Under the Pendulum Sun
by Jeannette Ng
As much as I subscribe to the ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ thing, I have to admit that the first time I saw the cover of this one in a catalogue I pretty much decided that I was going to read a copy. Synchronicity stepped in and the good folks at Angry Robot sent me a copy. I devoured it in a couple of days and decided it was one I wanted to tell folks about. But previews being what they are, that was months ago so I had to wait till the book was actually on the way.
At first glance the impulse would be to categorise this book as steampunk, but I think that would be unfair. Under the Pendulum Sun is set in the Victorian era and there are a couple of hints of unusual technology, but they’re not really intrinsic to the story. What the book does have, that so much of steampunk lacks is a sense of the culture of the period, particularly with regard to colonialism and religiosity. These two elements form the background of the story. It’s the British Empire of the 1800s that you’re familiar with, but for one addition. During the age of exploration, when figures like Captain James Cook were uncovering and mapping the world, a way was discovered of sailing to the mysterious land of the Fae, Arcadia. Magical and strange, the Fae cannot be conquered in the usual way, but do allow a small amount of trade through a single port. In line with the practice of the period, after the explorers and the traders, come the missionaries. Which is why Catherine Helstone finds herself on a ship bound for Arcadia. Her brother Laon left England to mission to the Fae years ago, replacing the previous unsuccessful and dead missionary. His letters became sparse and then stopped entirely, and while his superiors are not keen on sending a young woman to investigate, they have no resources of their own to spare.
On arrival Catherine is taken to Gethsemane, the Castle that is the home of the Mission and her brother in Arcadia. Furtive and strange servants tell her that her brother has been away for some time negotiating with ‘The Queen’ and they do not know when he will return. With nothing else to do Catherine begins to explore her surroundings and discovers that nothing in the land of the Fae is what it seems. There is a dark and terrible secret that surrounds the death of the previous missionary and there is someone or something pushing her towards it. When Laon returns, the mystery only deepens. He has made no converts and is still forbidden to travel much of Arcadia. As he wrestles with whether or not the Fae have souls and can be saved, he also has to find a way to communicate his faith to a people who speak the language of illusions. Can the Fae be saved or even understand salvation? These are the questions Laon and Catherine are trying to answer, but they must ask them of themselves first. Are the Fae untouched by Laon’s words because they don’t understand, or because they have an experience of the divine of their own?
I really enjoyed this book. While it’s got magic and the Fae and little bit of curious clockwork, what it reminded me most of was the creepy, gothic feel of writers like Susan Hill and some of Angela Carter and even a bit of Jane Austen. A lot of the story is tied up with the Christian beliefs of Catherine and Laon and there are a lot of Bible quotes and religious references but they always end up relevant to the story, often in surprising ways. This is an unusual and clever book with loads of atmosphere and packs a lot into its three hundred or so pages. While the book has an ending that I can live with, there follows an afterword that suggests it might be part of a series. If that’s true I’m really looking forward to see what she does with the next book.