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An ordinary Joe fights the power

  • Sep 14, 2012
Rating:
+5
Here's the thing. I very rarely give a book five stars. As a Mainer, I was brought up to practice moderation. To say I liked a book is fine, but to say I LOVED it is a display of flamboyant emotion my fellow Mainers would look at askance. But there's no help for it; I did love this book.

Now the hard part. What's it about? Well, it's an old-fashioned tale of British Empire swashbuckling adventure (think The Man Who Would Be King, or King Solomon's Mines), a science fiction technology nightmare, a family drama, a coming-of-age story, a jeremiad against contemporary finance-world fiddles and the modern Orwellian state that tortures its citizens to protect their freedoms, a tragedy, a comedy, a romance. Hmm, that's not very helpful in giving you a picture of the book, is it? What if I say it's about a supervillain known as the Opium Khan who, with his "Ruskinites," an army of black-clad man-machines, and aided by the cynical complicity of the modern security state, works tirelessly over decades to achieve the power of a god over all of humanity, all the while countered by ingenious men and women and their steampunkish submarines, trains, various other devices and a network of extremely quirky characters and one ancient, blind, bad-tempered and one-toothed pug? No, I thought not.

Let's try another tack and look at the plot. Joshua Joseph Spork is a young, London clock maker and restorer of various types of clever machines, like Victorian automata. He is the son of the late ingenious and flashy gangster, Matthew "Tommy Gun" Spork, and the grandson of Matthew's disapproving clockmaker father, Daniel. Despite his love for his father and affection for the gangster world of the Night Market, where the criminal underworld meets periodically in a grand secret bazaar, Joe is so determined not to be like him that he has, as he says, dedicated his life to being mild. He's a quiet, law-abiding man, so shy and retiring he can't even bring himself to follow through on the world's most obvious hint when a generously bosomed barmaid places his hand over her heart.

Joe isn't a complete saint, though. He knows the sin of covetousness when he doggedly visits ancient Edie Bannister and feels sure she's working up to offering him some really excellent piece of machinery to work on. And she is, but she might have left it just a little late. What she has is a piece of a device that, like the atomic bomb, has the power to end all wars or destroy the world, depending on who controls it. And, suddenly, a lot of very bad men, including government men, want to be the ones to get their hands on it and are willing to do anything to Edie, Joe and everyone they ever knew to achieve their goal.

There follows a tale of dazzling imagination and invention that takes us back in time to Edie's youth as a highly skilled government agent doing battle with super villain Shem Shem Tsien and falling in love with Joe's genius inventor grandmother--the creator of the sought-after device. This long trip into the past is no digression, though, because everything that happens there is supremely important to Joe's story in the present.

In fact, though this is a long book crammed to the bursting point with anecdotes, people, places and things, not a single bit of it is frippery. It's all a part of the grand and intricate machinery that drives this epic story, one in which Joe ceases to be mild and embraces everything he ever learned from Matthew and his world. Why? So he can save the universe and get the girl, of course.

All of the characters in this book are deftly drawn, the plot is always easy to follow despite its complexity, and Harkaway writes with a scintillating and abundant style that is just to the good side of florid. I'd say the book would make a crackerjack movie, except you'd miss the playful ingenuity of Harkaway's prose.

Harkaway is the son of famed espionage writer John le Carré. I imagine he knows a thing or two about growing up with a larger-than-life father, and that has added poignancy to Joe's story. Harkaway has chosen to follow his father's career and I'm glad he did. Though I warn you that this book may ruin you for any other reading for awhile. When I finished it, I was still so under its spell that nothing else appealed to me. I think I'll just give up and find a copy of Harkaway's first novel, The Gone-Away World.

A note about the audiobook: Daniel Weyman is the best possible narrator of this book. He understands that this is a story that needs to be acted, with absolute abandon, and he throws himself into it with all the energy and dash it deserves.

An ordinary Joe fights the power

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September 16, 2012
Good review!
 
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review by . March 06, 2012
I am usually a very forgiving reviewer, always trying to give the author the benefit of the doubt when I have some problems with the book. This one, however, strained my ability to review it in a positive way.      I can tell that I'm not enjoying a book when I keep inventing excuses not to read it. Believe me, I tried my best, getting through about 1/3 of the book before I finally gave up on it. To me it made no sense whatsoever, and the writing was a bit too arch for my …
About the reviewer
Books brought me to Lunch.com. My favorite genres are mysteries (especially British and other European crime fiction), history (particularly WW2 in Europe) and fiction. With some friends, I have a mystery-related … more
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Wiki

“Endlessly inventive. . . . Inspired by the New Wave science fiction of Michael Moorcock, the London crime novels of Jake Arnott, and the spy fiction of John le Carré (the author’s father), the novel ends up being its own absurdist sendup of pulp story tropes and end-of-the-world scenarios. . . . Harkaway makes his novel great fun on every page.”
   —Publishers Weekly(starred review)
 
“A puzzle box of a novel as fascinating as the clockwork bees it contains, filled with intrigue, espionage and creative use of trains. As if that were not enough to win my literary affection, Harkaway went and gave me a raging crush on a fictional lawyer.”
     —Erin Morgenstern, author ofThe Night Circus

“You are in for a treat, sort of like Dickens meets Mervyn Peake in a modern Mother London. The very best sort of odd.” 
   —William Gibson, author ofZero History
                       
“Nick Harkaway's novel is like a fractal: when examined at any scale, it reveals itself to be complex, fine-structured and ornately beautiful. And just like a fractal, all of this complexity and beauty derives from a powerful and elegant underlying idea.”
   —Charles Yu, author ofHow to Live Safely in a Science Fictional
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