This review contains spoilers.
It’s 1888. Russian ships are squaring up to the Japanese navy, and Great Britain is contemplating whether to intervene. Against this alt-historical backdrop, clairvoyant and Japanese nobleman Mori, his lover Thaniel (a translator for the British Foreign Office) and their adopted daughter Six travel to Tokyo to investigate reports of ghosts appearing in the British consulate there.
Natasha Pulley’s The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is the sequel to her well-received The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which, in the interests of full transparency, I should mention I have not read (although it exists in my house and I expect I will get round to reading it at some point). As I was gathering my thoughts on what I wanted to say about it, I stumbled upon this essay about the novel’s titular character, Takika Pepperharrow – technically Mori’s wife (theirs being a marriage of convenience) and something of an antagonist throughout the novel. The writer argues that the novel fails Pepperharrow by having her long and complex history with Mori conclude in an act of self-sacrifice that benefits both him and Thaniel; that, in other words, Pulley kills off a nuanced female character in service to the narrative arcs of two male ones.
It’s hard to argue with this conclusion. Well, in fact it’s impossible: that is precisely what happens in The Lost Future of Pepperharrow. And, look, gender is something I’m very interested in as a reader: I’ve deliberately stopped engaging with litfic novels that treat female characters with contempt; I track the number of books I read by female and non-binary authors. And yet, this wasn’t an aspect of the narrative that particularly stuck out to me, and I’m interested in why that is.
Partly, I suspect, it’s because its representation of other groups traditionally marginalised by Western literary culture is interesting and thoughtful. Thaniel and Mori are a gay couple in a historical period that is generally depicted as being hostile to queer relationships (Pulley portrays homosexuality as being marginally more acceptable in Meiji-era Japan than in Victorian England; I have no idea whether that’s an accurate portrayal); Six is clearly autistic, again in a context where the concept of neurodiversity does not really exist. As Pulley explains in an afterword, the speech of her Japanese characters is rendered in informal English in a bid to represent the formality registers they’re using in their own language. (Whether or not this is a successful or a desirable approach is debatable – I’ve talked before about the importance of not representing the past as simply a reskinned version of the present – but it’s clearly been thought about, and that’s something I can respect.) And it’s also good to see a steampunk story set in a non-Western country that it doesn’t attempt to exoticise.
There’s something lulling, as well, about Pulley’s prose, which is plangent, straightforward and clear; the sort of prose that tells you, in a wistful “what are we going to do about humanity” sort of way, exactly what to think about the events of the story:
… it was just as dangerous to teach a little girl that one foot wrong would mean a lunatic and a dungeon. It made it sound inevitable, whereas if you were brought up safe in the knowledge that people were supposed to be good, you approached the bad ones with a healthy fury that might just see you out of the dungeon.
Finally, the quality of Mori and Thaniel’s relationship makes the novel faintly addictive: although they’re both adults, their inability to communicate their feelings for each other for fear of rejection feels much more YA. Thus Thaniel spends much of the novel convinced that Mori doesn’t love him and just keeps him around because he’s entertaining (?); by the end, we discover that Mori is similarly convinced that Thaniel has been staying with him because he gets a free room out of the arrangement. It’s a little eyeroll-y written down like that, but the romantic tension generated by this set-up acts as an effective hook: certainly I was convinced that Thaniel was mistaken and desperate for him to realise it.
My point here is that the many sweet and charming things I found in The Lost Future of Pepperharrow for me outweighed the undoubtedly problematic way in which it treats its titular character. That’s partly for reasons of textual technique – the accessible prose, the rom-com love story – but it’s also partly because of my own preferences and interests as a reader (I’m marginally more interested in LGBT+ rep than in female rep at this point in time). I mean; this is quite obvious; we are all postmodernists now. But it’s interesting nonetheless, to interrogate what makes my reading of a particular text different to someone else’s, and to think about why that might be.
I don’t, however, want to over-egg how much I enjoyed The Lost Future of Pepperharrow: ultimately, for me, its sweetness made it too easy and unchallenging a read. I liked it while I was reading it; I appreciated its setting and its treatment of marginalised identities; but it’s not a novel I think about very much. It was fine. Your reading may vary.