REVIEWED BY MIKE TUNSTILL
Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury:2021)
Set in late 19th century Japan, the story is ambitious in scope, a steampunk narrative foreshadowing the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. Keita Mori is a samurai noble cursed with the ability to remember the future. The Japanese Prime Minister, Kuroda, seeks to harness Mori’s powers for military ends. Through the unwitting agency of Mori’s lover and Foreign Office functionary, Thaniel Steepleton, and his wife, former kabuki performer Takiko Pepperharrow, Mori moves to thwart Kuroda with the ‘weapon to end all weapons’.
Mori is well drawn, an appealing main protagonist, at once powerful and vulnerable, dark and good. Pepperharrow is hardly less so, intelligent and courageous and noble if not of
birth, then certainly spirit and intent. Six, a girl rescued from the workhouse, is a pastiche Dickensian delight straight out of Fagin’s lodgings. Kuroda exudes evil, his secret policeman, the red-coated, omnipresent Tanaka,as cheerfully sinisteras any denizen of Peake’s Under-River. In a cast of otherwise accomplished players, only the character of Thaniel falls short. His back story (Lincolnshire lad/ ForeignOffice) is unconvincing, his voice (‘it’s a drag’/‘I was mugged’) jarringly out of place in this setting. His musings are frequently affected and irritating.
Though there are the obligatory generic references to tin and Tesla-towers, cogs and mechanisms and electrographs, the book wears its steampunkery lightly. The imagery is in places quite stunning (‘warm sherry candied almond smell’; ‘tongue turns to paper’). The book is a genuine page-turner, the plot well- structured, drawing the main players apart, and then, towards the end, bringing them together againin a highly readable way. The
pace builds quite masterfully but towards a climax, sadly, that feels rushed and careless. It runs out of steam. A pity.
In summary, the book (for this reviewer) is sometimes problematic. At times, the writing is sloppy. The writer has spent time in Japan, long enough to know that there are inns but no pubs. Americanisms from a Victorian Englishman’s mouth (‘a bunch of walrus’, references to being ‘beaten with a baseball bat’) have no place in post-Edo Imperial Japan whether viewed from the past, present or future. The reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is tested to fatigue. It grates. Yet the book as a whole stands up. The story, novel and compelling, rattles along nicely, building tension as it goes. Thaniel notwithstanding, the writer demonstrates she can people her work with characters who move satisfyingly and convincingly in three-dimensional space; characters the reader can care about. The language is at times breath-catchingly beautiful, the shunting of people and place from past to future — the elision of one world into another cogently and seamlessly resolved. It’s a good book, one worth reading.