What do you get when you bring together Victorian England, Meiji Japan, a telegrapher-musician who sees sound, a Samurai rememberer of the future, a rebel feminist research scientist seeking to prove the existence of ether, an adopted child with a number for a name and a seemingly-sentient mechanical octopus called Katsu?  The glorious fantasy, slightly steampunk, mashup duology stories of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Lost Future of Pepperharrow.

The Spectator’s review of The Lost Future of Pepperharrow describes it as “intricate as an origami sculpture”. That’s about as apt a synopsis as one could craft.

Delightfully - and for some, maddeningly - composed of layers and folds of time in serpentine structures looping forward and back and around and around between England and Japan, the two companion novels call on the patient reader to trek through a labyrinth to the rewarding center where all is revealed.

In the midst of all the fantasy filigree, at heart, these two novels form one deeply tender story of finding and forging love among the family you build.

Every character is a charmingly relatable misfit outsider in one way or another: Thaniel is an upstart Japanese-speaking telegraph clerk in the Foreign Office without the English public-school pedigree of landed gentry whose heart truly lies in the music he can see in color. Mori is a last Samurai of the Meiji Era with a conscience in watchmaker disguise who can mysteriously see and “remember in advance” all the filigrees of possible futures throughout time. Grace is a wealthy, intellectually-brilliant woman chafing under Victorian strictures at Oxford in her rigorous scientific pursuit of ether. Six is a young, clearly learning-diverse child rescued from a workhouse by Thaniel and Mori. Pepperharrow, an ex-Kabuki actress in a world of men, bridges the whole cast of characters as a physically-small and mighty force of nature in half-English, half-Japanese garb upon whom the arc and outcome of the love story depends. And in the center of the labyrinth at the heart of all is Katsu, the mischievous mechanical octopus who loves to steal socks and in the process, steals the heart of every reader.

In the midst of the engaging humans and mechanicals, cities and places actually star as central characters as well. Intensely atmospheric without being over-wordy, readers find themselves walking the ghostly dark of the smudgy, foggy, smoky traditional Japanese village reproduction that is Victorian Filigree Street; and transported by the magical floating teahouse canopied by cherry blossoms and lanterns at Mori’s family stronghold; then spooked around the next corner of the Samurai castle by its ominous dark and secret silent stony spaces; and finally freezing in the far-north forested wilds of Hokkaido’s sinister prison camp.

Historical fiction buffs will likely love these books as much as steampunk, England, Japan and labyrinthine fantasy fans. Author Natasha Pulley has a clear love of history, fortified by living in England and spending time in Japan. All of this shines through every scene and every page. The illuminating historical contexts of the time in which the stories are set breathe life and lend heft to the fantastical and left this reader feeling more informed about period international affairs in a more memorable way than years of university and graduate studies in the field.

Even if you don’t tend to re-read books, a second round with this duology is highly recommended. They are so circuitous and so mysterious in where things are going and how the threads woven by Mori in the past and future lead to the final outcomes that it is incredible fun to “be in the know” with Mori’s perception in the second reading, catching many “tells” that aren’t likely to be caught in the first reading and having the bird’s-eye view of a full map of the territory - past, present, future - and the trajectories of all the characters as events unfold.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Lost Future of Pepperharrow are the best of unforgettable novels: the kind tinged with that uniquely wistful readers’ sadness of realizing early on that you will draw out and slow your reading pace in the last pages, knowing that “parting is such sweet sorrow” as you close the book on these indelible characters and the immersive, magical, ultimately tender world of connection and care they inhabit. It is guaranteed you will want your own Katsu by the end.

Be prepared to see less of him in The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, which can feel disappointing initially, but the careful reader will note that every one of Katsu’s brief appearances in Pepperharrow is the linchpin and catalyzing key in every pivotal moment of the story’s unfolding. Not only Katsu, but all the main characters, will have stolen your heart by the end, and as the stage lights fade out on this wonderful origami Kabuki, you will likely find yourself wishing them well, imagining them in Filigree Street, Thaniel on the piano, Six and Katsu making mischief together, Grace pondering her next ether experiment, and Mori shining in the front row of the audience, eyes aglow with a shimmering eternal love that set the whole tale in motion.