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The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is the sequel to Natasha Pulley’s earlier novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Set in London and Tokyo in the late 19th century, it features Thaniel Steepleton, a synesthetic civil servant, linguist and aspiring musician. An assignment in Tokyo offers an escape from the London fog that threatens his health, but other types of danger await. His task is to investigate the rumours of ghosts that are circulating in the British Legation and elsewhere, but he is gradually sucked into a world of Japanese samurai and courtly tradition, political intrigue and a suspected murder.
It isn’t easy to categorise Natasha Pulley’s work. It is part steampunk, part speculative fiction and part historical. Some of it is real history, but it sometimes feels more like alternate history. The story is centred round 19th century science and technology, with clockwork, gas lamps and telegraph messages. Tokyo is beset by electrical storms, and scientists are obsessed with the idea of ether.
The book is full of memorable characters. There is Mori (the “watchmaker” of the earlier book), a clairvoyant who “remembered possible futures” and whose motives are often unfathomable. Then there is Six, Thaniel’s adopted daughter, rescued from the workhouse, obsessed with electricity and almost as inscrutable as Mori. And the delightful Takiko Pepperharrow, the actress and theatre-owner who is so much more than she seems. Along with a cast of minor characters, they are all decidedly modern in their behaviour and attitudes, but this does not detract in any way from the story.
One of the many pleasures of the book is the descriptions of London, with its gaslit underground stations, street urchins and strict social hierarchy. A world that Sherlock Holmes would have recognised. And there are moments to be savoured, particularly with Thaniel’s synesthetic descriptions – “the shade of paint… a pale cream, was the colour of the scritching noise that cheap phonographs made when violins lifted too high for the wax to record properly”.
The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is an ambitious novel, full of ideas, with several different strands. It is not a story to be read quickly, and as a reader it can sometimes be hard to hold on to everything that is going on. But it doesn’t matter too much: this is a book to play with your mind.
The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, Natasha Pulley, Bloomsbury, 2020, £12.99, 9781408885161