At first, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (Bloomsbury, digital galley) reads like really good historical fiction, evoking the atmosphere of 1880s London — bustling gaslit streets, boisterous pubs, conversations buzzing about the latest scientific discoveries or the new production from Gilbert & Sullivan. But then as Natasha Pulley’s first novel follows the solitary life of a young telegraph operator at the British Home Office, oddities appear, like the intricate watch that Thaniel Steepleton finds on his bed. Soon after, the watch save his life as it sounds an alarm coinciding with a bomb set by Irish terrorists, and Thaniel goes in search of its mysterious maker, Japanese immigrant Keita Mora. He’s another solitary soul but a mechanical genius when it comes to fashioning timepieces and automata. He’s also strangely prescient.
Thaniel and Mora’s growing friendship is complicated by Mora’s secrets, official suspicion that the watchmaker may be the sought-after bombmaker, and the entrance of Grace Carrow, a strong-minded Oxford physicist in need of a husband to secure her independence and a family inheritance. Questions of love and fate play into the intricate and surprising plot, which may yet hinge on the actions of Mora’s playful mechanical octopus Katsu, who hides in dresser drawers and steals socks. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is much like Katsu — whimsical, magical, oddly plausible and totally enchanting.
Speaking of enchantment, Naomi Novik puts readers under a once-upon-a-time spell with Uprooted (Del Rey/Random House, digital galley), drawing on Polish fairy and folk tales to conjure up a magically medieval world. Readers familiar with Novik’s alternate history Dragons of Temeraire series may be surprised to know that the Dragon of this story is a wizard who once every 10 years — in return for protecting the region from the evil, encroaching Wood — selects a village girl as his serving maid. Narrator Agnieszka, plain and pragmatic, is surprised when she’s picked to accompany the enigmatic Dragon to his isolated tower. Left to her own devices and longing for home, Agnieszka is an initially awkward housekeeper and cook until she develops her true talents and realizes the reason she was chosen. Eventually she becomes part of a perilous quest involving a young prince, a lost queen and the thorny depths of the sentient forest.
Novik’s immersive writing reminds me a bit of Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Practical Magic and/or one of Robin McKinley’s fairy tale retellings. Magic.
The cover of Christina Henry’s Alice (Ace/Penguin, digital galley), with its bloody-eyed rabbit in menswear, is your first clue that this is not Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. True, Henry is inspired by the classic, borrowing characters’ names and familiar motifs, but her wonderland — the Old City — is dark and dystopian. When a fire engulfs an insane asylum, an amnesiac Alice and fellow patient Hatcher escape, but so does the ravenous, flying Jabberwocky. The fugitive pair, seeking shelter and then revenge, follow the maze-like streets of the crumbling city, its sectors presided over by the overlords known as Rabbit, Caterpillar, Walrus and Cheshire. Crime is commonplace, from thievery to human trafficking, and evil is afoot and aloft. This is midnight-dark fantasy, occasionally confusing and not for the squeamish. Henry leaves enough threads hanging to spin a sequel. I’d read it.
Librarians are both guardians of knowledge and brave warriors in Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone: The Great Library (NAL/Penguin, digital galley), a rousing YA action-adventure set in a near future where “knowledge is power.” The great Library of Alexandria has survived the ages and its librarians rule the world by strictly controlling access to all original books. The librarians’ alchemy allows regular folk to read “mirror” versions of select volumes on blank tablets, but the ownership of real texts is forbidden, and the printing press is unknown. A thriving book-smuggling trade for collectors is threatened both by tyrannical librarians and their fearsome automata, as well as by the heretical “burners” who destroy books as an act of rebellion. At 16, Jess Brightwell is an experienced thief and smuggler in London who loves reading real books, and whose father wants him to become a spy among the librarians. But first he must pass the entrance exams and survive the training at Alexandria. So, it’s Harry Potter meets The Book Thief meets young Indiana Jones, sort of.
Caine puts her experience as a successful series writer to good use, creating vibrant — if somewhat — stock characters in her steampunk-studded world. Jess’s classmates include a brilliant Arab scholar, a mean-minded Italian playboy, a prickly Welsh girl and a talented German inventor. Their stern teacher has secrets of his own, some of which are revealed when the students are sent to rescue a cache of ancient books in the library at Oxford, a city caught up in a brutish war. (Shades of Henry V). Surprises await, as do romance and betrayal. But we have to wait until next summer for the next book. Ah, for a little alchemy to make it appear sooner.