Fun, Fantasy, and Other Deep Truths

NICK HARKAWAY’S second novel, Angelmaker, is out now through Knopf. His first, The Gone-Away World, found favor with fans of boisterously literate science fiction. Angelmaker is, in many ways, tipped from the same mold as its predecessor. It is unapologetically fun (with a particularly English sense of humor familiar to fans of Stephen Fry and Douglas Adams), stuffed full of blisteringly creative ideas and digressive subplots, and shot through with darker undernotes. In it Harkaway asks some large questions about (among other things) the nature of identity, who owns the truth, the dark side of the will to power, and the true cost of the preservation of stability. The novel also makes a strong case for the power of compassion, courage, and the glory of imagination used well.

Angelmaker follows two alternating threads. In one an irreverent and intelligent orphaned girl, Edie Banister, is recruited into wartime secret service with the Ruskinites, an order of men and women devoted to beautiful craftsmanship who have been roped into weapons development. She rescues and falls in love with a genius who is using microscopic clockwork to build a supercomputer that will reveal the truth and end war. This “Apprehension Engine” (the titular Angelmaker), is baroque and bizarre; the force field of truth is to be disseminated by mechanical bees swarming from clockwork hives around the world. Naturally, an unreconstructed dictator wants to use it as a weapon of mass destruction.

The second thread is the present-day tale of Joe Spork, as he attempts to lead a humble, honest life until he is manipulated into adventure by the elderly Banister and pursued by the now-corrupt and terrifying Ruskinites.

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