An Irishman, a Japanese watchmaker, and a lady physicist walk into a bar – it sounds like the set up to a fairly offensive joke but don’t worry, there’s no punchline coming. Instead, this is roughly the menagerie of characters that walk into the life of Thaniel Steepleton, a young bachelor and telegraphist at the home office in Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (2015). It is 1883, and London is the target of Clan na Gael, a group of Irish nationalists. On the same day that Thaniel receives a warning that Clan na Gael plan to detonate a bomb at the home office in six months’ time, he returns home to find that his flat has been broken into and a small golden watch left for him. While this is happening in London, Grace Callow – our physicist – is busy making the most of her final weeks at Oxford to conduct her research into luminiferous ether despite the efforts of her friend Akira Matsumoto – a second cousin to the emperor of Japan – to distract her. As time ticks by, Grace is pulled back to London and her family home as Thaniel attempts to uncover the mystery of his watch. His investigations lead him to Keita Mori – a Japanese watchmaker with a Lincolnshire accent. Mori lives alone with Katsu, a remarkable clockwork octopus he has constructed. He is also renowned for making the most accurate horological mechanisms in London; just the sort of talent a bombmaker might make use of. There is something otherworldly about Mori, too, a sense that he can see into the future, which hardly puts suspicions about him to rest. Stories intertwine as the future shifts, and Grace, Thaniel, and Mori all form relationships that unfold as the truth about the bombmakers explodes.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley book cover
The gorgeous cover, with its filigree design, pulled me in immediately (sometimes, you should judge a book by its cover). Contained amongst the pages of this beautifully designed book is more than an appealing premise and wonderful touches like the clockwork octopus. Pulley clearly has a strong interest in Japanese culture and the way that she weaves historical fact – dropping interesting tidbits into the story – with invention to create a world with all the charm of Victorian steampunk and the otherworldly intrigue of fantasy is excellent.

Lying at the heart of the story is Mori’s strange ability to see a multitude of possible futures. The philosophic questions this raises about free will and morality under the burden of knowledge, are an engaging aside to the central storyline. After all, if Mori sees the multitude of potential futures that lay before him and others, can he be trusted not to intervene and turn fate to his own ends? The (semi-) determinism of being able to remember the future (Tralfamadorian-style) ties a neat link between Mori’s uncanny abilities and Grace’s research into ether – in essence, they are two sides of the same coin, one whose response is instinctive while the other’s is scientific. Even Katsu, the clockwork octopus that almost steals the show, fits into this theme and demonstrates that even in order there is chaos as, despite being driven by clockwork, it still acts unpredictably.

Grace is naturally suspicious of Mori’s gift, but Thaniel is fair less sceptical and develops a strong friendship with the strange watchmaker. So ensues a tug of war between Mori and Grace for Thaniel’s attention. While Mori appears to bend fate in Thaniel’s favour, helping him to achieve his secret desire of becoming a professional musician, Grace cannot help but believe Mori’s motives are darker than Thaniel imagines. With the future both certain and ever-changing, the reader is left in a state of perpetually flux with the truth always elusively out of reach. It is an excellent forum to look at genius and human flaws.

There is a good supporting cast of characters beyond the central three but if Mori is a wonderful and engaging character, Grace is not treated quite as favourably. After an initially strong introduction, her character loses some vigour and fails to develop in the way she might have. In fact, Thaniel and Mori seem to increasingly pull the spotlight as the book develops (in itself no bad thing) and their relationship is very much foregrounded. This issue is symptomatic of a slight looseness in the plotting, with the story feeling a little out of the author’s control. In fact, it would be hard to put a finger on exactly what the central story is (yes, there is the bomb but that seems irrelevant for large chunks). The end, when it comes, feels a little rushed with too much exposition which lets down some of the slower, more thoughtful development done earlier in the book.

Another slight qualm is the dialogue, which is a little clunky at times with speech feeling a little artificial. This may partly be down to the fact that quite a few characters have English as a second language and so their speech is bound to sound a little formal and lack the flow of a native speaker. Nevertheless, this unnaturalness did enforce the fact of fiction for me.

It’s difficult to make an overall assessment of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. It reminded me a little of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus: both include some really good ideas and memorable features but both needed these ideas to be better controlled and woven into a more complete and less chaotic story. Pulley’s debut novel is by no means a write-off however (I wish I could say the same for The Night Circus). There is plot enough to make the book worth reading and there are memorable characters and passages that resonate. While the story could have been better controlled and presented in a more structured way, the book has plenty to offer and Pulley is clearly an author who has great potential.