Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, 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 soon – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.
Content warning: This book is not YA, and not recommended for younger teens due to subject matter.
Under the Pendulum Sun draws up a richly imagined world of fae in a gothic fantasy style, narrated through our protagonist, Catherine. Cathy set out to Arcadia to find her brother and support him in his Mission. The setting of the story is 19th century, with the rise of colonialism and the dispatch of missionaries who set out to bring the Word of God to what they consider heathens. So, similarly, these two think (like all missionaries) that they have come to enlighten the heathen Fae and turn them to God’s light or whatever. Now, I am an agnostic personally, but I have a love for mythology, and since this was concerning biblical mythology, I was interested in what direction it would take with the folkloric nature of fae stories and the stories of the Bible; I am not an expert in either but I have a passing knowledge thanks to endless works in literature.
Now, UtPS relies its mythology heavily on the Bible and knowledge of some other works related to it, preceding this era. Even though the time in Arcadia is moot, the characters belong to a time period, so I guess this can be considered historical. But if you are, like me, not well-acquainted with the Bible and the stories within, it is pretty easy to get lost in the many references the author makes to the Christian scripture. People who have done Bible studies or something might appreciate the allegorical nature of the story and the way the story challenges the scripture and derives from it, but I was mostly disinterested. The chapters begin with passages from the Bible, or works of literature or a fictional Arcadian Voyages collection, and it is all heavy with religious undertones. It passes the territory from mythology into theology, with Cathy and Laon both engaging in frequent discussion on the meaning of the scripture and how it applies to the fae. It also brings up the concept of attribution of soul, since the fae seem to outside the realm of the biblical parables and as such, questionable on the nature of their existence and of their souls’.
Mab, a big figure in fae stories, is also a prominent character here as she controls the realm of Arcadia and is toying with the siblings. The first half of the story is Cathy trying to figure out the mystery of Laon’s predecessor’s death, her developing friendship with Alice (a changeling), and the endless mysteries of Gethsemane, a castle-like place that is anachronistic and builds up most of the gothic atmosphere of the novel. With the reveals that come around mid-way through the novel, the novel takes a disturbing shift, and the earlier concerns are put away in favor of Cathy’s memories (which, by the way, are in-congruent with the ending). The plot drags in the second half until the comes close to the last quarter, which is when there are further twists that the plot takes. Learning about the nature of Arcadia and the connection to the religious tones of the book was great, but the part before it was tortuously slow to keep my awe for long. The romance also kinds of put a damper on the enjoyment, because at one point I was like, how is it any different from what you thought of it before? Just because a thing was revealed didn’t change the nature of the feelings, and I felt it was left pretty unresolved on that front.
The writing is, in a word, beautiful. The author creates a wholly unique world where time and distance itself have new meanings. Arcadia is illuminated by a literal pendulum sun and a fish-moon, and yet the concept of time exists as a construct of the fae ideals. That detail added whimsy to a world already bereft of convention and rules, and the warring nature of restrictions and its comparison to the illogical nature of age-old scriptures makes a nice counterpoint to the Victorian sensibilities of the main character.
Overall, I recommend this book for the wonderful world-building and the complicated plot, but this was also a book I did not fully enjoy for various reasons.
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Angry Robot Books, via Netgalley.