Just last week, I reviewed one of the books in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, which is steeped in faerie folklore and mythology. There’s nothing like a good fairytale retelling – folklore characters are in the public domain and are fair game for any author who wants to write their own interpretation of them. It can be fascinating to see what direction different people decide to take. For example, the Cait Sith (or Cait Sidhe) of the October Daye universe are wildly different to Jim Butcher’s portrayal of them in his Harry Dresen series. The former involves a race of beings who switch between human and cat forms, and going by the way they are written, they’re meant to be a bit supernaturally sexy. But in the latter, Cat Sith refers to a single individual – a giant arsehole king of cats, who’s so petty that he’ll grudgingly fetch a can of Coke if told, but he’ll be damned if he’ll keep it cold for you.
See, that was a fun comparison!
Jeannette Ng, in her debut novel, has also decided to turn her hand at faerie folklore, giving us her own version of the fae and the lands they inhabit. And the world she portrays in ‘Under the Pendulum Sun’ could not be any more different from Butcher’s or McGuire’s works as they are from each other. She also has the honour of writing one of the most devious and distinctly inhuman incarnations of Queen Mab that I have ever come across – it is really something quite extraordinary.
The story is told from the point of view of Catherine Helstone, a young, well educated Victorian woman who is travelling to Acardia to look for her brother Laon, who has taken up missionary duties. History here is a little divergent to our own – Captain Cook seems to have somehow avoided a disastrous ending to his third voyage, and survived to embark on a fourth. (Perhaps someone warned him this time around that kidnapping doesn’t go down well with Pacific Islanders.) As it turns out, the one navigational feat needed to locate the Faelands is the ability to get oneself lost, so in the manner of Bugs Bunny, Cook forgot to take a left turn at Albuquerque and stumbled across Arcadia. With this discovery, the British Empire, surprising no one, decided that a good bit of colonisation was in order. But Arcadia has so far proven to be harder to penetrate than their other conquests, and things have not gone so well for their missionaries.
Personally, I’ve never been particularly fond of missionaries as a whole, and trying to preach Christianity to the fae seems like a terrible idea from the get-go, so I was more than ready to take a dislike to both Catherine and Laon. But Catherine, at least, turns out to be an engaging protagonist; intelligent, determined, and (initially) possessing a degree of self-awareness. Her journey to Arcadia appears to be the result of her strong-arming the Missionary Society after Laon fails to keep contact. As strange things seen to have occurred to Laon’s predecessor, Reverand Roach, Catherine’s concerns are not misplaced. Laon himself, however, when he finally makes his appearance, is a more distant character that I really struggled to get a measure on, which was slightly frustrating.
Laon is not present when Catherine arrives at Gethsemane, the pastor’s manor house, leaving Catherine alone with the few inhabitants who remain – Miss Davenport, her changeling guide who’s mannerisms really seem to hit the uncanny valley, Salamander, who is meant to be running the household but is almost never present; and Mr. Benjamin, the groundskeeper and Arcardia’s one and only convert to Christ. With no Laon to keep her company, Catherine starts an investigation into the fate of Reverand Roach. And with no Pastor to confide in, Mr Benjamin starts fielding his theological questions to Catherine instead; something she doesn’t entirely welcome.
The sampler I received as part of the Hugo Awards packet contained only part one of four of the book, which covers Catherine’s isolation at Gethsemane and the subsequent return of her brother. (Jeannette Ng was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award.) Until that point, the book was still mostly coming across as a well written gothic novel that gave off heavy Brontë vibes, mixed in with a touch of theology and faeries. It was intriguing enough that I went ahead and purchased the full novel.
And that’s when things really went down the rabbit hole. In the first part of the book, the Pale Queen, Mab, had mostly been lingering in the background. It’s not until later that she starts having a more significant influence on the plot, and both Laon and Catherine are worse off for it.
I was not kidding when I said that this is one of the more devious depictions of Mab I’ve ever come across. I was also right in thinking that trying to introduce Christianity to the Fae was a really terrible idea, especially if you’re particularly devout. Because the Fae have a very, very inhuman way of looking at the world, and faith makes an easy and enticing target.
I wont go into detail here, but thie latter part of the novel rapidly becomes weird and twisted.
It’s also that part of the novel where I really started to suspect Jeannette Ng was beginning to pull an Ada Palmer on me. If you’re not familiar with her works (I reviewed one of her books here), she loves drawing heavily from her favourite aspects of both history and philosophy to underpin her writing. Jeannette Ng appears to be doing something similar – I was not at all surprised to learn from the author notes that she has a masters in Renaissance Studies and an interest in missionary theology. Which, I confess, probably means that there are parts of this book that have flown entirely over my head. Personally, I enjoyed the feeling of depth this gave her work. But if you don’t have an intrest in this kind of subject matter, this book may not be for you.
I can out the end of this book feeling like my head had been jerked around – but impressed enough to put the author on top of my ballot for the Campbell award. For a debut novel, ‘Under the Pendulum Sun’ is not 100% perfect, but it’s still highly compelling.
I had been hoping to use this book for the ‘Snubbed’ category in bingo, but the John W Campbell Award is given to the author, and not for a particular book, so it wouldn’t technically apply. So I’m putting it under ‘Underrepresented’, and I hope to see more of Jeannette Ng’s take on Faerie in the future.