There are lots of byways now in the burgeoning steampunk genre. There are the full-on steam-driven Victorian science fiction adventures kicked off by books like The Difference Engine through to the more gentle, historical novels with a few cogs thrown in, like the more recent Hugo. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street tends towards this latter end of the steampunk spectrum. It is a mainly historical story of love and friendship. But some fantastical elements, and a mischievous, clockwork octopus called Katsu, quickly put paid to the idea that this is quite a history that we know.
London 1883, Thaniel Steepleton is one of the grey men of Victorian London, working as a telegraph operator for the Home Office, when a bomb threat is relayed from Irish nationalists. Soon after, someone breaks into his little flat and steals nothing but leaves him a unique gold pocketwatch which he then can not seem to get rid of. At the same time, Grace Carrow, also the owner of a delicate timepiece, is in Oxford trying to prove the existence of the ether, the medium through which light moves.
Thaniel ends up finding and befriending the watchmaker, Keito Mori, a Japanese nobleman living in London. Keito not only makes watches but also spectacular automata – clockwork birds, toys, plants and the aforementioned octopus – and is gifted in other ways. Pulley’s focus is very much on the friendship between the two men which grows despite Mori being a suspect in the Irish nationalist bombing campaign. As Grace is brought into the orbit of Mori and Steepleton, the narrative gains a little pace. Much of the action that ends the book is not concerned with resolving any particular plot points, so much as shaking out the relationships between these three characters.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, richly describes its various slices of Victorian London particularly the fascination with all things Asian. Pulley takes readers to the expat Japanese community who sought to retain their culture in a small replica village and with a guest appearance by Gilbert and Sullivan as they put together The Mikado.
But Watchmaker is also thematically diverse. Pulley tackles the usual Victorian subjects and taboos including women’s suffrage, patriarchal inheritance laws, racism and homosexuality. But she also looks at deeper philosophical issues of fate and predestination often found in science fiction.
Whether it fits neatly into the steampunk or fantasy pigeonholes or is better described as a historical novel with some fantasy elements is an unnecessary one for debate. Because in the end, none of that really matters. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is an enjoyable, sometimes mind bending, affecting and often beautiful debut.