Pulley’s (The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, 2015) second novel demonstrates that the imagination she showed in her impressive debut was no fluke.
The story opens in 1859, with the narrator, Merrick Tremayne, morosely nursing an injured leg at his decrepit family estate in Cornwall. Merrick used to smuggle opium into Hong Kong for the East India Company until an explosion a few years ago cost him his health and job. Botany and exotic travel run in the family: his grandfather and father both spent years in Peru, combing the Andes for botanical valuables such as orchids and frost-resistant coffee. Now the company wants to send Merrick to his ancestors’ old stomping grounds, hiring him to break the Peruvian quinine monopoly by smuggling out cuttings from cinchona trees, the source of the antimalarial medicine. Is Merrick well enough to hike the Andes? Pulley understands her genre—swashbuckling costume fantasy—but she deals in surprises, not clichés. An exploding tree, a mysterious moving statue, and a visit from an old friend help make up Merrick’s mind, propelling him across the ocean to a strange world of thin air, volcanic glass, and floating cities, where descendants of the Incas keep magical secrets. Strictly speaking, this is a prequel—a few paragraphs and a character or two tie this novel to Pulley’s masterful debut—but the two books have very different atmospheres.
Where Pulley’s first novel sparkled with the ingenuity of spinning gears, her second offers a slower, sadder meditation on love, trust, and the passage of time.