raven: (middleman - sleepy wendy)
[personal profile] raven
I read this novel on [personal profile] happydork's advice because it sounded amazingly relevant to my interests! And it was; but quite apart from all the parts where it seemed to have been written for me personally (historical fantasy! beleaguered civil servants! shy queers!) it's a beautiful, affecting, melancholy book that I really loved a whole lot, and this is an unqualified recommendation.

So it's 1884 in a steampunk-inflected London, and Nathaniel Steepleton is a Home Office telegraphist who despises his employer the same way I despise his employer. Thaniel (his father was Nat; it's a choice he makes) works the night shift and his life is small and dark, haunted by poverty and the sulphurous fumes on the Underground; soon after the novel begins he turns twenty-five, and is frozen by the knowledge that this is not where he wanted his life to be.

But - there are flashes of something else. There's Thaniel's prodigious musical talent, which he can never quite put away, though he tries; there's his ritualistic insistence on good tea, which he carves space for out of the night shift; and with it, there's the interesting fact that although it's 1884 and he doesn't know the word, he has synaesthesia. And then one day he lives through a terrorist bombing and meets a watchmaker called Keita Mori, who is such an accomplished craftsman that his clockwork trees grow and his clockwork octopus steals Thaniel's ties, and the rest - is not history, exactly. It's complicated.

In the background of those two, there's also Ito, who is an even more beleaguered civil servant than Thaniel is, and Grace, an Oxford physicist, who is busy sneaking into libraries dressed as a man while trying to experimentally prove the existence of luminiferous ether - which you wouldn't think was very relevant to clockwork or telegraphy, but it is.

And, having said all of that, it's hard to explain anything else about the novel without major spoilers, so but I think it's not revealing too much to say Thaniel's life fills with light after he meets Mori; that their friendship and eventual romance is beautifully realised but comes on soft feet, so you don't know what's happening until it's happened around you. One thing that is absolutely vital to this novel is that you read every word. Which is fine! I shouldn't skim-read novels, but I do, we all do, and I had to consciously stop myself and slow down for this. (There's a point, quite late on in the book, where one character hits another character on the head, and if you only half-read that sentence, you would have no idea.) Once I realised that, the whole thing transformed in my hands into something with all the filigree-delicacy the title suggests; it's really all there, in the details, this lovely story and lovely romance.

In terms of its being an unqualified recommendation, well, having finished the book, I wondered for a while if I was quite happy with how Grace's story turns out. She attempts to destroy Mori to scare Thaniel, but the whole plot is a shocking overreaction considering she gets what she wants - the house in Kensington - the moment Thaniel agrees to marry her, regardless that his affections lie elsewhere. It's not in the deal that they make that he stays with her. And so I wondered if I was quite keen on the only significant female character in the novel being quite so... well, vicious. But having thought about it, I realised that Grace is actually amoral and ruthless in a way women rarely get to be, in fiction; whatever else she is, Grace has buckets of agency. And the second chance she gets at the end, the gift from Mori, reads to me as an exchange between worthy opponents. I like it.

Also, Grace's fear of Mori is grounded in that she thinks he can manipulate everyone in the world around him, but especially Thaniel - that he will become like clockwork, with a veneer of intention - and one of my favourite things about the novel is that this isn't addressed. No one proves Grace wrong on this; she isn't wrong. There's no special get-out clause so Mori can't manipulate Thaniel; in fact, we see him do it. But Thaniel stays with Mori because he loves and trusts him, and there's nothing else. That there can't be anything else is part of the tissue-paper delicacy of the whole thing, the way Thaniel's life flowers into beauty but there will always be that melancholy in him, that shadow of something else. Even when he's chosen to stay, to hold onto Mori and the life they've made, there's still this beautiful, haunting little turn of mood:

"You should be more careful," Thaniel said, aware that he sounded hennish, but also aware, suddenly and sharply, that Mori was much older than him. In a flash, he saw that by the time he was in his fifties, it would all be over; he would be one of the lonely men who walked in Hyde Park in the mornings, feeding the starlings and not thinking.

It's beautiful. I wish I'd written it.

on 2015-09-29 02:34 am (UTC)
happydork: A graph-theoretic tree in the shape of a dog, with the caption "Tree (with bark)" (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] happydork
That line you quote is my absolute favourite line in there -- because sure, Thaniel can't see the future the way Mori can, but he can still see what the future holds for him, and he makes his choices with his eyes open to what being with Mori entails. It's so beautifully the-same-but-not-the-same -- is it one end of a spectrum where Mori's gift is the other end, or is it wilfully naive to even mention them in the same breath?

I am so, so interested in everyone's feelings about Grace. One friend of mine who discussed it with me in person felt she was inconsistently written, [personal profile] daegaer left this really interesting comment I've failed to reply to so far, and then there's your take here.

I kind of want to reread with all these different thoughts in mind before deciding what I think of her, but my first impression was -- hmm -- basically, I liked her a lot at the start, I found her reaction very convincing (strong-minded woman who values independence and has never known real life-or-death danger finds herself in opposition to someone who genuinely terrifies her on a level she can't quite process), but by the time she and Mori were facing off at the end I was too busy bracing myself to read against the text if the story decided the queers couldn't be happy that I didn't actually care too much about her or her choices? I liked how clever and determined she was, but she was either going to be wrong, or I was going to read against the text until she was wrong, so I ended up being disengaged from her actual arc there.

on 2015-09-29 04:56 pm (UTC)
daegaer: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] daegaer
I think part of my problem with Grace is the same as your friend's - she is inconsistently written. Specifically, I sometimes felt that I knew more about the Victorian era than Grace did, and she's the one who's meant to be living in it. (She wanders off at the end thinking that Thaniel might think she's wearing black because their marriage has failed? Give me a break. Seriously, give me an effing break. No one brought up in 1884 English society would think anything other than "Who died?") For a scientist, she's incredibly unobservant, and gets things wrong all the time (She never seems to believe her mother is really ill - and then her mother dies. She fights with her father about her education - yet he is the one who has been paying for her tuition in Oxford and who would have, it seems, been willing to allow her take up a fellowship if one was offered). Those seem different, to me, than her just being really rubbish with people, which she also is - that's a consistent part of how she's written.

Even though I did grow to dislike her, I felt sorry for her. She could have been a happily eccentric scientific spinster without causing havoc if only the house had simply been left to her outright. I also feel sorry about her happy ending, because I don't think it's all that happy. Yes, she's attracted to Akira Matsumoto, and he to her, but I'm really not sure she has the sense to realise he asked her to be his mistress. (He invites her to Japan, and when she demurs, saying she's not sure her maid would like it, says We can hire a chaperone on the way. If you feel that you need one, asks her to use his first name - which the reader has already, via Mori, been told is for "married people", and which Thaniel has just moved to using with Mori - and holds her hand). It's 1884, and Akira Matsumoto is posher than Keita Mori, being the legitimate heir of a noble family - there's no way he'd actually get away with marrying Grace, even if he loves her. Her happy ending is being stuck in a country she will understand even less than she understands her own, totally reliant on her lover. I'm not sure anything could be worse for her.

on 2015-09-29 09:29 pm (UTC)
happydork: A graph-theoretic tree in the shape of a dog, with the caption "Tree (with bark)" (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] happydork
Oh no, poor Grace! I totally didn't understand that about the ending -- I thought he was asking her to marry him. :( :( :(

I wonder if Grace isn't ill-served, both in terms of what happens to her and how she's written, by how much plot she has to drive? She starts out as someone who wouldn't have been out of place as the lead in a Courtney Milan romance -- a driven, complex, flawed woman whose learning and growing will help her redefine her relationships with her family as she comes to understand them better and be kinder to both them and herself -- but then because she's set up as the only person both willing and able to oppose Mori effectively, instead of love and personal growth she gets a spiral of desperation.

I'm very interested to see if on a re-read, the seeds of what's in her to turn "willing and able" into action are more obvious to me.

on 2015-09-29 10:08 pm (UTC)
daegaer: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] daegaer
Thinking about the ending with her and Matsumoto, I see it as a call back to her conversation with Mori about him playing with people like trainsets, and his threat to her that doesn't register as a threat until later. (And that she doesn't ever take seriously as a threat to her, not really, because she never sees him as Mori Keita, member of a powerful daimyo-class family, but as little Mr Mori, a foreign craftsman.) He makes good on that threat and uses a literal train to run her down, although she doesn't know it yet.

She's very smart, and ruthless in going after what she wants - it's her bad luck she goes up against someone who's smarter, even more ruthless and clairvoyant to boot (and who seems to be written as someone who has the ability to pay attention to his surroundings better than Grace does). She ends up being manipulated by Mori, through his manipulation of the events with Matsumoto's train - and he lets her know that. I go back and forth on how much she ends up being manipulated by Matsumoto as well - when they're students we're never really shown why he likes her, he just does. Fair enough, we all have friends we can't really explain, after all. One thing we are told about him as a student, though, is his devotion to translating classical Japanese love poetry - a perfectly decent pursuit for a nobleman. So how come he's suddenly so dismissive of his sisters' interest in the equally classical interest in flower-arranging when he's asking Grace to go away with him? I was left wondering if it was because she was so fervently not-like-other-girls that the idea of being the "interesting female" in the castle who didn't have (western) feminine-coded interests would help sway her? For her own good, of course - just like he made her do stuff in university for her own good. (And I think he'd mean it - he clearly thinks he can take better care of her than she can of herself).

on 2016-06-03 02:57 am (UTC)
skygiants: Sokka from Avatar: the Last Airbender peers through an eyeglass (*peers*)
Posted by [personal profile] skygiants
Coming to this conversation late, having just finished the book and dug up old posts, but it strikes me that:

her happy ending is being stuck in a country she will understand even less than she understands her own, totally reliant on her lover. I'm not sure anything could be worse for her

is in fact a complete parallel to Mori's life, lived in a strange land and revolving around a single person. An intentional parallel on Mori's part, maybe?

on 2016-06-03 10:53 am (UTC)
daegaer: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] daegaer
Interesting! I think there might be some parallel, but it's a distorted one because Mori was the active agent in his self-exile, he had already learnt his mechanical skill and could therefore support himself and (by means of his psychic abilities) can speak and understand the language of his adopted land. Plus, of course, he's a member of the socially-dominant gender in both countries. Grace has her exile arranged for her by Mori's abilities and suggested by Matsumoto at a time when she seems even more socially off-kilter than usual, she has skills that have not been proven to have any useful outcome (there is a strong possibility in the book, I think that her research is simply wrong, and that she is being shown as refusing to accept this and stubbornly continuing down the wrong road. Learning for the sake of learning is not a useless thing - but it is something that Grace herself seems to see as useless). She isn't good at the social customs of her own land and will be totally at sea with those of Japan, even before the language issue comes up. And she is a member of the non-dominant gender whose reputation will already have been damaged by a failed marriage and will be sunk without a trace by taking up with Matsumoto.

I think that Grace may think on the ship out that her situation parallels Mori's - I think that Mori, who really doesn't like her, is probably very satisfied with his revenge.

on 2015-10-02 01:53 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] highfantastical.livejournal.com
YAY, I'm happy you liked this because I know her and she is so, so nice. 1000% deserves to be successful and admired! I haven't read it yet because ~too sick too tired for lyf~ but I almost definitely will.

on 2015-10-04 05:29 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
Oh, how lovely! In that case I'm even happier I enjoyed it so much, because I really did - such a beautiful book. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it if you read it.

on 2015-10-30 08:05 am (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] yiskah.livejournal.com
I have just come back to this post (though not yet reread it, will do so now) as I just finished this book a couple of days ago on your recommendation (as there seems to be a roughly 80% overlap between What You Love and What I Love) and OH GOD I LOVED IT SO MUCH. OK I am going to actually reread what you posted now.

on 2015-11-01 09:33 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] loneraven.livejournal.com
aaaah YES, I'm so delighted and kind of not surprised. Such a beautiful book!

on 2016-02-26 11:34 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] hrodberht.livejournal.com
I finished this book today (and have already loaned it to a colleague), and decided to come back and reread that post (since it was the reason I bought this book as soon as I spotted it in Waterstones last week). I'm glad I did - reading all the bits you like about it reminds me of what a great book it is.

on 2016-03-20 12:32 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] nnozomi.livejournal.com
This seems to be your post for belated comments...? I finally laid hands on a copy of this (perhaps ironically, it's not for sale anywhere in Japan that I can find), and am about 2/3 of the way through and enjoying it so much. Your comments all apply, but I think the thing I like best is that the ratio of ordinary events and conversations to dramatic action scenes is so high--it's mostly daily life, with life-changing things more likely to happen in conversation than in explosions, and that's infinitely more fun to read. (Also it has cameos from Gilbert and Sullivan, and nicely researched Meiji Japan, and...). Thank you for the recommendation!

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