It is hard to pigeonhole this book. Literary? I’m not sure. Historical? Kind-of. It does deal with a historical period. Steampunk? Not really, even though the characters have some paranormal abilities, and the Victorian era adds credibility to such a label. The closest I can come up with is magic realism.
Magic shimmers on the pages of this book. It defines the story and the protagonists. And the attraction of this book for me was definitely magical, as I don’t usually like literary or historical or steampunk.
I won’t go into the plot rehashing here – it’s complicated, and I don’t want to spoil the fun of reading for the others. I’ll concentrate on the characters instead.
The hero of this book is Keita Mori, a Japanese watchmaker living in London in 1883. Or is he a Japanese nobleman? A spy? A philosopher? A magician? A mad genius? All of the above? Here is one of his short conversations that snapped my attention, demonstrating his side-way mode of thinking. He talks about one of his clockwork toys
‘It’s a steam engine toy,’ Mori said. ‘An old design. The Ancient Greeks had them.’
‘The Ancient Greeks? If they had steam engines, why didn’t they have trains?’
Mori twitched his shoulder. ‘They were philosophers. They put two and two together and got a goldfish.’
The reader is facing a multitude of questions about Mori, and none of them is easy to answer. Mori is as much an enigma as the book about him, even after the last page is turned. His extremely complex psyche enchants some players of the story, baffles the others, and invoke hatred in the third category. He is powerful but vulnerable, suffering but loving, kind to his friends and ruthless to his enemies. He is almost alive, despite his mysterious paranormal gift. Or is it a curse?
The author made Mori the protagonist of her book but she didn’t give him a voice. Nothing is told from his POV. Everything we know about him comes through the eyes and words of others, the ones pulled into his sphere by the strange events of the novel and the magnetism of his personality: his friend Thaniel; his former employer, a Japanese politician Ito; and a young woman Grace, a student of physics at Oxford and a daughter of a lord. Mori is a catalyst of their lives, almost an instigator of their fates, but he doesn’t benefit from his unusual talent himself.
Thaniel, another hero of the story, is a clerk in Whitehall. His encounter with Mori overturns his boring existence, reshapes his future, makes him ‘more,’ inspires him to grow. Thaniel could’ve been a hero of his own story, he has the potential, but he fades beside Mori, becomes a cog in the Watchmaker’s elaborate schemes, even though they make him more significant as a human being.
Grace, realizing what’s happening to Thaniel, tries to interfere, to put him on the path of his own choosing, but her actions take a cruel turn. In a way, she is as ingenious and ruthless as Mori himself, but unlike him, she is acting out of self-interest, not love, like Mori, and in the end, she becomes the villain of the book.
Besides multifaceted interpersonal dynamics, many other lines intertwine in this tale – politics and Irish nationalists, bombs and rabid racism, the arrogance of the upper classes and the sacrifices of poor people, music and mechanical inventions – making the narration as true as a kaleidoscope. Making the readers care. Making them want to understand.
Recommended to anyone.