The Blurb On The Back:
Catherine Helstone’s missionary brother, Laon, has disappeared while bringing the Gospels to the Dark Continent – not Africa, but Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae.
Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey to that extraordinary land, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.
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The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s the mid-19thcentury. Towards the end of the previous century, Captain James Cook accidentally discovered a passage to Arcadia (the legendary land of the fae), returning with tales of a strange and beautiful world where the sun is a pendulum that swings from one end of the lands to the other and the moon a strange and beautiful fish that wanders through the night sky. Concerned for the souls of the fae, the London Missionary Society sent missionaries to try and convert them to Christianity but their first emissary, Reverend Jacob Roche only managed to convert a gnome named Mr Benjamin before his death. His replacement, Laon Helstone, has been in Arcadia for three years but it’s been two years since anyone last received word from him or the progress of his endeavours.
Laon’s younger sister, Catherine, has persuaded the London Missionary Society to pay for her travel to Arcadia to find out what’s happened to him in return for recovering Jacob Roche’s papers and bringing them back to London. She is met in Arcadia by Miss Ariel Davenport, a changeling who lives with Laon, Mr Benjamin and their housekeeper, the mysterious Salamander, in a grand house called Gethsemene. But Laon himself is away, petitioning Mab, the Queen of the Fae to be permitted to bring his mission deeper into the fae lands and Catherine finds herself confined to Gethsemene and its grounds, prevented from going outside by the other inhabitants who warn her that she is only protected from fae magic for so long as she stays there.
As Catherine waits for her brother’s return, she becomes aware that there’s something sinister going on within Gethsemene. Jacob Roche’s papers allude to a mystery at the heart of Arcadia and Miss Davenport and Mr Benjamin seem keen that Catherine not ask too many questions about what happened to Roche or to his wife. So when Laon finally returns to Gethsemene, Catherine should be relieved – but he brings news of a visit by Mab and her court – and where Mab goes, mischief and malevolence are never far behind …
Jeanette Ng’s debut alternate universe historical fantasy novel (the first in a trilogy) is a diligently researched, very literary book that knowingly nods at Charlotte and Emily Brontë and has interesting points to make on colonialism, religion and the role of women and makes innovative use of its fae setting but there is precious little plot here (that only really gets going in the final quarter) and the incest theme may deter some readers.
Ng has clearly done a huge amount of research for this book and I have to say that I found its narrative voice was pitch perfect for the period – to the extent that there were times when I could well believe I was reading a genuine 19thcentury literary work. She’s put a lot of thought into religion and its place in Britain’s colonialist past, examining prevailing thoughts and concerns and injecting it throughout the chapters in a way that I found fascinating although at times it could be heavy going as Catherine wrestles with Mr Benjamin’s theological questions (and I suspect it may put off some readers) and whether the fae have souls. Each chapter is prefaced with some kind of writing about Arcadia or religion and I’ll confess, I found it difficult to tell which were made up and which were real because Ng does such a good job of weaving them into the story.
There’s also a strong Brontë influence on the text – not just through Catherine’s name but also through allusions to her childhood with Laon in the wild beauty of Yorkshire (where WUTHERING HEIGHTS is a clear influence) while her reunion with her brother is straight out of JANE EYRE, as is the plot strand involving a mad woman haunting the house. Ng also takes the Heathcliff/Cathy relationship as her starting point between Catherine and Laon – from the start the book alludes to the closeness of feeling that the siblings have for each other and Ng takes that to its natural, albeit incestuous conclusion. I am in two minds about that. On the one hand it fits within one of the themes of the book (namely that Mab and the fae are trying to taunt and coax the humans into sinning while also playing with their perceptions such that they can no longer tell what is real and what isn’t). However incest has also been a bit of a personal squick of mine and the fact that it’s played here for romance (albeit romance of a particularly tragic kind) did not sit easily with me, and I can well see it putting off some readers from checking out the sequel, which would be a pity.
In terms of character, Catherine is well drawn. I believed in the frustration she feels at the constraints placed on women of the time and I also believed in the feelings she had for her brother. Her intellectual curiosity is appealing and I liked the way she tries to get to grips with Roche’s papers to uncover the mystery within them, especially the Enochian language. However, I did get very frustrated with the way that nothing really happens for the first three quarters of the book – told that she cannot go outside the grounds, she doesn’t really try to defy it and she is rather petulant in dealing with Miss Davenport and Mr Benjamin rather than confronting them on what’s happening. This does tie in with the idea of what was expected of women in the period but as a modern reader, it rapidly becomes quite frustrating and none of that is really alleviated when Laon finally makes an appearance and then proceeds to not really explain anything to her either.
In fact, the big weakness of the book is the lack of plot. Very little happens for the first three quarters and it’s only once Mab makes an appearance that things start to get tense. However, while I enjoyed the revelations that Ng makes about Arcadia (all of which are very in tune with the book’s religious themes), I found her take on the fae to be very much same-old, same-old as the fae speak in riddles (telling the truth only when it’s most destructive), use humans as playthings and are genuinely cold and manipulative.
Mr Benjamin and Miss Davenport form a good supporting cast – each tragic in their own way and each very human. I was particularly moved by a scene where Mr Benjamin suspects that he’s about to be sacrificed to Mab’s whims and sees it as an opportunity to prove his faith in Christ but Miss Davenport is also a very good creation – whimsical and playful and yet true to herself and to Catherine. By contrast I found Laon to be a little dull, despite the allusions to his being an alcoholic, and I hope that Ng rounds him out more in the second book so that I can get a better feeling for what Catherine loves about him.
Ultimately, I think that this is a very much a literary book and one for people who like to feel immersed in a period and its beliefs more than one who likes a plot full of twists and turns and action. I have to say that I admired this book more than I enjoyed it but I think it is one that bears reading and given what happens in the final quarter, I would be interested in checking out the sequel to see where Ng takes her characters next.