This is everything The Emperor of All Things, which I read about the same time, should have been. It has the geeky love of clockwork but it’s delicate and charming, with real love and liking for its characters. And not one single discernible instance of premature ejaculation.
If I have a criticism, it’s that it’s a bit too nice. Victorian London comes across as an ok place to live and no one is ever in any real danger, or acts like it. Even the response to a threat by Irish nationalists to bomb Whitehall is “okay, we’ll keep our heads down on that day, then.” It’s sort-of-not-quite-sf-or-fantasy. The language is very modern, probably by choice, which has its plusses and minuses. On the one hand it reminds us that no one is aware of living in the past; everyone is exactly as modern as they actually are. On the other hand, hearing Victorians use words like “clunky”, or hearing a Victorian woman exclaim “Christ!” to a Victorian man she barely knows, throws us right out of where we know we’re meant to be.
But the presence of a clockwork octopus that crawls around the house and steals socks is a clue that this isn’t just a historical novel written in modern terms. In fact it’s a meditation upon the consequences of precognition and predestination, and just what could be achieved by someone who can fully appreciate the chains of cause and effect that rattle through life. Man A saves the life of Man B because Man A remembers being Man B’s friend, and thereby sets in motion the sequence of events that lead to that friendship developing in the first place. And if you remember in advance that you will one day fall in love, what must it be like to be aware of your loved one slowly becoming the one you will love, but can’t yet because they are not that person? I’ve actually had many thoughts along those lines, given that my wife and I lived in the same town for many years before formally meeting, and there must have been times (in some of which she was happily married to someone else) when we were within touching distance of each other but never knew what would one day be. Hmm.