This one has been on my TBR for a while, over a year for sure, and I’m not sure what made me finally pick it up. I’m also not sure what I thought it was about when I added it to my TBR, because after starting to read it, I realized it was absolutely nothing like what I had been expecting. Maybe it was the title? Maybe the cover? Which, by the way, is just gorgeous in color and detail, but in hardcover it’s got a keyhole cutout over the face of the timepiece, and I just have a huge soft spot for those since the literary magazine that I was co-editor of in high school had a keyhole cover on our award-winning edition. Regardless of why I decided to read it or why I picked it up now, I’m very glad I did.
Thaniel lives alone and works as a telegrapher in the Home Office in London. Pretty tedious life. But when he comes home one day to find a watch on his bed, a watch that saves his life a few months later, he is drawn into a sweeping journey through London that involves extreme nationalistic Irish groups (and bombs!), civilian spy work and a huge promotion at work, learning Japanese, a female physicist named Grace, a new friend in the strange watchmaker Keita Mori, and a whole bucket full of coincidences that he needs to try and unravel.
“A clockwork forest grew in the front window, its branches warped and host to a flock of tiny birds, its floor carpeted in the white, coralline moss that grew in Scandanavia […] Mori walked around the workshop with a basket of tiny glass balls, each magnetized and charged with phosphorescent dust, lobbing them gently into the air, where they hovered and formed constellations around the orrery. One afternoon, a swarm of clockwork fireflies soared in through the kitchen door and arranged themselves into a bell jar, where they pulsed different shades of yellow and orange.”
This is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve ever read. From page one, a fog seemed to settle around me as I read, pulling me far from the couch in my house where I usually read and into a mysterious, mystical, parallel history of Victorian England and the end of feudal Japan. The air of mystery and all-knowing/seer-ness (I cannot think of a better way to describe it) hangs over every page, even the ones that are simply describing everyday details and events. It was the perfect tone and ambiance for this tale. I also loved the pacing. It was steady and smooth and refused to be rushed, with characters and plotlines unfolding at exactly the peed the author intended and not a moment sooner or later. It was so deliberate and masterful. The writing lends itself to this atmosphere and pace perfectly…with a sort of disconnectedness paragraph to paragraph and vague antecedents that make you think, as a reader, and slow down your reading to match it to the intended pace of the story. (As someone who usually reads rather quickly, this was an interesting and refreshing experience…I think it allowed me to more fully enjoy being in the world that had been created and watch the developments as they unfolded.)
The mix of science and magic used to create steampunk is balanced flawlessly here. The clockwork elements and the science of ether are seamlessly interwoven with the more magical aspects, like Mori’s clairvoyance/special skills (in an effort not to have spoilers, the weather related pieces of this were particular favorites of mine) or Thaniel’s ability to see sound in color. And Katsu, Mori’s pet octopus, is himself a perfect example of the smooth combination of science and magic. (Side comment: I loved Katsu’s preoccupation with socks!) Of note, I really enjoyed the moral and metaphysical exploration of the idea of clairvoyance, which makes its presence in the story more than just a plot device (a role it also fills quite successfully). The advantages and dangers as a result of being able to see the future, or possible futures, are both considered. And they are considered fairly and evenly, without a clear preference or answer on the part of the author (and I love when authors are able to do that!) all within the natural scope of the story.
The relationships that grow (or are “manipulated” into being, depending on your perspective, I suppose) are each individual and natural. The characters are written into a beautiful and eccentric reality in a way that makes you feel as if you have known them forever. They are complex and nuanced and I was truly delighted at where they all ended up. Truly. That, along with a fitting denouement that wrapped things up smoothly and without any over-celebration that would have been at odds with the tone of the rest of the story, and a cheeky last action that left me smiling, this ending was a most satisfying conclusion to a spectacular narrative.
This is the type of genre-bending novel that I just love. History, magic, mystery, philosophy (in the scientific sense) and a little romance all thrown together, it’s got a little bit of everything and a whole lot of something special.