Author: Natasha Pulley
Rating: 5 Stars
Dates read: 02 Apr 18 – 13 Apr 18
Publication date: 02 July 2015
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Fantasy
In 1883, Thaniel Steepleton returns to his tiny flat to find a gold pocketwatch on his pillow. But he has worse fears than generous burglars; he is a telegraphist at the Home Office, which has just received a threat for what could be the largest-scale Fenian bombing in history.
When the watch saves Thaniel’s life in a blast that destroys Scotland Yard, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori – a kind, lonely immigrant who sweeps him into a new world of clockwork and music. Although Mori seems harmless at first, a chain of unexpected slips soon proves that he must be hiding something.
Meanwhile, Grace Carrow is sneaking into an Oxford library dressed as a man. A theoretical physicist, she is desperate to prove the existence of the luminiferous ether before her mother can force her to marry.
As the lives of these three characters become entwined, events spiral out of control until Thaniel is torn between loyalties, futures and opposing geniuses.
Utterly beguiling, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street blends historical events with dazzling flights of fancy to plunge readers into a strange and magical past, where time, destiny, genius – and a clockwork octopus – collide.
I would like to preface what will be a positive review by saying that I really dislike historical fiction. On the whole, I find historical fiction to move at a slow pace, and the interludes to be slow and boring. I realise this is both judgemental and a sweeping generalisation about a genre I haven’t much experience reading, but that was the case and the mindset that I went into reading this novel with.
All I can really start by saying is wow. I found this book oddly addictive. I had periods where I struggled to stop listening, and found the characters and plot to be engaging and thought provoking. Natasha Pulley has created a story that is rich in every details, from characters to clockwork and from England to Tokyo, that make her first novel truly spectacular.
I always like to assess the major characters individually, and must say that this book has that rare and irresistible quality of having characters that are wonderfully likeable whilst being inherently flawed. Thaniel is a brilliant example of a genuinely caring, hard working man with an underappreciated mind and thirst for knowledge. He really made the extraordinary and somewhat fantastical elements seem absolutely normal. Now, that sounds offensive doesn’t it, but magic and mind reading can seem so out of place in a historical setting, and somehow Thaniel stopped this from jarring and his wonderful take on all things unusual helped me as the reader absorb what was a strange concept. He also embraces the forward thinking and fiercely intelligent Grace in such a gallant way without asking for anything return that is in itself such an underrated and under explored quality.
Grace, on the other hand, is so driven and focused that she regularly misses such pleasant moments as normal conversation, and is blind to the genuine thoughtfulness of those around her. She is a brilliantly powerful female character in a time that lacked female equality of any nature, and that is to be applauded, mainly for the fact it does not feel forced, but also because it is so wonderfully incorporated. I really admire her drive to influence scientific evolution, but can’t help wondering if this is what blinds her to the more mundane aspects of life and to the interactions she has with the significant men in her life. Sadly, she does ruin herself somewhat as her more manipulative and selfish qualities gain prominence, and I don’t like the idea that her powerful side suggests she is unable to have a normal life outside academia, but she is a strong woman in a time of men.
Mori is, without doubt, one of the most interesting and layered characters I have read about. His ability to create such stunning clockwork machinery, combined with his unusual future reading memory (I really don’t know how else to describe it other than remembering the future), the subtleties of his accent alterations, and the casual nature of slipping in and out of the future and present is simply incredible. I love how quiet and introverted he is, yet decisive and influential. He utilises his wealth and his standing to create a comfortably life for himself, yes, but he has also pursued this to make it comfortable and safe for Thaniel and his friends.
It’s clear that the story stems for Mori and that Pulley thought of him in most detail. Katso (the clockwork octopus) is such a brilliant extension of Mori that opposes most of his traits, and the pair of them are my favourite characters in the novel. His changing accents are a brilliant reminder and indicator of his future self, his future companions, and the delicate changes reflect what are seemingly small changes in the present that have great influence over his future memories. Yes, there are some very unusual circumstances that surround him, and for a little while I feared I had misjudged him, but for someone who can see and know so much, and influence so greatly, he doesn’t stray from the right line.
I listened to this book, but after researching, have heard the same complaint from those who didn’t like it or DNF’d the book as a whole: it starts slow. I have to say, I shared this sentiment to begin with, the story wasn’t developing at a great pace, it was flicking a little between locations and characters, and I wasn’t sure I was following whatever plot there might or might not have been. Suddenly that changed. I don’t know if it was the increased interactions of Mori and Thaniel, or whether the tit bits of information that had been fed to the reader suddenly meshed to create a wonderfully intricate fabric, but I realised that Pulley had laid the groundwork in a masterful way. Rather than overwhelm the reader, she integrates them slowly into the stories and lives of the characters until you see what they see, understand what they understand, and struggle to extract yourself from their world entirely.
I’d also like to take a moment to heap praise upon the narrator Thomas Judd. Narration can make or break a story, and Thomas Judd navigated the subtleties of accent changes with extraordinary delicacy. I felt throughout that Judd understood the novel to a much greater depth than I did, and that he revealed just the right amount at precisely the correct moment for me to simultaneously understand the storyline but also to avoid placing his own nuances and take on the developing plot. I’ve never heard his narration, and cannot recommend the audiobook of this enough, but also his skills as a gifted narrator.
This book has really made me think about historical fiction in a different light. It transcended what I believed to be a boring genre, and interweaves fantasy with history immaculately. It has an ending that was befitting and thoroughly unexpected, and was a simply delightful read.