Book review: The Lost Future of Pepperharrow by Natasha Pulley

(cover image courtesy Bloomsbury)

Diving headlong into a sequel novel without first reading the book that preceded it can be fraught with all kinds of difficulties.

This is especially the case, when like this reviewer, you are unaware that the novel you have next on your TBR pile follows on from a well-received predecessor five years earlier and so you turn the first page expecting to meet characters who are fresh to all readers.

These difficulties, such as they may be, evaporate with The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, the follow-up to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which reads as a standalone book while make deft references to the book that began the story of Foreign Office civil servant Thaniel Steepleton, his partner, the eponymous watchmaker himself Meita Mori, their daughter Six (really Charlotte but she never uses that name) and a delightful clockwork octopus named Katsu.

The brilliance of author Natasha Pulley’s writing is that if you are aware of the original story, you will see touchstones everywhere that draw you back to that world with effortless grace, but if like me you don’t discover it’s a sequel until after you’ve finished the novel (call me unobservant on this occasion), you can thoroughly enjoy the story as it is without the benefit of having meet these beguiling and charming characters before.

That’s some impressive writing going on there with Pulley catering to both those who are in the club and those without, with neither losing out to the other and without the narrative encountering even one jarring narrative bump in the road.

“Thaniel inclined his head and wondered if Suzuki knew he lived in a gothic fairytale. A woman had been killed in the house, people saw ghosts everywhere, and now there was a mysteriously locked room. ‘Better not be a dungeon full of dismembered ladies, that’s all I’m saying!'” (P. 167)

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow manages to be a world unto itself, even as it brings us characters who have made their way into readers’ hearts many years earlier, and an enchanting one at that.

With a narrative that stretches from the United Kingdom in the full flush of empire and the geopolitical influence that comes from being a superpower heavyweight on the world stage, all the way to a Japan belatedly opening itself up to a world keen to get their hands on its many assets (and a country furiously determined to stop them), The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is an historical novel that brims with a muscular charm that takes us deep into the personal world that Mori, Thaniel and Six have crafted for themselves while telling a story writ large upon the realpolitik and cultural machinations of the time.

It manages this narrative alchemy with an ease that matches its synthesis of old and new readers sensibilities and understanding, being both an action-adventure tale of sorts where lives and peoples’ future hang precariously in the balance and an intimate portrayal of relational intimacy (in an age where two men being together like Thaniel and Mori are was viewed as unnatural) and cultural dislocation as Thaniel is sent to Japan with Mori and Six in tow to find out why there are suddenly ghosts everywhere in Tokyo, supernatural apparitions so thick on the ground that the staff at the British Legation are leaving droves.

To fully appreciate why ghosts are a big part of this enrapturing, emotionally resonant story, you need to know what Mori, quite apart from being a Samurai and a key member of the esteemed House Mori, is a clairvoyant, a man cursed or blessed, depending on where you stand with the ability to see the future as if it is the past and to be thus well armed to handle anything coming his way.

Natasha Pulley (image courtesy official Natasha Pulley Twitter account)

Thus, what appears to others such as Thaniel, Mori’s wife, half English/half Japanese and all delightful prepossessing attitude Takiko “Pepper” Pepperharrow (a surprise to Thaniel which causes some understandable issues between the two men) are disconnected and unforeseen events, are intimately known to Mori who moves people around like chess pieces to bring certain eventualities into play.

That could make Mori an unfeeling, sociopathic monster, a chronological maestro moving people around at whim with no thought to how they will be affected, and there are times when even Thaniel and Mori briefly see him that way, but he is anything but and when the story plays out in full, you are party, as are those around Mori to the brilliant but very human way he conducts his affairs.

That is the key element in what makes The Lost Future of Pepperharrow such a vibrantly, immersively wonderful read.

While all around people are forced to negotiate their way through impossible situations, facing murder charges, rioters, assassinations, the amassing of an aggressively malevolent Russian Imperial Navy off Nagasaki and hair-raising trips to shrines on an electrically charged Mount Fuji or frozen snowbound prisons in northern Hokkaido, Mori does his best, at great personal cost, to sculpt future events so that events play out with justice being served and as few people being negatively affected as possible.

It doesn’t always work out that way but Mori works hard to make sure it does, his existential angst and pain at the toll it takes on him evident to all, and yet somehow missed by them at the same time since they are not privy to the same kaleidoscopic, 360-degree view of time as him.

“He wanted to drop everything and steal Mori away and get drunk at home, and shout at him for being so reckless, and die for him, or live for him, and everything. Over the last few months, he’d felt how his own future had sort of rolled itself up, the way shortening. He could feel his body shutting down, a little more each day. And now, just a thread of it, unspooled out and out to the horizon.” (PP. 481-482)

As a work of historical fiction, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is exceptional, bringing alive the period in which it takes place, with old rivalries meeting emerging technologies and the societal disruptions, both good and bad that they bring, in ways that are illuminating and fascinating.

But beyond its ability to bring the past alive, the novel excels as a story of life and love, of relationships past and present and the way in which was is hidden from sight is often just as important as what people choose to reveal.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is, above all, a story of great humanity and connection, a lifting of the veil if you like of the telling of history which is often “the facts and nothing but the facts ma’am”, an admirably objective approach that often misses the human element of every historical event.

While many of the people and events in the novel are fictitious, quite a bit is not, with The Lost Future of Pepperharrow doing an exemplary job of not just bringing events and trends of the time to light, but putting a focus on the people too, people like Mori, Thaniel and Pepperharrow whose placement in the title turns out to be one of the most poignant parts of what is a gripping and heartfelt tale of ordinary people (one with special gifts) in quite extraordinary times.

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