Author: Natasha Pulley
My copy: Bloomsbury Circus, 2015
In 1883, Thaniel Steepleton returns to his tiny flat to find a gold pocket watch 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 from a blast that destroys Scotland Yard, he foes 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 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.
I must first apologise for not posting for a while. I’ve been super busy with family issues and work but I am back now, so let’s get to it!
This has to be the most attractive book I have purchased in a a long time; the hardcover is wonderfully and intricately decorated and even has a circle cut out to reveal a watch face on the inside. I was initially drawn to this book because the beautiful cover but I was interested to learn that the author, Natasha Pulley, studied at my old university so I felt like I had to check this book out!
This is something different from the past few books I’ve read, which have been more heavy science fiction or pure historical fiction. Pulley’s novel combines elements of mystery, historical fiction and magical realism to create a wonderful speculative fiction novel. I know that others have called it ‘steam-punkesque’ and I can definitely relate to those who feel the novel has gothic overtones. The novel explores Victorian London (as I’ve mentioned before, it’s one of my favourite periods in history) but also nineteenth century Japan, and Pulley’s understanding and admiration for Japanese culture shines through. I was sadly ignorant of Japanese culture before I read this book, but the descriptions come from such a good place that it has definitely inspired me to look into the history of the country.
The reader is introduced to Thaniel, who is trapped in the drudgery of day-to-day life. Working as a telegraphist at the home Office, his work is his life but not through choice; he gave up his dream of being a pianist in order to support his widowed sister and her sons. If this doesn’t make him a loveable enough character straight from the beginning I don’t know what will! As I’ve said in my previous reviews, I need a character that I like, admire or at least respect to keep me interested. One evening, Thaniel returns to his rented room to find a gold pocket watch left on his bed. Although he’s initially concerned about having been burgled (although what kind of generous burglar leaves a gold pocket watch and washes the dishes?!), Thane pushes it out of his mind until six months down the line, when the watch saves his life from a terrorist bomb planted at Scotland Yard. Thaniel feels compelled to find the maker of the watch, and discovers Keita Mori, a Japanese national living in London. Mori initially comes across as a humble, albeit extremely talented, watchmaker and clockwork expert but we slowly discover that he is a clairvoyant and can see the future.
Alongside their story we meet the feisty and determined Grace Carrow, daughter of a well-off family, who is studying theoretical physics at Oxford and desperately trying to avoid getting married, much to her parents dismay. Her work centres around proving the existence of ether which is a substance that supposedly conducts light in the same way that air conducts sound. Her exploration of this mysterious substance leads her to Thaniel and Mori, of whom she is mesmerised by. Grace uses her ether theory to attempt to explain how Mori can ‘remember’ events in the future, causing the plot thicken with sinister implications.
Pulley’s shining victory in this novel is definitely these three characters; they are fully fledged, interlinked and extremely lovable. For me, it is so unusual to like all the main characters of a novel but this has done it! What makes Thaniel so brilliant is his unshakeable faith in and love for Mori, and his care and respect for Grace. He just seems like such a nice guy! One really interesting characteristic of Thaniel is that he can see sounds; he experiences a form of synesthesia in which he sees different sounds in different colours. I had never heard of it before I’d read this novel, and think it really adds to the magic of the book. The descriptions of this phenomena are just beautiful (see below for my favourite quote which is just one example of this).
It is so refreshing to read a novel that does not centre around sexual and romantic relationships, but rather a warm and genuine friendship. To be able to read and almost feel the friendship and trust growing between Thaniel and Mori throughout the book was completely heart-warming – I caught myself reading some passages with a big cheesy smile on my face! The sheer thoughtfulness of their relationship is really touching, especially the small thing they do for each other like putting honey in the tea to make it taste sweeter and cheer the other one up. I also love that Grace, who would stereotypically be one half of a couple, is so determined not get married just because society dictates. She is passion, intelligent and I actually found her funny. I found Grace to be real role model and she definitely ahead of her time.
The was only one slight downside for me which is that I felt the ending to be rushed in comparison to the rest of the book; the general pace of the novel is engaging but the reader can also sense that something bigger is building too. However, Pulley kept me guessing about how the story would end and it didn’t disappoint. The ending was fantastic but it was just a shame that it was all over so quickly.
Overall, I love this novel. It is magical and beautifully descriptive, and a mystery right up until the end. As cheesy as it sounds, it made me appreciate the true power of friendship and for Pulley to be able to produce such strong feelings in a relatively short book is pretty impressive. A very moving novel and one that left me wanting a clockwork octopus as a pet!
My favourite quote:
He held the watch a moment longer before setting it on the wooden chair by the bed, the one that served as a table for collars and cufflinks. The gold caught the ember-light and shone the colour of a human voice.