Review by Annabel
Natasha Pulley’s 2015 debut novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which I reviewed for Shiny here, is still one of the best first novels I’ve read.
Set in Victorian London of the 1880s, we met a trio of characters, bluestocking Grace, Home Office telegraphist Nathaniel, and the enigma he falls for that is Keita Mori, the watchmaker of the title, a former Japanese diplomat descended from Samurai, who seems to know what is going to happen before it does. Mori gives the novel a slight steampunk – or rather clockwork-punk – feel – and his supersense adds a fantastic edge which made this a period thriller with a difference.
I did hope that this wouldn’t be the last we heard of Keita Mori, and in Pulley’s third novel, he’s back – with Thaniel, (and Grace in a smaller supporting role). I’m pleased to say that Katsu, his clockwork octopus is ‘alive’ and well too! The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is written as a standalone, you can read it without having read Watchmaker… However, if this sounds like your thing, you’ll want to read both, and Watchmaker… will set the scene.
This time, most of the action takes place in Japan, around Tokyo and Yokohama. The latter is where the ancestral home of the Mori family is located, looked after by the formidable and diminutive Mrs Pepperharrow, who visits the wily and power-crazed prime minister Kiyotaka Kuroda with a message:
‘The owls have come back,’ she said. She didn’t sound offended, or worried, or vengeful. ‘Mori is coming home.’
‘I – yes, I just got a telegram,’ Kuroda heard himself confessing.
‘Good stuff. Want some help?’
‘What? But – you hate me.’
She nodded. Her strange eyes were ticking over him, up and down. Rather than step towards him when he came in, she had stepped backward, well out of reach. ‘Yes. But we both know he’s far more dangerous than you.’
I immediately loved that owls precede Mori wherever he goes, and we will see a lot of owls in this novel.
Mori, Thaniel and a nine-year-old girl known as Six rescued from the workhouse, whom Thaniel has adopted, will arrive soon. For Thaniel, now a translator with the British legation, the transfer from London’s soot-laden fog will be a lifesaver, for he has tuberculosis. We will discover that Grace is also working in Japan on a secret electricity project near Aokigahara, the forest on the slopes of Mount Fuji, which rumbles ominously in the background.
The times are troubling in Japan: the Russian fleet is on manoeuvres too close to Nagasaki, there are demonstrations in the streets, Kuroda is tearing his hair out. Staff in the legation have reported seeing ghosts, electric storms and St Elmo’s Fire fill the skies and metal objects spontaneously heat up at times, making doorknobs problematic.
Thaniel is troubled too. Once in Japan, he is forced to come to terms with Mori’s history, what Mrs Pepperharrow is to his lover, and Mori’s political relationship to Kuroda. Pulley takes us back in time, to the origins of these two relationships – Mrs Pepperharrow, Takiko, was a Kabuki actress, rescued from scandal by Mori, who of course being clairvoyant, know what she can do for him in the future. I won’t say more.
As in Watchmaker…, there are many strands to this novel and it’s hard to believe that they can be pulled together successfully, yet, somehow Pulley manages it. Mori’s future memories make him ill, and everyone wants a piece of him, but I was totally invested in Mori and Thaniel, the pair at the beating heart of this wonderful novel.
Pulley, who has spent time in Japan, has put her research to good use, blending the real with the imaginary, using real characters such as Kuroda alongside the fictional. In her historical note at the end, I was delighted to discover that the model for the electricity experiments was my favourite scientist, Nicola Tesla’s, work. She also builds in some references to her second novel, The Bedlam Stacks, (reviewed here). This was a neat touch and made me smile.
That Pulley can, once again, blend the fantastic with the scientific into a historical setting to create a wholly believable world in which everything unnatural feels entirely real is a real skill. At 487 pages, there is a lot to this novel, but the pages just flew by, fizzing with electricity; another gorgeous cover and maps enhanced the experience. Natasha Pulley is a talented young writer, (she’s now 31), and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.
Natasha Pulley, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow (Bloomsbury, 2020). 978=1408885161, 487pp., hardback.
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