Good reviews help sell books. It’s usual for a book to have some fizzing words of praise either on it or in it. This book positively drips with enthusiastic reviews from newspapers, magazines and other authors. A positive review from a few months back was one of the reasons I bought the book.
Perhaps only a fool or a soulless numpty with no respect for good writing would disagree with the many, many reviewers who loved this book. I hate to admit that 262 pages in, I could not, would not, read any further and I will try to explain why.
First of all, something of the story. Our protagonist is Joshua Joseph Spork (Joe Spork) a large man whose father was a notorious gentleman criminal. Joe has assiduously avoided his old man’s life of crime and specialises in repairing mechanical and clockwork devices. His life takes a surprising and potentially life-limiting turn when he is given a mysterious mechanical book to repair, reputed to be the ‘Book of Hakote’ whose astounding properties are gradually revealed.
The female lead in the story is given to Edie Banister, a octogenarian ex-secret agent and stone-cold killer. Spork’s entry into the dangerous world of international espionage and clockwork doomsday devices is largely due to Edie.
There is a whole supporting cast of friends, lovers, henchmen, secret societies and mad dictators. It is innovative, layered and carefully crafted. It feels as though it could be set in London between 1880 and 1960 but Harkaway makes numerous references to real-life people and events that means it is set in the present. Some examples:
Policemen who shoot plumbers nine times in the head for being diffusely non-white
Resentful Irish aviation bosses
There are many thought-provoking ideas in the book. There is an order of Ruskinites whose ideology is based on the philosophy of John Ruskin, art critic, painter, social thinker and philanthropist. Ruskin argued that truth, beauty and religion are inextricably linked. If nothing else, I have this book to thank for piquing my interest in Ruskin and making me find out more about him.
Also, Harkaway has something to say about the alienation caused by mass production and division of labour.
Why then is this getting the ‘did not finish’ treatment. Without boring you I will briefly list the reasons:
1. There are enormous side-stories, back-stories and digressions that would give Neal Stephenson a run for his money. Some help to move the story forward, some don’t.
2. Clockwork bees, mechanical automata, a secret government agency that operates from a steam train. Rats, I’ve gone and picked up another book that could loosely fit in the steampunk canon. I will never know if zeppelins drift into the story past page 262.
3. The wealth of characters all seem to speak with the same voice, like a Victorian civil-servant. Whilst I fully respect the considerable and laudable abilities of Mr Harkaway to demonstrate his prolixity in great, some might say leviathan-like, passages full of verve and linguistic wit; it does become, in many ways, rather tiresome.
I am sure that many people have enjoyed, and will enjoy, this book. If you have not read it, give it a try you may love it. Sadly it just did not click with me. Oh well, plenty more fish in the sea.