Brigdh (wordsofastory) wrote,

Reading... Tuesday? Sure, why not.

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng. An absolutely fantastic, gorgeous novel of fantasy and horror and history. In Victorian England, fairy-land (now called Arcadia) is a real place, and Victorian England being Victorian England, missionaries are sent there. Catherine Helstone's brother, Laon, is the latest one, and he seems to have vanished – or at least isn't answering her letters. Catherine sets off to Arcadia after him, where she discovers a mystery concerning the previous missionary and his wife, a left-over changeling, and the mind-games of the fairy queen.

The worldbuilding and writing of Under the Pendulum Sun are just incredible. Arcadia is exactly what fairy-land should be: illogical and dreamlike and dangerous and amoral (not immoral!) and full of promise. The plot is less about Catherine going out to solve mysteries and have adventures than on an exploration of what Victorian Protestant theology would make of fairies (do they have souls? did God create them at the same time as humans, or earlier, or later? what is sin, to a fairy?), complete with all the colonialism and imperialism one would expect. Each chapter starts with an excerpt from some supposedly 19th-century text on religion and fairies, and I sometimes found these short pieces more fascinating than the actual main story. Which is not to say the main story was boring! But Ng has come up with such amazing, complex ideas regarding her invented theology that I could not get enough.

Speaking of the main plot, it's heavily influenced by gothic fiction: we have an excellently creepy mansion for the main setting, foggy moors, a potentially malevolent housekeeper, intricate and incomprehensible social rules that bind our heroine's options and suggest dread fates if she should accidently break a single one, and, oh yes, Catherine's sexual fascination with someone who is absolutely not an appropriate suitor.

I am head-over-heels in love with this book, and I cannot wait for Ng to write more.

Rustication by Charles Palliser. A gothic novel set in a true-to-genre crumbling mansion surrounded by boggy marshes in rural England in the 1860s. The novel is supposedly the journal of Richard, a seventeen-year-old who has just been rusticated (slightly kinder slang for being suspended or expelled) from Cambridge for debts, opium abuse, and possibly being involved with a friend's suicide. Rather than returning home, he finds his mother and sister Euphemia have moved to said crumbling mansion, while his father has recently died under a cloud of scandal. His death has dropped the family from middle-class to poor, while the scandal means former friends refuse to associate with them. Their mother deals with this by fixating on Euphemia's chance of securing a good marriage with a nearby Earl's nephew, which depends on their ability to get tickets to an upcoming ball. Richard deals with this by, well, doing opium, refusing to take on any responsibility in their changed circumstances, and writing explicit sexual fantasies about every woman he comes across, from powerless servants to fourteen-year-olds to his own sister. When the women react exactly how you would expect them to react to a young man who veers between annoying and outright sexually harassive, he calls them names, accuses them of unnatural coldness, and switches his obsession to the next woman he comes across.

In the background of this family drama, the local community finds itself besieged by anonymous, crude letters, mostly addressed to women and accusing them of various sexual crimes, interspersed with threats against the same Earl's nephew Euphemia plans on marrying. At the same time, and presumably committed by the same person, livestock begins to turn up dead and mutilated, again with a sexual focus: male animals are castrated, pregnant females have their wombs removed.

Surely, given all of this (and I haven't even mentioned multiple other sexual tragedies occurring in the neighborhood: a secret child, a notable who has sex trafficked a young girl while pretending she's his 'ward', a servant subjected to continual prepubescent rape by her father and brothers, and death by incompetent abortion, among others), you would think that the misogyny and sexual violence of the Victorian era is Palliser's theme. I certainly assumed so! More fool me, because the real twist ending is that Richard's been set up by his mother and Euphemia so that he'll be found guilty of all these crimes, which will allow Euphemia to marry the man she really wants. Those twisty women! Always entrapping men with their wiles. What the servant's backstory, or the sex trafficked child, or the multiple men accused of raping their daughters, or Richard's father's scandal – which is eventually revealed to have been pedophilia – have to do with any of this is never explained, so I guess Palliser thought it was... just interesting background worldbuilding? I don't think I've ever come across a book that so clearly established a theme, only to reach the end and find that all these instances never added up to anything more.

To be slightly fair (though I'm not sure Palliser deserves it), the writing was excellent at capturing the dark and gloomy mood and building the tension. I raced through the last hundred pages in a single sitting, though of course that was mostly because I was so excited to reach the twist, only to realize on the last page that the twist I was expecting didn't exist.

Ugh. I don't know what was going on here, or why this book has generally positive reviews. This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
Tags: bookblogging
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.
  • 1 comment