Well, it’s a mess! This book is clearly supposed to be a slowly unfolding mystery (so hard to review without spoilers!). But really it’s just convoluted and nonsensical. To give a plot overview without spoilers I’ll refer to the blurb.
It’s set in early 1880’s London, with some flashbacks to Japan, although the Japanese characters speak excellent English, and those sections lacked authenticity to me. Our protagonist Thaniel Steepleton works in the, rather boring, telegraphy department at the Home Office. He returns to his tiny flat one day to find a gold pocketwatch on his pillow. Six months later Irish Republican group, Clan Ne Gael, plant a bomb near Scotland Yard, Thaniel’s life is saved by a strange alarm on his watch so he tracks down it’s maker, Keita Mori.
At the same time, Grace Carrow is in her final year at Oxford and under pressure from her parents to marry. She is unable to receive her inheritance (a house) until she does. It’s not clear why her parents agreed to fund her through university if they always intended her to marry anyway but.. She is determined to prove the existence of ‘ether’ in order to secure a teaching position instead. Grace has a dashing Japanese friend, Akira Matsumoto, and all four of these characters very quickly come together.
A little too quickly in my view. I was thinking the whole point would be their lives slowly, and unknowingly, becoming entwined as we try to work out how all the pieces fit together. However, within about 10 minutes all the main players are known to each other. Which did seem to give Pulley permission to introduce lots of mad plot developments that make no sense to keep us guessing.
So, to the mad plot developments. It’s seems that lonely Japanese immigrant Mori is a whiz at watchmaking and making advanced mechanical creatures way ahead of their time. He is incredibly wealthy as he is a Baron and cousin of the Japanese Emporer. But he moved to London purposefully to meet his friend Thaniel despite having never met him before. You see, Mori can see the future, or rather see possibly futures so he knew he would become friends with Thaniel. He also predicts the Scotland Yard bombing, and knows who did it, but doesn’t tell anyone (well why would you?), instead just leaves the watch for Thaniel to protect him.
I mean I have some issues here. Yes, I can see it would be awkward to explain how he knew about the bombing to the police but an anonymous note maybe? Also why leave the watch 6 months in advance? And why think that an annoying alarm would protect Thaniel (he leaves the building because it is so loud, and he wants to turn it off outside)? He knows he will befriend Thaniel 10years before they meet, planning to leave Japan at the time. He saves his life from the bomb because they are friends, even though they have yet to meet. But he only does befriend him after leaving the watch, illustrating how Mori is manipulating the future rather than just predicting it.
How much he is manipulating people is the big question. Which brings us to Grace. Poor Grace, searching for non-existent ether (it was thought to be what light traveled through) she somehow user her ‘science’ to prove Mori really can predict the future because of something I didn’t really get. I also don’t think I needed fake science to prove it was real. That was just confusing. It’s a book. People can predict the future in books. That’s fine. Oh you feel the need to back this up with science to convince me, ok…oh wait you’re science is bollocks…so should I believe that it’s true or not?
Grace and Thaniel bump into each other, they tell each other the intimate details of their lives after 10 mins and agree to a marriage of convenience. Grace will get her house where she can continue to do bogus science and Thaniel will have extra dosh to send to his widowed sister. All lovely. Except Thaniel and Mori are best friends now for some reason, and Grace and Mori don’t care for one another. Mori is clearly jealous, but why? And how much is he manipulating Thaniel, and was he actually involved in the bombings?
Grace comes up with a mad plan to get rid of Mori once and for all. She sneaks into his house and steals his clockwork octopus (he has a clockwork octopus did I mention that?), then races around London using coin flips to work out her route. He can’t predict that, for some reason. So she keeps ahead of him. Then steals some chemicals (gunpowder one assumes) from a firework shop and puts them inside the octopus to make a bomb. So yes, she sets off a bomb risking peoples lives to show that Mori is the bad guy, because possibly he could have stopped it but didn’t. Except he does, nearly killing himself in the process.
Anyway, Grace and Thaniel agree to amicably divorce. Not because she’s a crazy bomb making psycho but because at some point during the night Thaniel and Mori became lovers. Possibly. There were odd references to them drinking tea in the dark and someone kissing someones temple. Temples were big back then… There was no indication up to this point of any romance between them so I didn’t really get it. It means, as The Aroma of Books pointed out, Mori was manipulating Thaniel the whole time to have a sexual relationship with him which is pretty creepy. And a Japanese immigrant can live with his gay lover, 20yrs his junior, and the little girl they just adopted (took) from a workhouse in London, 1884, and no one really seems to care…
Don’t worry about Grace, she gets off with Akira…her friend from the beginning. Who is also the Emporer’s cousin or something.
And I’ve just realised I’ve left out all the stuff about Gilbert and Sullivan…