Monday, 4 January 2016

Magical fantasy - The Watchmaker of Filigree Street - review

I'm not a great fan of the dominant 'swords and sorcery' arm of fantasy (think Game of Thrones), but I love real world fantasies, where a fantasy element creeps into an otherwise ordinary world - the kind of thing authors like Ray Bradbury, Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman excel at. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street promised to be just such a book, and I was not disappointed.

Set in Victorian England against a backdrop of terrorist activities by Irish nationalists, the book (presumably due to author Natasha Pulley's personal experience) unusually mixes English and Japanese cultures of the time. What is striking about the book, reminiscent of one of my favourite books, The Night Circus, is a sense of the fantastical and magic in the air. The very solid and steam-driven world of Victorian England is set against both the Japanese village (where Sullivan conducts the first performance of the Mikado) and the exotic clockwork creations of the eponymous watchmaker.

It's in these remarkable constructions, from a clockwork octopus to a watch with a form of clockwork GPS that Pulley's imagination beautifully runs riot. While these creations are certainly fantasy, in the sense of being far beyond the realistic capabilities of clockwork, they are gorgeously conceived, and fit well with the enigmatic character of the Japanese nobleman-come-watchmaker who has surprising mental abilities. Pulley also has a genuinely interesting central character in telegraph operator and failed pianist Thaniel Steepleton, and the first two acts of the book manages to combine this wonderful touch of fantasy with a very engaging storyline.

There are a few issues. The final act sags somewhat, partly because it is so complex, which means it takes a lot of untangling, and partly because of the disappointing approach to the main female character. This is a male-dominated book, so it was good to have a strong female character who was a physicist, especially one who is attempting the Michelson-Morley experiment 3 years before it actually took place (though several years after Michelson devised the interferometer she is using). However, she is not handled very well by the writer, especially in her bizarre activities during that final act. (And she's not a very good physicist, as she regards a null result from the experiment as a bad thing, rather than the fascinating thing it really was, and that any real physicist would have considered it to be.)

Yet despite not being up to The Night Circus on overall performance, this is an impressive first novel and well worth reading if you like this kind of fantasy - one of my favourite fantasy books of 2015. I'd certainly be queueing up to buy a sequel.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

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