Thaniel Steepleton is a telegrapher at the home office, spending his working hours in a former broom closet, listening to the machines that have their wire tentacles all over Westminster. It’s a boring life. Then one night a bomb threat comes through, set for May. When he goes ‘home’- a Spartan room in a boarding house-he discovers his door open and a velvet box tied with ribbon and addressed to himself. In it is a fancy pocket watch of the finest work. Realizing it’s his birthday, he assumes his sister has been there and left it. When he sends a telegram to her in Scotland and she replies that of course she’s home and hasn’t been to London, the mystery begins.
Six months after this, he’s in a pub when the watch starts sounding an alarm. He goes outside to try and shut off the noise- and narrowly escapes an explosion. Obviously whoever gave him the watch knew when the explosion was set to happen. Thaniel is set by his superior to find where the watch came from, and then shadow him. So he ends up renting a room from the Japanese watchmaker who admits he made the watch. Keita Mori, a lonely man from Japan, doesn’t just make watches. He does all sorts of clockwork- his pet is a clockwork octopus that is supposed to act randomly- but keeps ending up hiding in Thaniel’s dresser drawer, stealing his socks.
Meanwhile, another narrative strand involves Grace Carrow, who is studying physics at Oxford, and has to dress as a man to gain entrance to the library. Her best friend is also from Japan, a dandy from a royal house. She has an inheritance, but her father won’t let her have it- until she marries. Which she doesn’t want to do.
Even more strands appear. I have to admit I was totally confused at several points. There is a supernatural element, making it even harder to figure out. But it all comes out in the end. It’s a steampunk story, a Victorian mystery, and a love story. It was totally engrossing, with a wonderfully created atmosphere, and great details- clockwork fireflies? Yes, please! The characters could have been filled out better; for as much page time as Thaniel gets, we don’t know much about his interests are or even how he spent his spare time before the novel starts! Still, five stars.
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