The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley

The Watchmaker of Filigree StreetTitle: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

Author: Pulley, Natasha (Author’s Website)

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Steampunk

Bibliographic: Bloomsbury, 336 pages. Hardcover List Price $26.00, Paperback List Price $16.00, eBook list price $10.99, Audiobook List Price $24.95.  ISBNs 9781620408339, 9781620408346, 9781410482242, 9781620408353.

Publication Date: July 14, 2015

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ / ♥ ♥ ♥ ♡ ♡ (The rating scale is here.)

Appeal Factors: Intricately plotted, atmospheric, compelling, richly detailed

Why I picked it up: I was thinking about reading this for awhile, since it was selected by the Book of the Month Club, but I didn’t quite want to commit to buying it in hardcover. When Audible included the audiobook version as part of a buy-one-get-one-free sale, I decided to take the plunge. It seemed interesting, because I really like fantasy set inside of real history — plus Gilbert and Sullivan make an appearance, which can only be a plus.

S.I.A.S.: A boring civil servant’s life is turned upside down when a mysterious pocket watch saves his life.

Summary: Thaniel Steepleton (his dad was Nat) is a pianist-turned-civil servant who’s going nowhere fast and is pretty much okay with that, until a mysterious pocket watch shows up on his pillow on the same day that the Home Office — where he works as a telegraph clerk — receives notice that bomb will go off in London several months hence, courtesy of an Irish nationalist group. He can’t open or use the watch but carries it anyway, and on the day the bomb is meant to go off it suddenly begins functioning and draws him away from the explosion, saving his life. Thaniel decides to find the watchmaker, a Japanese immigrant named Keita Mori, who happens to have a spare room available to rent. The home office suspects that Mori may have planted the bomb, so they encourage Thaniel to move in with him to keep tabs. Thaniel, Mori, and Mori’s pet clockwork Octopus become best friends, until they meet Grace Carrow — an Oxford-educated physicist working to prove the existence of aether.

Meanwhile, Thaniel begins to notice that there is something…off… about Mori — it turns out he has the ability to remember things that haven’t happened yet. When Grace realizes that he could be the key to the scientific breakthrough she’s been working for, things start to go awry.

Evaluation: I really, really enjoyed this book. It was extremely-well written and well-paced, and while I can see why some people have complained that it starts too slowly I heartily disagree — the world-building is thorough and subtle enough that by the point the plot really gets going you have all the information you need. The ending was a little bit rushed, and I’m not sure that the “twist” at the end was quite as dramatic as the author may have been hoping for, but the writing is enchanting enough that that can easily be forgiven.

The characters were well-developed, for the most part. Matsumoto (Grace’s best friend from Oxford and also a Japanese immigrant) is a little flat — he seems to exist primarily as a foil to Mori, and he serves that purpose well. Katsu (the clockwork octopus) is surprisingly  well-developed — he has a penchant for stealing socks, even though he has no mind.

Really, the best adjective I have for the way this book made me feel is delighted. The relationship between Thaniel and Mori is almost like a (platonic) romance, and it’s so nice to read a novel where the most important relationship is between a set of best friends. (I would argue that the second most important relationship is also between a set of best friends — Grace and Matusmoto — but there’s a little bit of flirtation there, so it’s not quite the same.)

Finally, I listened to the audiobook version of the novel, which is very good– the narrator, Thomas Judd, is good at differentiating between different English accents, even to the point where my American ears could hear the differences in Mori’s accent as it changed. It was a nice way to experience this book, since my inclination would have been to speed through it; when you’re listening, even if you listen at a faster rate (which I do) you can only go as fast as the narrator and can’t skim ahead.

Significance: In the world of fantasy (and steampunk in particular), it can sometimes be difficult to find stories that aren’t set in England — while this does take place in Victorian London, the sections set in Japan and the plethora of Japanese characters make it stand out. There is some fairly serious consideration of xenophobia mixed into the plot, which is nice. Finally, it’s just a darn good book, although I might not choose to recommend it to people who think they don’t like fantasy.

Readalikes: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What is the significance of Thaniel’s synesthesia?/How does it impact his relationships with Grace and Mori?
  2. How does Grace confront traditional gender roles? Do any of the other characters confront traditional society in a similar way?
  3. Xenophobia plays a big part in this novel. In one particularly interesting moment, Thaniel calls Mori a xenophobe for declining to attend his church wedding. Is Mori a xenophobe, despite being surrounded by a different culture? What about the other Japanese immigrants in the exhibition village?
  4. Why is Grace so jealous of the relationship between Thaniel and Mori? Can you relate to her choices, especially towards the end of the novel?
  5. What did you think of Katsu?

Lists and Awards:  Shortlist, Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award 2016; Shortlist, Betty Trask Prize 2016; Finalist, Locus First Novel Award 2016

Professional Reviews:  Library Journal. New York Times. Kirkus. Publishers Weekly.

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