Synopsis: 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 two opposing loyalties.
This is one of those books that left me puzzling over what I just read. It’s an intiguing piece of speculative fiction that would have been the perfect read for me except for some of the characters.
Thaniel is a telegraph operator for the British government. If you look at him there’s nothing that makes him stand out from any of the other single men living and clerking in London. Young Thaniel however possesses a unique trait–he has synesthesia and can see colors in sound. Life is pretty dull as each day basically consists of him going back and forth between his small apartment and work. All that changes though when he arrives home one day to discover a pocket watch that someone has mysteriously left for him. Things grow stranger still when the watch sets off an alarm which saves his life. After discovering the watchmaker is Keito Mori, Thaniel is urged by Scotland Yard to spy on him because they suspect he is the bombmaker. But as a friendship is kindled between them, Thaniel grows more certain that he is innocent, although he has to admit there is something strange about Keito and his clockwork creations, which seem to have almost magical qualities. And then there’s the question of how Keito is able to answer questions before he’s even asked. In the middle of all this, Thaniel also meets Grace who once she’s introduced to Keito, also becomes fascinated by him. Once she and Thaniel enter into a marriage of convenience though, she becomes alarmed by the influence Keito seems to have over her husband and decides to attempt to separate the two, using her knowledge against Keito’s powers. Unfortunately this causes even more problems.
Thaniel is a likeable character who earnestly tries to do the right thing. Although he doesn’t make much money, he consistently sends whatever he can to his sister in Scotland who has been widowed and is trying to raise two sons. He shows that same unwavering loyalty to Keito once they become friends. An otherwise lonely man, he becomes torn between his friendship with Grace and his developing feelings for Keito. I have to say I found him difficult to understand at times. He marries Grace primarily for financial reasons, yet almost immediately regrets it and winds up spending his wedding night back at Keito’s. While I liked his friendship with Keito and how it eventually develops into something more, he doesn’t seem to be very passionate about anything or anyone, and this takes something away from what otherwise is a charming relationship.
Keito Mori is both a compelling character and a frustrating one. By the time I finished the book, I still didn’t really understand him or why he felt so strongly about Thaniel. It is his feelings for Thaniel that cause him to use his abilities, but it’s never really explained why he feels so passionately about this nice, but fairly unremarkable young man.
Which brings me to Grace who I really didn’t care for at all. Despite my empathy for her being one of the few women educated at Oxford, I found her to be cold and arrogant. She is so determined to prove herself that it often blinds her to other people’s wishes and desires. And when she plots to separate Thaniel from Keito, well that’s when things really fall apart. How an incredibly intelligent woman could come up with such a reckless scheme is beyond me.
So, you’re probably wondering why I rated this as high as I did. Well, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is also an imaginative and wondrous blend of historical fiction and magical realism, that has it’s breathtaking moments. It takes fantasy and juxtaposes it with cultural events of the time including the civil war in Japan, the unrest between England and Ireland, and the women’s suffragette movement. Natasha Pulley does a fantastic job combining all these elements and that’s what ultimately kept me reading. Well, that and an adorable clockwork octopus with a penchant for socks! I feel her debut is a bit flawed in regards to character development, it’s still entertaining, and I will definitely try another book by her.