This book was a bit like when you look at a recipe for a cake and when you read the list of ingredients you think ‘Well, that’s going to be the best cake I’ve ever had’ and then you eat it and it’s just plain, dry, and the icing-to-cake ratio is completely off. This is historical magical realism, with mystery, suspense, a hint of steampunk and romance, but all these aspects just didn’t sit right for me, and although Natasha Pulley’s writing was beautiful, I ended up finding this book confusing, slow, and difficult to finish.
The book starts in 1883, when Thaniel Steepleton, your average civil servant, returns to his tiny flat to find a costly golden pocket watch on his pillow. He tries to sell it, but nobody will take it, and so he appears to be stuck with it. However, he realises that there is something odd about the watch when it saves his life from an explosion that tears through Scotland Yard. He sets about investigating, and meets the Japanese watchmaker Keita Mori, whose creations are whimsical, unlike any clockwork he has ever seen, and who Thaniel suspects is hiding something. Elsewhere, Grace Carrow is battling her family’s expectations of her as she studies physics at Oxford and pursues her dream of making a scientific breakthrough that will help her gain her independence.
One thing that I loved about this book was the setting. Victorian London really comes to life, and Pulley makes you feel like you are there, among the grimy streets, at Whitehall, getting the tube, standing in the rain. At times, the book feels like Sherlockian, with a whimsical element to it that makes everything stand out just a little bit more. I also really enjoyed the Japanese elements that feature throughout the story. Keita Mori is Japanese, but he is far from a token POC character. Through flashbacks, we see his life in Japan, we learn about Japanese history, we see an entire Japanese community in London and a second Japanese character features heavily in Grace Carrow’s storyline. Mori’s shop was another favourite setting. I loved Pulley’s descriptions of all of the different clockwork creations, and despite being told repeatedly that they are just clockwork, you find yourself wondering whether there is something more to it.
There is an element of fantasy, but it isn’t in your face. A better term might be magical realism. There was clearly more to Mori than meets the eye, and I was eager to find out what it was. When we do find out, I was excited to see where the story would go. You do find out the truth, but unfortunately, I felt like all the fun was lost after this point, and the novel went from being magical and mysterious to being a bore. I was confused about how this ‘fantasy’ element worked, and how it fitted in with the characters’ storyline. Although I did get it, I felt like it was far too technical and confusing at times. Much like Mori’s clockwork, there were far too many different elements to understand, and I felt like it dragged the plot down a bit. A more simple explanation could have been better and given the story itself more room to shine.
Apart from these brilliant parts of the book, the simple reality is that this book was boring. It was so slow and I was just reading it without understanding what the characters were looking for, what they were trying to do and how they were hoping to get there. Even though the inciting action of this novel is the explosion at the start and Thaniel’s attempts to find out who was behind it, this fades into the backdrop of this story and when it stepped back into the forefront towards the end I was confused and a bit lost. I had basically forgotten all about it. I think that some storylines made the book too busy, like the scenes set in Japan, which would have worked better woven into the main storyline in my opinion
I’m gutted that this book wasn’t everything I thought it would be. I was really expecting this to blow me away, but it just fell flat in so many ways. I found myself fighting to get through it, and once I did, I wasn’t satisfied at all. I would have liked to have seen more character development for the characters, particularly Grace and Mori, and I might have enjoyed the story more if the plot was clearer throughout the book. I liked that the plot was mainly one of mystery and intrigue and that romance did not play a big part, but unfortunately, the romantic storyline that did feature fell flat in my opinion because the characters and the plot were so difficult to grasp.