Review: THE WATCHMAKER OF FILIGREE STREET by Natasha Pulley

WatchmakerofFiligreeStreetThe Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
(Fantasy; Bloomsbury, 2015)

4/5 Stars.

A telegraph operator né pianist, a physicist fighting for her own future, and an enigmatic/genius Japanese watchmaker navigate 1884 London (and each other) amid nationalist terror attacks, arch looks from rank-and-file Londoners, and fanciful clockwork.

Writer Brain: 4/5. Read this if you’re writing historical fantasy. Pulley knew her settings inside and out–the politics, the science, the air, the weather–and the effect is wonderful. You don’t have to be deeply versed in Victorian culture or that of the contemporary Japanese classes represented here to quickly understand the careful choreography of each character and the potential impact of diverging from the exceptions of each of them. You’re able to focus more on the possibilities of the characters’ inevitable meetings and interactions while the setting plays referee in the background.

On the other hand, I felt a bit adrift at times. There was enough fuel for my Reader Brain to keep going, but I wonder if the most important clues to the biggest and most pressing question–regarding Mori’s big secret–are dropped too late. I have to say, I had a completely different theory of what was going on, and though I was delighted to be corrected, it took a while to get there.

Editor Brain: 5/5 Pulley’s main cast was greatly comprised of characters representing foreign, disempowered, or otherwise marginalized classes. While their individual isolation contributes to the characters finding each other amid London’s populous supporting cast, they rarely find themselves working toward the same ends simply because they share the experience of being “other.” This happens often enough in real life: intersectionality (or the lack thereof) is of great concern in several current social movements. In Pulley’s novel multidimensional nature of discrimination, mistrust, and polarization makes for good storytelling because it is sadly real; combined with the individual characters’ desires which depart from and align with cultural expectation in turn, this prism of reality also keeps them from fitting any one cliche too perfectly. The take-away here: you can write a story about a diverse cast in a setting that prizes homogeneity without relying on tokenism to do it.

Reader Brain: 5/5 Not too far into the book, I posted a status that summed up my initial excitement: “Bombs are exploding. Disguises are being worn. A clockwork octopus has stolen a sock.” The little details were so immensely important, and as someone who likes all the ends tied up nicely, I greatly appreciated Pulley’s precision. It was a carefully engineered novel about carefully engineered events involving carefully engineered machines. And some very scientific magic. And if you know anything about my novel in progress, you know that made me smile and squee.

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