A confession – I read the third of Natasha Pulley’s clever books set in an alternative Victorian era full of clockwork engines before reading books one and two. And it was fine, it was more than fine, I was blown away by her imagination, by the characters who were multi-layered, and competent, and whose motives were sometimes muddled although more of them meant well than not. I wanted to spend more time with them, I was entangled in their stories and on tenterhooks when confusion led to possible betrayal and disaster.
The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is set in Japan – an exotic unfamiliar country, undergoing familiar nineteenth century British experiences: industrialisation threatening the existing culture, bad weather in the North of the country, and tea breaks. Then there’s clairvoyance, and clairvoyance-jamming (like radio jamming), visible patterns in the ether and incredible clockwork devices. I raved about how brilliant the book was to family and friends – and my sister bought books one and two.
Book One is The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and it is a beautiful book. The actual paperback is beautifully constructed with a double layered front cover, cut away to reveal a pocket watch. And its contents? Wonderful! Natasha Pulley’s imagination fizzes with ‘what ifs’ – and the ‘what ifs’ are followed up, not just then this would happen, but then this could, and this is likely too.
In a marvellous feat of giving a slight twist to an explanation, the Michelson-Morley interferometer experiment is not allowed to disprove the existence of a luminiferous ether. And that ether can then explain clairvoyance – just as Victorian spiritualists claimed. The scientist who synthesises this theory is a rebellious woman who studies at Oxford, wears trousers and a false moustache so she can enter the Bodleian, and has no patience with the proto-feminists she meets because they quote their husbands’ views and seem not to think for themselves. Her motto seems to be If the sign says don’t walk on the grass, then hop. Advice I hope to remember.
The Watchmaker describes the tentative friendship between a musician who works as a telegraph operator and the eponymous Japanese watchmaker. Both characters seem attractive, principled, kind and vulnerable. But maybe the watchmaker is actually a bombmaker? Or maybe he isn’t but the telegraph operator’s suspicions will destroy their relationship? Or the woman scientist will come between them? Anything seems possible, and the resolution of misunderstandings carries the reader along a precipice edge of disaster for some or all of the characters.
And the clockwork octopus? The watchmaker constructs him for company. The octopus steals socks, hides in chests of drawers, suns himself on the doorstep, chases clockwork birds, loves to sit in a tub of water and curls his tentacles affectionately round humans’ arms. Move over Klara and Flush! You have to make room for another.
I’ve read The Watchmaker twice now, and appreciated more of the plot points that are laid down to be explained later, or connect to the other books. But mainly I read the book again so I could spend more time with Thaniel and Keito in Natasha Pulley’s wonderful world.
Now for The Bedlam Stacks.