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Nathaniel Steepleton’s Secret Friend

Nathaniel Steepleton’s Secret Friend

Nathaniel Steepleton’s Secret Friend

By Bob Gelms

Nathaniel Steepleton, Thaniel for short, has two situations that have affected his life in a variety of ways. One, he has a secret friend who becomes known during the goings-on in Natasha Pulley’s splendid debut novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and two, he has a condition known as synesthesia which allows him to see sounds. This comes in handy as he plays the piano but it is something he has always kept to himself for fear of landing in some sort of mental institution.

It’s the 1880’s in London and Thaniel finds himself as a telegrapher supporting his widowed sister who has two children. London has been plagued with terrorism explosions claimed by the Irish group Clan na Gael. They have warned of another great explosion in the city in two months. Most of the characters in the novel are afraid of the Irish. Hence the Irish take it on the chin but that’s another story for another time.

Thaniel returns home one night to find a beautiful but very strange watch that has been left by an unknown visitor. It doesn’t seem to work. Except on the day of the Clan na Gael’s predicted explosion when Thaniel finds himself in a tavern across from Scotland Yard and the watch suddenly sounds a loud siren-like a alarm. He rushes out of the building and around the corner into the alley. When the explosion goes off across the street in Scotland Yard the front of the tavern is devastated. The watch saved his life.


Thaniel manages to get the back of the watch open and out falls a small piece of paper with the maker’s information on it: Mr. K. Mori at 27 Filigree Street, Knightsbridge. Thaniel goes to the shop and meets Mr. Mori who turns out to have come from a Samurai family in Japan and makes clockwork items for the well to do. Thaniel becomes very curious about the Japanese gentleman and eventually takes a room above Mori’s shop. He begins to notice that Mr. Mori has an exceedingly disturbing trait and Mori confesses to Thaniel that he can remember the future. Thaniel is staggered and upset by the possibility that Mori can foretell the future with unerring accuracy. Things start to happen that Mori has foretold and he becomes a suspect in the bombings.

At this point Thaniel meets his sort-of-kind-of love interest, Grace. She too believes that Mori somehow knows the future. Is he a time traveler, a magician doing tricks or just disturbingly clairvoyant? They all find out in the end along with some marvelous surprises I had not a hint would happen.

There is more than enough plot and character development here to make this a perfect beach read in addition to a lot more happening just under the surface. There is also a bushel-basket full of opportunities to wrap your mind around free will and destiny. If that sort of thing trips your trigger then The Watchmaker of Filigree Street turns a little heavy in a most entertaining way. You will also find comparative elements of Japanese culture as opposed to the Victorian culture of 1880 England that are very entertaining. Gilbert & Sullivan make an appearance with their debut of The Mikado for which Thaniel plays piano in the pit band…east meets west in the entertainment world.

One of my favorite “characters” in the book is a clockwork octopus named Katun. It’s a mechanical device that is so lifelike it’s startling. Its random movements are regulated in the clockwork that Mori has built and Katun has a habit of playing hide and seek and stealing socks. The little octopus is adorable.

There is a sub-genre of science fiction that this book fits neatly into called “steampunk.” Without getting too eyeglazingly technical, it has to do with all the clockwork devices that Mori makes utilizing scientific principles that might not actually be around for sometime into the future but are powered in 1880 London by steam or another mechanical device like clockwork. You can check me on this one; an octopus has become something of a mascot for steampunk. You will find one referenced in many steampunk stories. Thusly, Katun.

Natasha Pulley has created something special in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, a sophisticated, erudite, engaging mystery with steampunk elements set in the atmospheric London of the 1880’s. I just loved it and she is on my short list of “writers to watch.”