Julius and the Watchmaker is a curious melange: part Dickensian historical, part time travel, part steampunk, part urban fantasy, part Fin De Siecle fiction escapism. It’s just odd enough to be interesting but if I am to be honest, at times it is oblique enough to be disaffecting and a bit pretentious. It never talks down to the reader but never talks to a reader either.
Story: Julius Caesar Higgins works in his grandfather’s book shop. A loner and a bit of a loser, bullied at school and with a bad habit of talking to himself quite a bit, Julius’ life is about to change when two different people come to the shop looking for a diary from a famous watchmaker. This starts him on an adventure through London and then through time and space as he works to uncover a nefarious plot that will adversely affect not one but two worlds at the same time.
When reading, I couldn’t help be feel the influence of Edwardian/Arts and Crafts era children’s literature. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Around the World in 80 Days, The Wizard of Oz – this had that feel of fantastical lurking behind a pretty unpleasant reality. And indeed, the author does resort to an unfortunately very tired trope of taking folk characters (Springheel Jack), literary characters (artful dodger), and real characters (Charles Dee, Captain Bligh) and placing them within the story. Because London really isn’t so small that little Julius is going to meet a lot of famous people. And naming an Irish pugilist in the story Danny Flynn (anyone seen the move The Boxer with Daniel Day Lewis?) seems gratuitous. It’s all a bit much and I couldn’t help but feel I’ve seen all the characters elsewhere (a Professor “fox” who is obsessed with time and travel similar to a certain professor Fogg in Around the World in 80 days anyone?) It didn’t feel clever, it just felt kind of derivative.
The story does move around a bit and seems to get away from the author around the half way point. It’s as if the story was fleshed out from the waif Higgins running errands on dark London streets (several of those in the book) but didn’t grow organically enough from the premise. The plot bounces around in frenzied abandon, never stopping in any one place (or with any one character) long enough to really ground the story.
les forgiving, there is a LOT of info dumping on time travel (I really didn’t need the FOURTH “time is a tablecloth” explanation) and admittedly I just skipped over it. I wasn’t reading Julius and the Watchmaker to be impressed with how the author decided to tackle the idea of time travel. I was reading the book for a good adventure yarn and all that nonlinear universes, paradoxes, etc., was getting in the way far too often. It got to the point where I didn’t feel the book was clever anymore and that the conceit of time travel and parallel universes were woefully underused.
The steampunk aspect is passed over pretty quickly – definitely not the attraction in the story. Younger kids, especially Americans, will likely have to skip over the street urchin cockney dialogue scenes since I doubt they will understand a word. Nor will they have a history of knowing urban legends such as Springheel Jack and other London tics. As well, our main character does start out pretty hapless but does try by the end to get a backbone. He can be a very hard character to like. Especially considering the story goes willy nilly everywhere by the end so that character development does get a bit lost in favor of the mise en scene.
It would be mean to put a 3 star rating on this but it wasn’t quite a 4 star read either. 3.5 sounds a bout right with the caveats described above. Pretentious, yes, but not terrible, either.