So, someone must have let slip to Natasha Pulley what my literary kinks are. It is insane how much this book pandered to everything I love. Victorian England? Set in the only part of London (South Kensington) I know well? Meiji era Japan? Diversity in historical settings? Spirited female scientists and the existence of migrant communities throughout history? Japanese linguistics? Hell, even foreign affairs offices, blithely teasing me about my career goals? And most important of all – a happy, loving queer relationship ❤️
It’s about a telegraphist, Thaniel Steepleton, in the London Home Office in the 1880s who goes home to find a mysterious pocket watch left in his room – months later it ends up saving his life from a bomb. He seeks out the watchmaker for answers, and finds Keita Mori, a Japanese man with secrets of his own. And from there, their relationship begins.
The packaging of this novel was definitely misleading – but for me it ended up being a pleasant surprise.
It very much wanted readers to think the novel was going to tell a completely different story than what it ended up telling – and I think this is the root of a lot of the negative reviews I see for this. This is definitely a trend I’ve noticed very specifically with LGBT+ fiction in literary or speculative genres – publishers try to remain as vague as possible about the very central LGBT+ content inside in every way possible. And I think it would help readers to enjoy it more knowing exactly what it was going in.
The blurb seemed to hint at maybe a historical crime thriller, or maybe a Holmesian mystery with supernatural threads – and those elements were there. But that wasn’t the story. The story was, above all else, about a magical romance between two men. It’s about how Thaniel Steepleton and Keita Mori find each other, come to love each other, and the magic within Mori that brought them together. It’s about knowing you’re going to fall in love with someone before you even meet, simply based on thousands of possibilities of how your lives are going to unfold – chance and magic. And I have no doubt very different elements of the book would have been emphasised in marketing if either of them had been female – but. That’s another rant.
I adored their romance. I loved how the writing portrayed their unfolding relationship; thoughtful and slow, almost drifting along. It was a way of writing the relationship which, by the climax of the novel and of their relationship, makes a alot of the novel make a lot more sense in retrospect. Every scene between the two was very atmospheric – their world in Filigree Street came to life for me. I loved their characters, I grew so fond of Thaniel and so charmed by Mori. I could read any number of novellas about Mori and Thaniel’s post-novel life, oh my god. The author has a short story online from 2010 which inspired this novel, and if it’s as lovely as the story itself I definitely want to read it.
EDIT: half an hour after posting this review I discovered the author is writing a sequel about Thaniel and Mori due to be published next year. I am blessed ❤️
Everything else, really, was dressing to complement the romance.
The historical settings of late Victorian England and its troubles with Irish nationalism, the sweeping political changes in post-civil war Meiji Japan, the rapidly evolving technology of the time, the difficulties of women in academia and public spaces in this time, and the magical realism in this world where clairvoyants and seers are rare but accepted – but, oh man, I found it such an interesting dressing. There wasn’t a great deal of synthesis between these events and the Thaniel/Mori love story at the heart, which was definitely a failing.
Even though I say that, I also found it no great coincidence that this character whose magic made all those around him see him as dangerous based simply on just could be and potential to – and that this character was a queer man, a stigmatised ill-begotten son in his own society and a racial minority in British society in an era with the “Yellow Peril”. This was never really explored in the novel, but it didn’t escape my notice.
I liked all the supporting characters too – even if they weren’t drawn out in great detail or even did a whole lot, there was something about them that seemed vivid to me. Dolly, Fanshawe, Ito and Matsumoto were are ally enjoyable for me – even Annabel, who only had a few speaking lines, was a distinct character for me from the way Pulley painted her from Thaniel’s perspective.
There was one main thing that left me unsatisfied.
And pretty damn conflicted overall, too – and that was the character of Grace. Initially she had all the fantastic qualities of female characters that I enjoy – especially supporting female characters in M/M novels – but she ended up being more of an antagonist force. While I understand why – the decision Thaniel has to make between Grace and Mori is the central conflict of the novel in the end – I just didn’t like that Pulley made that decision. Grace could have been a very fun secondary heroine – she had a lot of character, she was stroppy, headstrong and selfish, focused on her goal of becoming a scientist and to make a grand discovery, to a fault, but good-hearted, with a lot of room to grow. These qualities, that were fun in the beginning, actually manifested in a way that made Grace a very unpleasant person by the end of the novel. I wanted her to leave, to let Mori and Thaniel’s relationship be, and it was too much of a ‘ew get the horrible WOMAN away from the gay ship’ experience than I’m EVER comfortable with. I don’t think Pulley was trying to villainise Grace, considering her ending, but it very much left me with a reading experience I’m very uncomfortable with when reading M/M content.
I found the prose itself lovely – a little slow, but for me it came off considered – and the dialogue was all strong and delightful… but at times the execution of certain scenes didn’t work, especially towards the end of the novel. There wasn’t enough tension being built into the writing, but there was enough that through the context of the story I was able to feel the build up and climaxes so it wasn’t left lying completely flat – but I don’t think she quite managed to land the ending the way she wanted to. Honestly, it read like an author’s first novel – which, hey, it was.