Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

Posted June 22, 2015 by Debby in Book Reviews

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!! This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha PulleyThe Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
Published by Bloomsbury Circus on July 2nd, 2015
Genres: Adult, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
Pages: 336
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher

London, 1884. When Thaniel Steepleton comes home to find a new watch on his pillow, he has bigger things to worry about than generous burglars; he is a telegraphist at the Home Office, where he has just received a Fenian bomb threat. But six months later, the watch saves his life in a blast that destroys Scotland Yard, and at last, he goes in search of its maker.

He meets Keita Mori, a Japanese immigrant who remembers the future. As Mori begins to tweak daily life in Thaniel’s favour, everything seems to be going well – until physicist Grace Carrow, attracted to Thaniel’s refreshingly direct, unstuffy nature, unwittingly interferes. Soon, events spiral beyond Thaniel’s control, and nothing is certain any more…

Natasha Pulley breathes authenticity into the era of Sherlock Holmes, shines subtle light upon the prevailing views on gender and plays speculatively with time and destiny to take the reader on an unexpected journey through Victorian London and beyond. (And watch out for the clockwork octopus…)

3.5 Stars

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street came pitched to me as “for fans of Samantha Shannon” and came with a blurb by Shannon herself. That definitely caught my attention, but when I heard about what the rest of the book would contain (clairvoyance, Victorian London, Japan, and a heavy focus on characterization), I knew I had to check this book out for sure. This adult historical fiction is something completely different and very imaginative. I definitely enjoyed it.

In The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Thaniel Steepleton, a synesthete telegraphist at the Home Office, narrowly escapes the Fenian bombings in 1884 thanks to an intricate and mysterious watch. The watch set off an alarm to warn him, and thus is not just a little bit suspicious. He finds the watchmaker, Keita Mori, and helps Scotland Yard investigate further. Thaniel gets thrown into a world of whimsy (with all of Keita’s inventions – the most adorable being his clockwork octopus, Katsu) and culture, as he discovers the Japanese community within London and starts learning the language and history himself from Keita. As a japanophile, this was not just a little bit exciting for me. I though the setting and writing were absolutely beautiful, and Keita was instantly charming as a kind, mysterious, and (later very obviously) clairvoyant man.

The story got off to a bit of a rough start, however, because it also partially tells the perspective of Grace Carrow, a physics student in Oxford. It took a while before the storylines came together, so it was slightly confusing at the beginning. Grace is a very complex character, and one that will ultimately be really interesting for readers to dissect. She’s a physicist, an intellectual, and some would say a feminist. Ideally she wants to do her research and provide for herself, but her parents are forcing her to marry before she can inherit any of her dowry. But, somewhat hypocritically, Grace is very harsh on her own sex. She’s against the suffrage movement because she believes most women would vote based on frivolous things, and she thinks becoming a mother would turn her brain into mush. She’s rather self-centered and prone to jealousy, and some would deem her unlikable. But she offers a brilliant look into the gender roles and expectations of the time period, and I would not label her wholly unrealistic. I do wish we’d seen more growth from her by the end though.

I believe one of the biggest selling points of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is its incredible diversity. Not only are gender roles and the Japanese culture explored in detail, social class absolutely plays a role, and there are LGBT characters as well. The romance there is subtle, but wonderful. The romance aspect of the book didn’t get heavily emotional (which, as a YA reader I’m more used to), but for adult historical fiction, I definitely appreciate all that it brought to the table.

But what I absolutely love most about this book (aside from the clockwork octopus, because duh) is the exploration of the concept of clairvoyance. It’s not just a parlor trick, it’s not always one hundred percent accurate. Keita sees possible paths as they become more and less likely, and sometimes it confuses him. Sometimes he loses track of what’s happened and what hasn’t, which can mess with the order of history and lead to him forgetting things as certain paths are eliminated. You know how time travel books can be hard to get right, because it’s difficult to handle all the paradoxes? The same thing kind of happens with clairvoyance, and I think Pulley did an absolutely brilliant job of it. It made for a really creative story and, at least in my case, forges a deep connection and understanding between Keita and the reader.

Ultimately, I feel like the book might be a bit too short to really effectively showcase all of its important elements. The first half of the book puts a much heavier focus on the conspiracy of the Fenian bombings in London, but in the latter half of the book, this is kind of set aside as the story becomes much more personal and much more about the characters themselves. There’s a bit of an imbalance there, and I felt like the Fenian conspiracy storyline wasn’t really done justice. I wanted to know more about that – for sure – instead of just the couple of paragraphs of conclusion at the end. Certainly I also feel a bit let down about that because I just don’t know about that particular part of history at all – for British readers, it may not be as big of an issue.

Summing Up:

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a creative debut filled with diversity. Good for anglophiles and japanophiles everywhere, with an excellent dose of LGBT romance to boot. I’m not saying that should be your reason for reading, but it definitely helps. Pulley has put down an intricate setting of whimsy and culture and created incredibly complex and intriguing characters. And as the best historical fiction does, it’s made me want to learn much more about this part of history.

GIF it to me straight!

Recommended To:

Fans of The Bone Season and/or The Miniaturist.


The kind folks of Audible offered up a sample of the audiobook of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, so that all of you who may be more tempted to listen to books can get a sense of how this story goes. (Dreamy British accent included.) Enjoy! And if you want to purchase it, you can do so here.

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