REVIEW: The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk

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The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley is a sparkling historical novel of wild and wonderful mechanical automata, love in a variety of forms, and gentle themes of identity, with a cast of fabulous characters.

In 1755, Abel Cloudesley, a London watchmaker and creator of remarkable mechanical automata, is mourning his wife, Alice, who died giving birth to their son, Zachary. Six years later, Abel is further devastated when a freak workshop accident takes Zachary’s eye. With his new eye made of gold and lapis by Abel’s soft-spoken apprentice Tom, Zachary, now with an astonishing gift of second sight, is sent to live with his eccentric Aunt Franny in the country. Abel buries himself in work until he is coerced by shadowy figures into designing a chess-playing automaton and delivering it to Constantinople to spy on the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. After meeting the Sultan, Abel is not heard from again. Years later, teenage Zachary receives a letter suggesting that his father is still alive, a prisoner of the Sultan. Zachary sets off on a perilous journey to the Levant, determined to find Abel and bring him safely home.

Dear Mr. Lusk, 

Wow, that was different. And for the most part I mean that as a compliment. It really is the characters who make this book but the characters are backed by enough of the (extensive) research you did that they are firmly grounded in the mid eighteenth century they inhabit. I will slightly alter the blurb by saying that it isn’t the false eye that is fashioned for him that gives Zachary Cloudesley his visions and second sight. No, he’s born with that and more which all appear to be inherited from the mother who died giving birth to him. CW Alice Cloudesley doesn’t die on page but there are descriptions of the after scene. She and Abel also lost three daughters at birth before Zachary was born.

To try and describe the intricate turns of the plot would take far too long but I think that three characters who are not in the blurb need some introduction. Mrs. Morely and her daughter Leonora arrive in the lives of the Cloudesley men when Abel needs a wetnurse for his newborn son and that wetnurse is unwilling to farm out her own daughter. Honestly I would have loved to have spent an entire book with Grace Morely instead of the few chapters told from her first person POV. She is a strong, no nonsense woman who stands on her own two feet, fights for what she wants and deserves, and dishes out her opinion regardless of whether it’s asked for or wanted. I love her. Leonora finds love but I never quite got a good sense of her beyond maybe chafing at life in general before she seems to settle for the conventional by the end of the story. 

Tom Spurrell begins as a shy young man in Abel’s workshop before one look from Aunt Franny reveals that Tom is actually a woman. Or is he? What Tom is, though, is a remarkable craftsperson who not only tirelessly brings Abel’s ideas to fruition but later journeys with Abel to Turkey and loyally stays there after Abel disappears within the seraglio. When Zachary arrives looking for his father, it is to find that Tom has built a new life for himself; one that he vigorously and emphatically defends to Aunt Fanny. No, this is who he is and he won’t stand for being identified otherwise. 

Abel and Zachary are at the heart of the story and though, at times, they have reasons to question whether or not the other truly loves them, the reader knows that all along each would give his life for the other. Many times Abel must send Zachary away but for justifiable reasons – the need for a wetnurse, to recover after his accident, and to protect him from the forces who threaten him to strongarm Abel into a journey to the Ottoman court. But when Zachary is still a child, it’s hard for him to grasp these reasons. Zachary’s reticence in revealing to Abel something told to him as a deathbed confession plus Zachary’s heartache at the time, lead Abel to despair that his son understands the events that caused their longest separation and the ones before. Still the fact that these two aren’t immediately reconciled seems realistic. The scene which sets it all right is emotional and tender. 

For a long while I worried about one particular relationship. We are given hints of Zachary’s relationship preferences which, given the laws in England at the time, seemed impossible. Then there is a moment of hope which seems to also be dashed. It takes Zachary’s Aunt Franny’s bizarre will to set a possible solution in motion. Aunt Fanny is … a bit of a pill to be honest. There are times when I admired her, times when I didn’t understand her, and times when I wanted to put her in the cage with Catherine the Great. I’ll give her credit for being complex and generally running her life as she wants in a time when most women couldn’t do that. 

I feel that I need to emphasize that this is a very, very character driven novel. There are lots of descriptions and lots more characters than I’ve discussed. Then there are a few things that led to my earlier statement that I enjoyed it “for the most part.” Frankly I feel that I would have liked to have seen more of Zachary’s “gift” plus the middle of the story suffers from a feeling that its mechanism wound down a bit, leading to a little bit of a drag in the pace. The whole slots together with bits and pieces finally fitting and locking into place but it’s a book that rewards patience. B      

~Jayne

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