FICTION: The secret is in the bees

Published May 20, 2012 12:05am

THE bees of the world are vanishing. They have been vanishing for years. It is probably a good indication of all that’s wrong with the world. Margaret Atwood has been trying to tell us for years how crucial bees are to our survival. From his latest book, I think Nick Harkaway knows this too.

Angelmaker is a big, sprawling, exciting romp of a novel. It is many things — steampunk adventure, espionage novel, noir thriller, love story — but what it is not is boring. In fact, this may well be the most entertaining novel you’ll read for months to come. At about a 100 pages into the book — and it is a long one, but justifiably so — there is a moment when one of the protagonists encounters a mad man: a seer, a prophet who will start a device that will change the world. This encounter feels exactly like the initial sudden push of a rollercoaster — the push that indicates an engine has revved up, the push that tells your heart that this is going to be an insane, fun ride.

Harkaway gives us two lead protagonists entirely different from one another. One is an almost 90-year-old woman called Edie Banister who is vital to setting the main action of the book in motion, just as she was vital to the events that took place decades ago when she was a young, feisty super-spy working against her arch nemesis Shem Shem Tsien, “the Opium Khan”. The other protagonist is a seemingly quiet, unassuming clockmaker Joe Spork, “the man who arrives too late,” whose voice “sounds hollow and small, even inside his own head”. Edie’s story is the essential back story of the Angelmaker device and why Joe Spork is the man who can stop the world from ending. How their lives cross and how Edie leads Joe to realising that he must, quite literally, save the world, is what Angelmaker is about.

Of course, this is entirely too simple a description, because this is a twisty, exciting story — with high jinks galore, hooded monks, perfect heists, secret torture cells, a sexy train fetishist love interest and a truly nefarious arch villain. Shem Shem Tsien is described aptly as “Idi Amin with a dash of Lex Luthor,” and quite literally has a god complex. He’s a perfect villain — perfectly evil for evil’s sake with no humanising elements at all. He’s the sort of villain you’d find caricaturised in Hindi films of the 1980s that were heavily influenced by Bond films. Instead, Shem Shem Tsien is a smooth, slick genius who has hired a French scientist to build a frightening device and he’s willing to take his own mother out if she stands in the way of his destroying the world.

The titular Angelmaker is a mechanical model beehive with a clockwork book at its top. When set in motion by a clockmaker, a mad man and a thief, it opens its top to release perfect black iron and gold bees that “come into the scant daylight and bask… Ten, twenty, thirty of them, in a gorgeous geometrical spiral around the hive”. When asked what this piece of precision automata does, the mad man explains, “It makes angels out of men… It makes the world better, just by being. Isn’t that wonderful?” And it would be, if only the device’s activity didn’t also invite “shadows and ghosts,” and the inevitable resurgence of Shem Shem Tsien.

There are many asides in Angelmaker, as there were in Harkaway’s first book, The Gone-Away World, but this is no standard shaggy dog story. None of the smaller story arcs narrated within the larger arc are irrelevant. The book demands intelligence, trust and a certain level of involvement from the reader who, once immersed, will be as excited by the narrative as the narrative is by itself. There is a great deal of playfulness here, in the writing and plotting, both. This is clearly intelligent, informed, satirical and well-plotted fun. Such no holds barred glee isn’t found in literature very often nowadays, especially in large novels that are spread over time and space so freely. It may be a testament to Harkaway’s talent as a scriptwriter that he is able to write such cinematic action sequences. Even in the large battles against Shem Shem Tsien and his henchmen, Harkaway does not lose his sense of humour or timing. In one important fight, the sudden arrival of a baby elephant heralds a change in the battle. While one little elephant in the face of a hundred weapons may seen absurd, the episode nonetheless causes sheer joy for both Edie Bannister and the reader.

The narrative has at its heart a perfect, magnificent steampunk vehicle called the Lovelace. This train is essentially what Angelmaker the novel is: a high powered locomotive constructed with love and passion by an expert craftsman. They both hurtle with more power then you’d think possible, achieving what most wouldn’t, and yes, they’ll both shake you off your rails.

Angelmaker (NOVEL) By Nick Harkaway William Heinemann, London ISBN 0307595951 496pp. £12.99

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