness of Reamde.
Angelmaker is leaner, sprawls less, but is similarly packed with spies and murderers and gangsters who run and drive and use weapons, and they're all real people. Well. Some of them are not. A few of them are... but no, I'm not going to say.
It goes like this: in 21st century London, there's a guy who fixes clocks. Joe. Joe's father was a notorious gangster, but Joe is on the up and up mostly. Because of his talent with clockwork, Joe is recruited to play an unwitting part in a plot, activating a strange old machine. A machine which, regardless of the varied intentions of everyone ever associated with it, has the potential to kill everyone in the world. And let me interrupt myself for a second to say that as doomsday devices go, this one is not only one of the coolest I've ever read, combining the erudition of a Foucault pendulum with the charm of a cuckoo clock; but also the most chilling in its deadly effect.
But because Joe has this heritage of the cool criminal, and the goodwill of his father's friends, and some remnants of his childhood training in London's (literal) underworld, he has the ability to turn his role as unfortunate pawn on its head. Which he does, and oh it feels good. There's a tommy gun involved. You know what I'm sayin'. In this way, Angelmaker is like a reverse coming of age novel. Like Updike, but more fun.
I have recently begun seeing certain adventure novels as daydreams. I read The Apothecary by Maile Meloy and I thought it was like the daydream of an imaginative American girl who is desperate for something INTERESTING to happen. Charlie Higson's zombie novels are the daydreams of bored poli sci students. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is what elementary school teachers dream about while cutting animal shapes out of construction paper.
I was almost all the way through Angelmaker before I read the passage that told me who was dreaming this novel. A night shift routing controller who works for the freight rail system is approached by an older gentleman who helps her change a tire. In the process, he tells her that he is working with a wanted criminal to save the world, and he bribes her handsomely in order to procure her assistance.
"It's probably because he is fixing her tyre, and in a position so absolutely compromised and vulnerable that it's clear he does not propose to do her harm. It might be because he's a bit like her older brother Peter, who died last year of cancer. Or it might be the feeling she has, that everyone has, that something is happening which is really important.
So Sarah Ryce says yes [...]
A few moments later, something passes her station going at what must be over a hundred and fifty miles an hour, and the old, rusted track protests, but holds. Sarah Ryce grins, secretly: whatever she's done, it's something big."
You hear that? You hear the old, rusted track protesting, but holding? It's England. England is dreaming this novel. Is something really important going to happen in the next year? Probably. In the next six months? Maybe. Will something big happen in the next decade? Surely. But will it happen in England? No. Will British people be involved? Probably not. Unless Hot Harry possesses unexpected depths.
PLEASE let Hot Harry possess unexpected depths.
But really no. So far this century, important news from Britain has largely been to do with hats. What England would dream, if it could dream, would be for pre-Cold War-style field espionage, with its fake mustaches and poisoned cocktails, to suddenly become relevant again. England misses steam engines. Instead of blowup doll models on page three, England would prefer to see Ronnie Kray, his arm slung around a tipsy chorine. Like our man Joe, England looks its best reflected in polished brass, and yes, England would very much like it if hats came back.
That's what I think about Angelmaker. I liked it. There's more to say about it, of course - there are thoughts about our better nature, as implied by the title; there are unusually good women; there is lots about craft - but a discussion of that stuff is the review this book deserves, and I am not writing that.
About the 'suitable for teens' thing:
- There's sex but no body part specifics.
- There's tons of bad language - what do you want, these people are criminals and spies.
- The violence is not nearly as graphic as it has every right to be.
- There's a bare smidgen of historical context, but not so much that you have to be an adult who has been marginally aware of the news for more than a decade in order to keep up. Which I think is a more accurate measure of teen suitability than any cussin' or lovin' or vivisectin'.
And there's a book trailer:
One last thing: my husband spotted me reading this ARC, with its plain yellow cover. He wasn't wearing his glasses and misread the title, leading him to ask incredulously if I was really reading a biography of Angela Merkel. (I'm NOT the type of person to read a biography of Angela Merkel.) So if you need a code name for this book, and it's the kind of book that might in some eventuality need a code name, you could do worse than Angela Merkel: a biography, by Nips Harpy.