Natash Pulley Double Bill Review: The Bedlam Stacks & The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

It’s easy to think that nobody could really arrange the world like clockwork. All sorts of things would get stuck in the mechanisms … But clairvoyants have a knack for arranging time, and it was not without a sense of irony that Keita Mori was a watchmaker.
In his workshop, it was difficult to see what he was making until it was done. A sort of organised chaos characterised the way he worked, so much so that he could be constructing something for months or years and it would it only look like a tangle of something generically worrying – right up until it got up, walked off, and turned out to be an octopus.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, “Prologue”, Natashy Pulley, pIX

I have read Natasha Pulley’s full catalogue of published novels to date – 3 in total: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Bedlam Stacks and The Lost Future of Pepperharrow. I loved every single one and whatever comes along next, you can bet I won’t be waiting for the paperback. Hardbacks ahoy.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is the sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, with The Bedlam Stacks being an expansion of the same world with cameos from Keita Mori – the eponymous watchmaker. And the world is intoxicating. When I read The Watchmaker, I would have called it magical realism, but The Lost Future and The Bedlam Stacks have leant more deeply into fantasy and sci-fi. The Watchmaker alluded to magic while the storyline was still very firmly rooted in the human experience. But in these two subsequent novels, the storyline is far more affected by the magic and its mechanics that I would change my classification. My old bookseller pal will be pleased – he insists that fiction steals all the good stuff due to intellectual snobbery… but I digress.

You can read my full review of Watchmaker here.

Let us first turn more specific attention to The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. We return to the tale of Keita Mori, watchmaker, clairvoyant and Japanese nobleman, and Nathaniel Steepleton, telegraphist, pianist, translator and Londoner. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow takes Mori back to his roots – Tokyo. Thaniel gains a position at the legation as a translator and so their new adventure begins.

Returning home isn’t an easy experience for Mori, as politics of family and government rake up the past and obscure the future.

Natasha Pulley does a fantastic job of creating mystery and intrigue throughout this novel. Unlike her key character, you cannot predict what’s going to happen and in spite of all you know about Mori, you are guaranteed nothing.

New characters bring new dimensions – unknowns are a must for any sequel, but even more so when clairvoyants are part of the mix. Recurring characters are used sparingly but effectively – their familiarity to the readers being undercut by their function in this story, primarily as providers of instability and narrative upset.

As the story progressed, I was pleasurably distressed by the events. I had fear and hope jostling against this magical world’s complex mechanics.

The only thing that falls down is the science. I recall this was the same in The Watchmaker. When Pulley’s characters start going into detail about how and why this world is the way it is, it fails to elucidate the reader effectively. However, I don’t hold this against the reading experience; it is notoriously difficult to explain physics with verbage.

As with The Watchmaker, the story is carried by enigmatic characters and challenging relationships.

Superhuman, preternatural Mori might be, but he is not immune to fallability – is perhaps the most fallible. He might be able to organise the machinations of governments; but try as he might, he cannot overcome his personal fears and shames. Is it brave to live in a world where you know exactly what’s going to happen? Or to live in a world where even the smallest possibility of disaster plagues your every waking moment? Exactly what characterises Mori’s insecurities or his feats is never revealed to the readers. Pulley allows us to see through the eyes of his companions, his lovers, but not Mori’s own. And there is nothing favourable about the perspective of a lover – who else is more likely to fret and fray, to find fault and worry at all the possibilities. Is he evil? Does he love me? Can he love anyone? Is he invincible? These are the questions we are asked to consider.

He’d always thought that Mori was brave because he always knew what was going to happen, but that turned out to be a serious misjudgement of character.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, Natasha Pulley, p458

The Bedlam Stacks is a separate narrative, but if you read them in order of publication, the overall timeline is consistent and there are lovely nuggets and easter eggs for the keen observer to discover and smile conspiratorially.

The Bedlam Stacks takes us to Peru, where smuggler and horticultural expert Merrick Tremayne is sent by the East India Co. to find Cinchona trees. These trees are the only source of quinine – a vital component for malaria treatment.  But Peru is guarding its resources, so smuggling is the only route out.

When Tremayne arrives, the settlement he stays in during the expedition becomes far more interesting than quinine. The native religion, the way of life in this place so removed from western civilization, called uncivilised by western travellers, is nothing but. This is an ancient and reverential place; living simply does not mean being unsophisticated. Call it folklore, magic or religion – the history here is undeniable.  But put history up against the frantic appetite for “new” and “more” that characterises the EIC and the sprawling destruction and appropriation of the British Empire, and folklore will struggle to stand its ground.

The wooden statues that guard this place are emblems of a timeless culture and a civilisation that began hundreds of years before our own. But these guardians are far more than that. The way of life in the region – as with the country – is being eroded by the west. And the people of the Bedlam Stacks are the bridge between the old and the new. They live in contradiction, the result of generations before being forced to leave behind tradition. But while habits are easily broken and forgotten, the induction of thought and emotion engendered by the generations before is not so easily taken away.

It’s a miracle, actually; sickly prematurely ageing worrying inbred horsey idiots have managed to convince everyone else their way is best by no means than firmness of manner and the tactical distribution of flags. I can’t believe no one’s called our bluff yet.

The Bedlam Stacks, Natasha Pulley, p300

In The Bedlam Stacks, folklore fights back.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that immense good humour that froths on every page Pulley writes. Her characters are brimming with it and I cannot but hope for them, live for them, turn hundreds of pages for them.

Book Review: “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” by Natasha Pulley

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

by Natasha Pulley

 

“The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” is one of those books whose resolution you desperately chase, but whose end you sincerely wish would never come. Discover forever. That’s the possibility that Natasha Pulley gives us. Possibilities that hang luminous and tempting in your foremind. Strands of narrative like the strands of a spider’s web, floating in the imperceptible breeze.

Mori the Watchmaker can see all the possibilities.

Thaniel is a clerk at the home office. That’s probably all he ever would have been. If Mori hadn’t seen the possibilities.

watchmaker of filigree street

Magical realism is in vogue. How modern it is to indulge in a bit of magic. Natasha Pulley’s story floats effortlessly on this veil of literary mystery, this effervescent, illusive (perhaps empty) phrase, magical realism. What does it mean? Superficially, it means a story that is grounded in what is known and human and understood, but with something extra thrown in, something mystical, something unexplained – magic. Something that illuminates the story in a way that straightforward realism cannot. That is, in my opinion, the noble and elusive hope of magical realism.

Magical realism is not science fiction or fantasy. In the traditional sense at least. Although many an avid SF fan will insist that fiction is stealing the good stuff under its umbrella, while rejecting SF as an intelligent and complex genre in its own right. Personally, I find SF/Fantasy to be, most definitely, a genre worthy of more respect across the realm of literature. In the not too distant future, children will study J.K. Rowling and Patrick Rothfuss at school in place of dusty Dickens and tiresome T.S. Eliot.

But this is all beside the point.

“The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” is magical realism. A solid foundation of Victorian London. With political strife and everyday life. But woven through every chapter, paragraph and sentence, are the glittering threads of something far more extraordinary.

Now out in paperback, The Bedlam Stacks, Pulley’s second novel.

bedlam stacks

Title: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
Author: Natasha Pulley
Published: 14/07/2016
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781408854310