Slate compares Joe Spork, the protagonist of Nick Harkaway’s ripping spy novel Angelmaker, to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s Arthur Dent and Neverwhere‘s Richard Mayhew. Accurate comparisons, both. Like its spiritual predecessors, Angelmaker is a breezy read in spite of its intricate plot, which concerns a mild-mannered clockmaker (and son of one of London’s most infamous gentleman gangsters) who unwittingly triggers a doomsday device. (“Whoops” doesn’t quite cover the gravity of the situation.) It features a terrifying, Bond-esque villain, heaps of humor, a moody steampunk atmosphere, not to mention some of the sharpest writing to come out of the sci-fi genre in a while. It also features something too many novels — sci-fi or otherwise — lack: a bevy of fully fleshed-out female characters.
Indeed, Angelmaker has almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to engaging women. And since this is a spy novel, it seems fitting to break down some of the ladies of this fantastic novel in true espionage style.
The Women of Angelmaker: A Dossier
Name: Edie Banister
Notable Quote: “The deed is done. The wheels are in motion. Edie Banister, ninety years of age and a stalwart of the established order, has pushed the button on the revolution. She sighs again. It’s so odd to be a supervillain, and at her age, too.”
You would have to have a heart of stone to walk away from Angelmaker not being at least a little bit in love with Edie. When we first meet her, she’s an elderly client of Joe’s and owner of a particularly foul, blind pug named Bastion. But don’t let the doddering old biddy act fool you — turns out a 90-year-old can still wield a gun, and quite well, too, thank you very much. Her superspy origins are revealed over the course of Angelmaker — as well as in the eShort prequel, Edie Investigates. In Edie, Harkaway has created an enduring character whose wit, cunning, and tenacity make her a force to be reckoned with at any age.
Name: Polly Cradle
Notable Quote: “’Can we be very clear,’ Polly Cradle murmurs, ‘that I am not your booby sidekick or your Bond girl? That I am an independent supervillain in my own right?’”
What does it say about the morality of Angelmaker that one of the most unambiguously good characters is the receptionist for a very shady firm that makes the problems of London’s underground elite disappear? Polly may be handy with a knife, but she is also one of the few people not responsible in some way, shape, or form for the looming apocalypse. And while her romantic entanglement with the novel’s protagonist would, in a lesser book, normally resign her to the role of arm candy, Polly blatantly defies such easy categorization and is a wonderful character for it.
Name: Françoise “Frankie” Fossoyeur
Notable Quote: “Her face is very pale and pointed, and she has freckles. She must be all of five foot two inches tall, and proportionately tiny. The sleeves of her blouse are covered in mathematical notation written in ink.”
Then there’s Joe’s grandmother, Frankie, seen in flashbacks and the recordings she left behind for Joe’s grandfather, Daniel. Frankie is the classic model of a flighty genius — half rocket scientist, half space cadet — and the woman at the very heart of Angelmaker‘s mystery. Her very noble intentions are tragically subverted—paving the road to hell and all that good stuff. Her crackling intellect pops off the page. If Harkaway could be convinced to do a second eShort prequel, Frankie is definitely another character worth exploring.
And that’s just a light scratching of the surface. Even the smallest inhabitants of Angelmaker — men and women alike — feel fully realized. In a genre that doesn’t always give female characters a fair shake (how many fail even the simple litmus of the Bechdel test?), it’s a kick to get a novel where women run the world — even if it’s possibly about to end.