They say not to judge a book by a cover, but when it comes to books, I always do. I’m judgmental like that. A good cover is what makes me notice a book on my round through the bookstore. If it doesn’t pique my interest, I’ll probably not pick it up. Not picking it up was not an option with The Watchmaker of Filigree Street though, as its cover is one of the most compelling ones I’ve seen in a long time.
With its black, gold an green colors it is rich and warm, and there are fireworks, bombs, an octopus, and a three dimensional pocket watch created by means of a cut-out. It instantly tells you that there is no doubt that interesting things are happening on its pages. And that is a true thing.
Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is set mostly in Victorian London in the 1880s, although it takes us on a slight tour of the Japan of that era as well. Thaniel Steepleton works as a telegrapher for the British Home Office when one night he comes home to find his place broken into. Nothing is missing, but his dishes have been washed – and an intricate pocket watch has been left in his room. A watch that six months later saves his life from an Irish Nationalist bomb that blows up Scotland Yard.
Thaniel then sets out to find the watch’s maker, and comes upon kind but mysterious Japanese Mr Mori and his clockwork pet octopus Katsu. Mori is suspected of making the bomb, and Thaniel is asked to spy on him. However, they soon become friends, although it is clear that they both keep important secrets. How come Mori knows so many things that he shouldn’t? And why did his watch save Thaniel’s life?
Then there is the storyline of Grace Carrow, a female student at Oxford desperately trying to proof the existence of luminiferous ether before the end of term, so that she can get a fellowship instead of having to marry and give up science altogether.
For the first two-thirds of the book, it’s unclear how these lines fit together, and the pace of the book is pleasantly slow, with pronounced depth of characterization and a great eye for detail of what it is like to live in Victorian London with its emergence of big machinery. Towards the end everything comes together – and starts to unravel fast, and the story becomes chaotic and even feels somewhat rushed. But although this comes as a bit of a shock initially, there is a clear idea behind this change.
And of ideas there are a great many in this book, as there are important themes. I wish I could elaborate on this, but I feel I would too easily spoil the surprises and twists that are such a great part of the charm of this story. Suffice to say that The Watchmaker of Filigree Street combines historical fiction, mystery, steampunk, magical realism and a bit of romance with great characterization and a number of large themes, all interspaced with the occasional philosophical musings.
Go on and read this charming book, and if at the end of it you feel cheated that you’ll see no more of its characters you can rejoice: Natasha Pulley herself has recently confirmed she’s working on the third book in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street series. Huzza!