Review: The Bedlam Stacks, Natasha Pulley

Note: I received a copy of The Bedlam Stacks from the publisher for review consideration. This has not influenced the content of my review.

So a funny thing about Natasha Pulley is that I resisted reading The Watchmaker of Filigree Street for ages, as the cover and premise sounded much more whimsical than I thought I’d be into. But actually, the word I’d use for both that book and her sophomore novel, The Bedlam Stacks, is melancholy. They are really not whimsical at all, so if — like me — you have been avoiding them for that reason, do not do so!

The Bedlam Stacks briefly features Keita Mori (the eponymous Watchmaker of Filigree Street), but apart from that the two books are not really related. The Bedlam Stacks is about former smuggler Merrick Tremayne, who gets pulled in for One Last Job after months trying to recover from an injury that almost lost him his leg. The mission is almost certainly doomed: Merrick and his friend Clem must fetch quinine from within the depths of Peru, and everyone else who’s made the attempt has died. But Merrick’s family has connections to Peru, and so off he goes to a mission colony on the edge of the Amazon where the locals tell stories of lost time and living stones.

The Bedlam Stacks

If you liked The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, I commend The Bedlam Stacks to your notice as well. Like Pulley’s debut novel, Bedlam Stacks is slow to begin and takes some time in confirming a supernatural truth that was reasonably guessable even to a notoriously poor guesser like myself (particularly as it’s suggested in the book’s jacket copy). If those are traits not likely to annoy you, full steam ahead with The Bedlam Stacks. It’s wistful and strange in the same way that Watchmaker was, packed with haunting details that creep into your dreams and imbue the everyday world with the possibility of magic.

A small weirdness that I may have failed to understand: Watchmaker included as an apparently-central-but-ultimately-minor plotline a gang of Irish terrorists planting bombs. Nobody in the book really says “well hey maybe we, the English, ought not to have occupied their country,” and I thought it was odd but then I was like “okay fair play to you Natasha Pulley, nobody should blow people up because murder is wrong.” In Bedlam, set thirty(ish) years earlier, Merrick tosses off a remark about his fear of Irishmen talking of bombs. Is that a callback to Watchmaker? If not it makes a weird little pattern of English people deciding how angry Irish people ought to be about the loss of their own nation. British and Irish readers? How should I feel about this?

Actually, as a broader note, it’s odd that Pulley doesn’t grapple much with the ethics of imperialism in either of her books. I noticed it in Watchmaker, but it’s particularly striking in Bedlam, whose protagonist is an agent of the British Empire under perpetual threat of death by (he believes) The Natives. Everyone in the book treats Empire like a weather condition: You can prepare for it, or you can (maybe) get out of its path, but it can’t be talked back to. While this pragmatic approach is plainly true, it’s not great to watch our protagonist considering the possible consequences of the voyage he chose to undertake as if they are and have always been out of his own control.

Anyway! That has been a lot of blather on topics about which I know nothing. Peruvians, First Nations folks, disabled folks, Irish folks, weigh in and let me know what you made of this book.

Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley

My concerns going into The Watchmaker of Filigree Street were, one, that it would be too twee, and two, that I didn’t care much about solving a mysterious bombing at Victorian Scotland Yard by Irish freedom fighters. Happily for my peace of mind, though it starts off seeming like a rather twee mystery about a bombing at Victorian Scotland yard by Irish freedom fighters, that really isn’t what the book is at all.

Watchmaker of Filigree Street

Our hero, Thaniel Steepleton, comes home from a difficult day at the telegraph office (bomb threat, something something) to find that his flat has been broken into, the dishes carefully washed, and an elegant and expensive gold watch left on his pillow. When the watch later saves his life from an Irish terrorist bombing, he goes in search of the watchmaker, a lonely and courteous Japanese man called Keita Mori.

“But Jenny that sounds like it is about solving a bombing!” I know, I know. My primary complaint about the book is that what it is about is much more interesting (to me) and fun (for me) than a bombing mystery, but it’s set up in such a way that it’s clearly meant as a surprise for the reader. So even though I don’t care about spoilers, I thought you might. If you ask me in the comments, I’ll tell you what the thing is.

Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that the bulk of the book is dedicated to Thaniel and the other characters figuring out what Keita Mori’s whole deal is, and then deciding how they feel about it. Thaniel is fairly sanguine; his new friend Grace, a bluestocking who must inconveniently get herself married pronto, does not care for it. I, the reader, waffled back and forth a bit and still felt unsure, at the close of the book, whether I was morally comfortable with how Mori was managing the world he lives in. Big ups to Pulley for managing a well-plotted (if slightly slow to start) book that also engages with interesting moral issues.

A minor gripe: To this fan of romance novels, Grace seemed to be filling a role in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street that is, let’s say, not my favorite romance trope. Get at me in the comments and we can talk more about it!