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.
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