By Natasha Pulley
Oh, man, you guys! This book is so good! The Bedlam Stacks is the second novel by the author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and I’d forgotten how good that novel was, too! They both have this beautiful atmosphere of dreaminess and suspense, and all the characters are so smart and interesting, even when they are at odds with each other, and the dialogue is so witty!
So, The Bedlam Stacks is about a guy who works for the East India Company as a smuggler, which the book fully recognizes is super problematic. Merrick Tremayne travels around the world, steals other countries’ protected resources and brings them back to London for the English company to sell at a huge profit. When the story starts, he has been injured in China and convalescing at his decrepit family estate. Though he isn’t fully able to walk yet, the company asks him to go to Peru to steal some cuttings of a native tree that is the main ingredient of the only known malaria cure at the time.
I would say that this is a stand-alone book and you don’t have to read The Watchmaker first, but you actually do. There is very little overlap in characters and setting, but to borrow from the clockwork theme, there’s a small but important cog in the story that you won’t understand if you don’t already know the secret of The Watchmaker. One of the very cool chapters when things start falling into place won’t make any sense at all, and will probably just confuse everything worse.
That said, The Watchmaker had one key magical element that transformed the very mundane London setting. The Bedlam Stacks exponentially expands the world-building to an entire region in Peru, where what we would consider magic is built into the way of life, both to the benefit and detriment of the locals. I loved it, it broke my heart, and I can’t stop thinking about it!
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
by Natasha Pulley
I got the automated email from my library letting me know that a book on my hold list had finally come in, but I only vaguely recalled putting a request in and no real memory of why I had done so. But, wow, am I glad I did!
The book is set in 1884 London, although with a significant section of backstory set in 1870s Japan. Our protagonist is Thaniel, a telegraph clerk at the Home Office in London at a time when Irish nationalists are trying to instigate a revolution and are throwing bombs at government buildings. It’s also about ten years after Japan underwent a revolution, and they still have their own set of nationalists vs modernists, and have a significant immigrant population in England. One of those immigrants is Mori, the titular watchmaker of Filigree Street. Another main character is Grace, a female physics student at Oxford college. Then there are dozens of other characters who are all interesting and quirky and suspicious in their own ways.
It reminded me a bit of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore but better. It’s unclear for a significant portion of the book whether or not there’s a magical/supernatural element to the world. Is this book fantasy, science fiction, or straight up literary fiction? The answer to that would be a spoiler, so I’m not going to answer.
The plot, such as it is, is to discover the mystery of a particular watch that came into Thaniel’s possession and saved his life from a bombing. The vagueness of the plot does not stop it from being amazingly suspenseful. The tension really comes from Thaniel trying to figure out just what is going on, and who he should be trying to help versus who he should be trying to hinder. I stayed up way too late finishing this book, the day after I picked it up from the library.
The climax wobbled a bit with Pulley trying to add more traditional plotting and tension in unnecessary ways, but I still really enjoyed the book and highly recommend it.