It wasn’t exactly a normal robbery. Whoever broke into Nathaniel Steepleton’s rented apartment left without taking anything; and exactly what kind of burglar washes the dishes and then leaves a beautiful gold pocket watch on the pillow? Thaniel felt ridiculous reporting it, and he almost couldn’t blame the police for laughing.
It was a lot less funny six months later when a perfectly timed alarm from the watch saves Thaniel from being killed in a bomb blast at Scotland Yard. With no idea of who gave him the watch, the still-dazed telegraphist looks for the watch’s maker instead, and finds a lonely but friendly Japanese immigrant with a stunning talent for watchmaking and a sock-stealing clockwork octopus for a pet.
Natasha Pulley’s debut novel features my favorite element of Steampunk – clockwork – and includes a cast of eccentric characters set in Victorian London, with a plot that’s never boring but becomes almost too clever towards the end.
Unlike Elizabeth Bear’s Steampunk novel Karen Memory, this isn’t a fantasy version of the past. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is set in a realistic version of London (with the occasional side trip to Oxford or flashback to Japan in the Meiji period), and is set around historical events like the Scotland Yard bombing and the creation of the Japanese Village exhibition in Knightsbridge (with guest appearances by Gilbert and Sullivan). Anything steampunk about this book is focused solely on the character of Keita Mori and his lovingly crafted watchworks.
The author creates so many appealing little images with these: the intricate gears and cogs inside Katsu (Mori’s mechanical octopus), the clockwork birds and their hidden compartments of fireworks, even the tiny mechanical fairies Mori sets loose in his garden so the annoying children next door will have something to chase instead of sneaking inside his workshop and breaking things.
Pulley has also obviously done her research on the ins and outs of clockwork, enough to throw in the kind of tidbits I love to read (and which I end up researching myself later) like the use of a fusee chain in antique watches, or why anyone would want bimetallic mainsprings, or how magnets can create random motion (that becomes important later on in the book.)
“Is it dangerous? This isn’t going to be like the magnesium thing again, is it?”
“It isn’t explosive,” she said, for the fourth time that week. “And the crater wasn’t that bad, and your eyebrows were perfectly all right.”
“I think you’ll find the crater is still perceptible in the lawn, despite the valiant efforts of the gardener.”
The character interactions in this book have some of the same kind of intricacy as the clockwork. The conversations are filled with clever, rapid-fire back-and-forth exchanges, and the author kept surprising me by taking things in a completely different direction from what I was expecting. Unlike some stories set in a Victorian era, I never noticed anything forced or stilted; Pulley excels at creating a unique voice for each of her characters, whether it’s Thaniel the former-pianist-turned-telagraphist with synesthesia (his brain perceives sounds as color; you can imagine how beautifully that bleeds over into the author’s depiction of everyday London), or Grace Carrow, an Oxford science student with no use for ladylike pursuits, or Grace’s dandy of a friend Matsumoto (another Japanese immigrant) who charms his way into and out of every situation and let’s Grace “borrow” his clothes when she needs to go someplace where a woman’s presence is frowned on.
And of course there’s Mori, an unflappable and unfailingly polite former samurai. With a pet clockwork octopus. And a diary of things that never happened. Or haven’t happened yet.
“I’d like to be a watchmaker before I’m a samurai, somewhere in the world.”
“Must be terrible for you, being a samurai.”
“Shut up, peasant.”
The fact that no one’s motivations were one hundred percent clear all of the time kept things interesting, but it made the story a little hard to follow towards the end. Part of that comes from the author having the characters make some very fast decisions without a whole lot of explanation about the thought process that brought them there (Grace and Thaniel make a fairly life-changing agreement practically in the space between two sentences. It’s enough to give you whiplash.) But the rest of the confusion comes from some entertainingly timey-wimey things going on with cause and effect in this book.
It’s hard to describe without giving away too much of the story, but there’s an almost god-like ability being played with here, and as usually happens when that kind of control is involved, the author has to jump through all kinds of hoops in order to a) explain what’s going on and b) come up with situations where the power can’t work. If it’s too easy for someone to solve all their problems, you eventually reach the point where the reader wonders why the character didn’t just erase the problems from existence before they started.
And that leads to my one big question about the book. It ends with a tinge of unease, and I’m not sure how much of it was deliberate on the author’s part. You can look one way at how things turned out and think “Aw, it’s neat how they arranged for that to happen.” And then you can look at it and see an unspoken threat. It’s that god-like ability again; a power like that, that kind of control, it’s too easy to misuse. You can do horrible things even with the best justifications, and the book is filled with people doing some not very nice things – selfish, threatening, sometimes violent things without other people’s knowledge – all while telling themselves that things will work out fine.
It’s a fun book, a gorgeous fascinating story, and it has some very sweet romance that I hadn’t even realized I was rooting for until it happened. But it’s hard to imagine any of the characters will be willing to let it go, instead of wondering for the rest of their lives exactly how much of those lives have been completely under someone else’s control.
Update! This book is also available in audio format, narrated by Thomas Judd (fans of Joseph Delaney may recognize Mr. Judd as the pleasingly British narrator for The Wardstone Chronicles, which looks like something I may want to try). Find a free fifteen minute sample on audible here.