This book gave me whiplash.
Set against the backdrop of the 19th century Clan na Gael bombings in London, and 19th century political unrest in Japan, Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is nothing short of immense. For a new author to release a debut novel that gripped me so intensely, in a genre I don’t generally read, is nothing short of mindblowing. I won’t lie and says it’s perfect. At one point I found myself slightly lost during a confusing, labyrinthine scene, and a couple of plot points came across as jarring. But on the whole, the book is enjoyable, unique, and smart enough to keep readers guessing all the way up to the end.
We are often told ‘not to judge a book by its cover’, but I think it is fair to judge this book by its cover. Whoever the designer is, they have done a fantastic job of incorporating plot elements into the very framing of the cover (and title elements, with the gold filigree border). This kind of elegant cover design fits what you would expect from a book from the Victorian era in which it is set. Bloomsbury have done a fantastic job of typesetting the book, including using a lovely font known as ‘Bell’ which is an old typeface. Small things like this are easy to overlook but help pull together a well designed book. There were a few obvious typos which could’ve been easily avoided, but nothing too harrowing.
Thaniel, the main character, works as a telegraphist for the Home Office in London. He drudges on, doing the same thing every day and barely surviving. Half of his salary goes to his sister, and like the quote on the back of the book he ‘lives his life like clockwork’. Until one day, when he returns home to find his house broken into, his washing up done, and a present waiting for him.
This gift is the catalyst that sets the novel in motion. With these first few pages, Pulley manages to create a mystery that will become the story’s driving force. In chapter three we’re introduced to Grace Carrow, a scientist studying at Oxford University. In this chapter Pulley manages to intensify the mystery and create another engaging character – by this point I was hooked. The final ‘main character’, Keita Mori… well, you should read the book to find out about him (I loathe to put any big spoilers in my reviews). The characters are engaging, and Pulley presents them without any pretence to who they are. I enjoy this, a book that doesn’t require or pressure you to like all of the characters feels all the more authentic.
Thaniel is the character through which the majority of the story is told. Pulley utilises a third-person limited point of view through which the mystery of the story is intensified. The way this story is narrated definitely serves the plot efficiently, as most of the plot hinges on the feeling of uncertainty that Thaniel feels about Keita Mori. The story is intriguing, though the stress on Mori’s genius felt over-laboured at times to the point of being tedious.
By only knowing the thoughts and feelings of Thaniel – and Grace at times – we’re left wondering what is going on until the last couple of chapters.
And that’s where this book gave me whiplash.
I’ve never read a book that is on such a slow burn, methodically but carefully building tension for two thirds of the story, before accelerating 0-260mph in the last act. I wouldn’t say that this pacing is bad, though it did throw me off momentarily. In fact, the last of the book’s three acts raced at such breakneck speeds that I felt a little left behind.
The setting serves the book wonderfully, and themes of materialism, terror, unrequited love, and xenophobia are all dealt with care and a delicate writing style. It’s a book from a much less liberal time, and I feel like Pulley does a good job of representing this fairly. Her command of the English language is fantastic, and serves the purpose of the novel well.
Ultimately, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street satisfies a curiosity I never knew I had. Of all things clockwork, Victorian, and science-magical. I can wholeheartedly reccommend this novel to historical fiction lovers, those who enjoy steampunk, or even a curious reader who – like me – wants to test the waters of good historical fiction.
Well that was refreshing, a debut novel that didn’t drive me crazy. If you enjoyed this review, I’ve got plenty more coming.
Have you read, or do you want to read this book? If so, leave a comment and tell me what you think.
Thanks for reading.
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