Nick Harkaway’s second novel adopts the expansive, rich geography of his debut, The Gone-Away World, but with a total zero at the middle. The mild-mannered repairman at the center of Angelmaker assigns himself the job of finding and disabling a legendary weapon, but his dogged execution takes all the danger out of the end of the world, and the prospect of losing him with it.
The “Angelmaker,” or Apprehension Engine, is a doomsday device, but also the box into which Harkaway stuffs his plots so tightly, some of them don’t have room to breathe. A religious cult known as the Ruskinites sends two emissaries to Joe Spork’s shop believing he knows where the machine is. Their certainty convinces Joe that the Angelmaker, wherever it may be, is a leftover trick from his dead father, a famous criminal who left a lot of unfinished business for the straight-and-narrow Joe to clean up. None of Dad’s old friends know what the Angelmaker is, nor, when Joe locates it, how to work it, but the suspicious deaths that accrue behind Joe don’t put him off its trail, either.
Harkaway’s demented Dickensian world-building begins the moment Joe Spork creeps through his workshop to the neighborhood criminals’ underground market. Angelmaker reaches its crescendo with an extended flashback into the world of the machine’s creator, a French spy who stashed it in Britain for her former lover to use. The segment embroiders every surface with absurd, delightful detail. Yet it all serves to shrink Joe and his quest down to a point where the nervous guy still looking for his father’s approval can’t pass muster as a hero. He’s a vignette in a much bigger picture, but with his fate unequally weighed against the threat the Angelmaker poses to the world.
Against all the demented grandeur of international supernatural intrigue, Joe is a drip, unfortunately susceptible to delayed reactions to the clue resting in his own hands. Harkaway’s primary concession to Joe’s fussiness is giving him a love interest whose primary asset to the investigation is that she’s sexy—but her glowing opinion of him doesn’t rub off. His life and deeds pale in comparison to the exploits of the Angelmaker’s creator, and when driven to assume his father’s mantle on their behalf, he only wobbles toward it. Angelmaker constantly looks over Joe’s shoulder, but in spite of its loyalty to its protagonist, he’s too ordinary to root for.