Steampunk, a shapeshifting and unpredictable genre, has a way of subverting the past, mischievously disordering the universe with historical what-ifs. It’s a field not normally rewarded with prizes and critical hallelujahs. Natasha Pulley’s first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, proved an exception. In a gaslit London menaced by Fenian terrorism, Nathaniel, a wide-eyed innocent, met and fell for a Japanese watchmaker, Mori, who could remember the future. It hit the jackpot.
Five years on, the inscrutable clairvoyant and the Home Office telegraph clerk-turned-translator are back. Intricate as an origami sculpture, sometimes too convoluted for its own good, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is standalone, but new readers would do well to prepare themselves with The Watchmaker.
This sequel opens in 1888, with our Watson and Holmes odd couple whisked out of fog-ridden London, and Thaniel posted to Tokyo, where terrified British legation staff have reported sightings of ghosts. Mori has his own mysterious reasons for returning home. Political demonstrations clog the streets; the Russian fleet is moving threateningly on Nagasaki and the skies crackle with electric storms, possibly triggered by secret experiments to control the atmosphere. Metal spontaneously heats up (cutlery and doorknobs are particularly dangerous, though useful for cooking). Supernatural apparitions multiply around the city. The wittily plausible explanation of the ghosts is a diverting detail of Pulley’s narrative.
The plot is thick with assassinations, paranormal mystery and samurai power-play. Much of the time I hadn’t a clue what was going on, but it’s the characters who keep you reading: scientist and proto-feminist Grace; indomitable ex-Kabuki actress Pepperharrow; Thaniel’s adopted daughter, rescued from a London workhouse; Katsu, the clockwork octopus with attitude. Real historical figures mingle with the fictional. Thaniel himself remains doggedly innocent: synesthetic, composing music in spare moments, never quite escaping his lowly Lincolnshire background. In the eye of the storm is Mori, unfathomable and controlling events — until he’s abducted by a deranged warlord, his clairvoyant powers devastatingly turned against himself.
Pulley captures the sprawl of Nagasaki, cosmopolitan Yokohama and Tokyo side streets. A snowbound labor camp in a Hokkaido forest has the ominous force of a Breugel. For lovers of steampunk, there’s scattergun scientific fun: freaky physics, entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, a hint that Mori could have invented the electronic microscope —all part of the game. And Pulley makes room for the hazards of trust and betrayal, and love too.