The Lost Future of Pepperharrow by Natasha Pulley
I found Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street entirely charming even if I didn’t fall wholly in love with it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same positive response to the sequel, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow (2020), which felt meandering and surprisingly flat to me, despite some solid moments.
It’s half a decade after the events of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and after a brief time in Russia and London, Pulley shifts the vast majority of her story to Japan in the late 1800s (with flashbacks to earlier times in the country). Keita Mori, clockmaker and clairvoyant who can “remember” possible futures, is back, as is his lover Thaniel Steepleton and their adopted daughter Six, all three of them ending up in Mori’s aristocratic estate in Tokyo. Also there, much to Thaniel’s surprise, is Mori’s wife Takiko Pepperharrow, along with Kiyotaka Kuroda, a militarist old friend (and possibly current enemy) of Mori’s about to become an imperialist Prime Minister bent on expansion via conquest. As Mori uses his talent to manipulate people and events to prevent something terrible happening, Thaniel, in his role as English diplomat, has to deal with the strange preponderance of ghosts being reported in the British embassy. Meanwhile, strange experiments of some sort are taking place in a labor camp up in the frozen north.
As noted, there are several strong elements in The Lost Future of Pepperharrow. One is the lovingly charming and heart-warming relationship between the two main characters and their daughter. Another is the complicated way characters and the reader view Mori, particularly in how he uses his power. Serious questions arise about the morality of ends versus the means, of the ethics of manipulation, and I quite liked how the reader often didn’t feel on sure ground with regard to how to view him or with regard to how the characters might shift in their own attitudes, choosing perhaps to aid his efforts or, just as likely, thwart them. The greyness of all this was probably my favorite element of the novel.
Unfortunately, the positives were, for me, either outweighed or at least equally balanced by the negatives. One is that the book felt far too long. Nearly 500 pages, it easily could have lost a hundred of those and perhaps more. Pacing was up and down, and I felt the story bogged down in several places. Another issue, a larger one for me, is that outside of the fathers-daughter relationship, I never felt emotionally engaged with any of the relationships, a shift from how I reacted to the first novel. I was being told people cared about each other deeply, but never felt it in my gut or heart. Somewhat connected, while there were some interesting twists (some of which readers may see coming), I finished the book feeling it was more a carefully calculated bit of plotting to set up turns and twists rather than a story. Of course, those who like that sort of thing will certainly enjoy it more.
In the end, though, for me The Lost Future of Pepperharrow was a disappointment, lacking the warmth, depth of characterization, and charm that so drew me into its predecessor.