Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks has been on my radar for a while, and I found it totally captivating. Set in 1857, it follows Merrick Tremayne, who was working for the East India Company until a leg injury meant he could no longer do his job. When he’s offered the chance to travel to Peru by his friend Clements Markham as part of an expedition to retrieve cuttings from cinchona trees, which produce the malaria-combating quinine, he feels he has to accept – especially as his family have a long history in the country. However, high in the Peruvian rainforest, Merrick encounters the eerie town of Bedlam, watched over by Incan markayuq – sacred statues – lit by luminescent pollen, and built around a river that boils and freezes by turns. Raphael, a Catholic priest, is his guide to this strange world, but nevertheless, Merrick keeps feeling that he’s missing something – especially when it comes to the line of salt that separates the cinchona plantation from the town of Bedlam, and which he’s told he must not cross.
The Bedlam Stacks recalls a eclectic tangle of previous stories, including Doctor Who’s ‘Blink’, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, with a bit of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow thrown in for good measure. However, this merely increases its resonance rather than making it feel in any way derivative. Pulley brilliantly draws the reader into a world where we’re genuinely unsure what is fact and what is fantasy, mediated by the unfamiliarity of the setting and Merrick’s own limited understanding and colonial gaze. While I’m by no means an expert on any of this, I did quite a bit of research on nineteenth-century Peru, including reading some of Markham’s travel writing, for a now-abandoned novel project, and also spent a month or so in the country almost ten years ago now. I was hugely impressed by the depth of Pulley’s knowledge, which goes way beyond the things you learn quite quickly as a tourist in Peru, and how cleverly she deploys it in the novel.
Before reading The Bedlam Stacks, I was worried that it might become a little ‘white man goes on an adventure in strange foreign climes’, but Pulley’s writing, while not overtly discussing power structures, probes these kind of narratives in a way I’ve rarely seen done in fiction, although there are a number of academic histories that do this well. In short, Pulley gets the fact that rational explanations for phenomena change depending on who you are, rather than writing off non-Western beliefs as superstitious or naive. She sums this up in a brilliant passage near the end of the book, which I can’t quote because it spoils a central twist, but which uses the metaphor of translation (a key theme throughout the book, as the characters switch between English, Spanish and Quechua) to get at this cultural disconnect. Oh, and there’s also an incredibly moving love story and genuinely funny banter. HIGHLY recommended. It’s the first book I read this year, but, nevertheless, it will surely be a contender for my top ten books of 2019.
Revelation Space, which was Alistair Reynolds’s debut novel back in 2000, kickstarted a trilogy, and has since been republished in Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series. It appealed to me because it sounded like the same kind of fun, sweeping space opera as James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, and to an extent, I was right, although I’d say Revelation Space leans more towards the ‘harder’ end of SF. The novel starts with archaeologist Dan Sylveste, having returned, perhaps permanently altered, from the mysterious alien Shroud, investigating the sudden demise of the Amarantin civilisation. A second thread follows Ilia Volyova, part of a Triumvirate who rules over a vast spaceship, who is determined to capture Sylveste and his father’s AI simulation so she can heal the Captain of their ship, who is suffering from a Melding Plague that afflicts both human flesh and its technological implants. Finally, Ana Khouri, a hired assassin, has been planted on the ship by a mysterious entity called Mademoiselle, who wants to see Sylvester dead.
Revelation Space is definitely an entertaining read, and Reynolds engages intelligently with the conventions of the genre, but I found myself a little frustrated by his writing style. Each chapter switches at least once between all three of his protagonists, and Reynolds seems determined to end each section on a cliffhanger, which stops feeling organic and urgent and starts feeling Goosebumps-level cheesy after he does it for the hundredth time, especially as he has a tendency to really underline the tension:
“There’s something Khouri and I need to discuss with all of you. It concerns Cerberus.”
Sylveste looked scornful. “What do you know about Cerberus?”
“Too much,” Khouri said. “Too damned much.”
This structure also means that the novel is absolutely packed with twists, which makes it longer than it needs to be, and, ironically, means that the really clever switchbacks fall with less force than they should, as the characters are stunned by new information every other page. Reynolds’s excessively cerebral writing also undermined my investment in all his protagonists; I found myself engaging with them more as Machiavellian rational actors* than as human beings. This kept me going, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to get the next in the trilogy.
*I know this is a mixed metaphor
I was utterly absorbed by Mary Doria Russell’s debut novel, The Sparrow, which followed Emilio Sandoz, genius linguist and sole survivor of a Jesuit mission to a distant alien planet, as he deals with reliving the trauma of what happened to him there. So I was keen to get hold of Children of God, its sequel, as quickly as possible. Children of God picks up pretty much where The Sparrow left off, as Emilio tries to rebuild his life on Earth, leaving the priesthood, meeting a woman, and acquiring a guinea pig. However, the Society of Jesus is preparing another mission to Rakat – and they want Emilio to be part of it, even though he’s refused to ever go back to the planet. Parallel threads follow the stories of Supaari VaGayjur, a Jana’ata who initially befriended and then abused Emilio during the previous mission to Rakat, and a burgeoning resistance movement among the second alien species on Rakat, the Runa, who are subjugated by the Jana’ata.
While The Sparrow‘s plot was propelled irresistibly forward by the central mystery of what happened to Emilio’s mission, Children of God is inevitably more reflective, exploring how Emilio tries to renegotiate his relationship with God and with other human beings after what he suffered, and, on Rakat, examining how social norms can be resisted and overturned. Unlike The Sparrow, which had an especially rich ensemble cast, Children of God is dominated by a couple of protagonists, most notably Emilio, whose struggles with his maimed hands root him firmly in the physical world even as he deals with the most abstract of questions. For me, it was a weaker novel solely because it deals much more squarely with the Jana’ata and the Runa; the sketchy world-building that sufficed in The Sparrow doesn’t really become any more solid, and these chapters feel like reading a middle-of-the-road fantasy novel. However, Emilio’s arc, as we see how he starts to rebuild the wreck of his life, is both gripping and necessary, and it’s worth reading the novel for that alone.