Originally published in Bookpage.
No matter how strange or outlandish, most fantasy novels take place in a world similar to our own with a few meaningful changes. Sometimes the changes are drastic, as in Dennis Mahoney’s (Fellow Mortals) second novel Bell Weather. And sometimes they’re relatively slight, like Natasha Pulley’s debut The Watchmaker of Filigree Street.
In Bell Weather, Dennis Mahoney reimagines the colonial era of the 1700s, when European empires fought over the Americas. Except in his story, the Old World is Heraldia and the New World is Floria. While the geography and historical milieu are familiar, the main departure from reality is in the details of the natural world.
The rustic town of Root in the colonies of Floria is home to a variety of miraculous flora, fauna and (as the book’s title implies) meteorological phenomena. Ember gourds burst into flame after ripening, winterbears hibernate in summer and stalker weeds roam the forest looking for defenseless plants. Cathedrals and mansions are built from pale lunarite rock, seasons change in a matter of hours, and sudden “colorwashes” transform the landscape.
In the New World colonies, tavern owner Tom Orange rescues a mysterious woman from drowning. Her name is Molly Bell, daughter of one of the most powerful men in Floria. As a group of bandits known as the Maimers terrorize the countryside, stealing whatever part of their victims’ bodies they deem most valuable, Tom must help Molly escape the inevitable fallout from her past.
Mahoney’s prose is lyrical and well honed, and his characters are engaging, but it’s the magical realism of the wilderness that makes this world so memorable and fascinating.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, on the other hand, takes place in a very recognizable Victorian-era London—with a few steampunk and supernatural flourishes. In 1883, a bookish Whitehall telegraph cleric named Thaniel Steepleton comes home to find someone has broken into his flat. Instead of stealing valuables, they’ve left him a mysterious gold pocket watch that winds up saving his life after a bomb is planted by Irish terrorists at Scotland Yard. Thaniel’s search for the watch’s creator leads him to one of the most interesting fictional characters in recent memory, Keita Mori.
Mori is a Japanese watchmaker who is part inventor, part mystic—he combines the deductive brilliance of Sherlock Holmes with the clairvoyance of Dr. Manhattan. Thanks to his ability to see potential futures, Mori has altered the course of history several times. Among his many inventions is a sentient, clockwork octopus, which is quite possibly the highlight of the novel. Together with Oxford scientist Grace Carrow, Thaniel tries to solve the mystery of the terrorist bombings. Could they be one of Mori’s attempts to alter the future?
Natasha Pulley’s debut is a clever detective story, a thrilling steampunk adventure and a poignant examination of the consequences of class warfare and English, Irish and Japanese nationalism in the 19th century.
FICTION: FANTASY, HISTORICAL
Bell Weather by Dennis Mahoney (Henry Holt)
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury)