The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley
3.5/5 (rounded to a Goodreads 4)
325 pages| Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus| Genre: Fantasy/ Historical fiction/ Steampunk/ Mystery
The digest: a solid novel with a combination of unusual literary devices to tell a rather unique story. Characters grow throughout the plot (through reveals, flashbacks, and normal progression), fun settings are prevalent, and it is very much grounded in a steampunk-esque Victorian era. The cover design is also rather special and is perhaps my favourite this year (2018).
The summary (taken from Goodreads):
“1883. Thaniel Steepleton returns home to his tiny London apartment to find a gold pocket watch on his pillow. Six months later, the mysterious timepiece saves his life, drawing him away from a blast that destroys Scotland Yard. At last, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori, a kind, lonely immigrant from Japan. Although Mori seems harmless, a chain of unexplainable events soon suggests he must be hiding something. When Grace Carrow, an Oxford physicist, unwittingly interferes, Thaniel is torn between opposing loyalties.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a sweeping, atmospheric narrative that takes the reader on an unexpected journey through Victorian London, Japan as its civil war crumbles long-standing traditions, and beyond. Blending historical events with dazzling flights of fancy, it opens doors to a strange and magical past.”
The characters are interesting enough on the surface but tend to lack enough development to explain some of their actions as the novel progresses. They do grow as the story progresses, we do learn their motivations and aspirations – but this consistency only lasts so long. Without spoiling the story, there was a rather incredulous change about 2/3 of the way through the novel – something you wouldn’t expect unless you were reading too heavily into certain passages, and the climax of the story too is massively unpredictable. There is an argument that this unpredictability was a prerequisite for the plot, but that idea does not float with me. There is a boundary to how far one is willing to push oneself.
I found that each character reached a point in the story where they acted against everything we had been told about them, at which point I feel they stopped being ‘people’ and instead just became vehicles for the plot. Unfortunately, this lack of character consistency (along with the ending sequence) leads me to think that the story of one of the three core trio could very much have been cut and replaced with something entirely different and the narrative wouldn’t have suffered much. I still liked them, but it seems that their existence was really surplus to the main story. (This can be gleaned from events within the book itself, but I think that Pulley could have made tried a bit harder to make us care about said character.) One can interpret events of the novel to be indicative of exactly this (I’m sorry for the awkward wording, just trying to avoid spoilers), but I’m not convinced that is really a good enough excuse here.
My other major issue was the ease with which the ‘normal’ characters (non-magical) accepted the magical element(s). The setting is very much historical fiction with only a smidgen of fantastical elements and for this reason. I was disappointed by how people weren’t more worried or continually excited about the fact their lives were quite possibly in the hands of a new (to them) authority, over which they had no control. If this power were to happen in the real world, it would not just be accepted (out of fear or otherwise), and the author’s choice in this regard stepped over the suspension of disbelief. It broke the immersion.
The setting, as I said above, is wonderfully done. Foreign elements (no spoilers!) are described in enough detail as to ensure the reader can easily picture them, and more familiar areas in London don’t rely too much on prior knowledge in order to make sense of the story. It is perhaps the combination of large-scale settings and smaller descriptions (such as rooms, tea-pouring rituals and such like) which creates an atmosphere missing in other novels.
Despite its flaws, I do recommend this novel as I enjoyed my time with it. It is a quick read with a rather unique set of plot devices thrown together with interesting characters and quaint locales certainly. The writing is not perfect, and none of its constituent pieces stand out as excellent, but The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is an easy to understand, enjoyable read for fans of the genre(s). I finished this novel and borrowed the author’s next (unrelated) story, Bedlam Stacks, from the library straight away.