Happy book birthday to The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley! I received this book as an advanced copy from Bloomsbury USA, and with it was a sort of companion novel (though you don’t have to read one in order to read the other), The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. If you didn’t read my review of that one, here’s the gist of it: I didn’t like it. I was worried I’d feel the same about The Bedlam Stacks, so my husband said he’d read and review it for me! So TA-DA, feast your eyes on my VERY SPECIAL GUEST review featuring Cole, the husband!
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Published by Bloomsbury USA on August 1st 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fantasy
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In 1859, ex-East India Company smuggler Merrick Tremayne is trapped at home in Cornwall after sustaining an injury that almost cost him his leg and something is wrong; a statue moves, his grandfather’s pines explode, and his brother accuses him of madness.
When the India Office recruits Merrick for an expedition to fetch quinine—essential for the treatment of malaria—from deep within Peru, he knows it’s a terrible idea. Nearly every able-bodied expeditionary who’s made the attempt has died, and he can barely walk. But Merrick is desperate to escape everything at home, so he sets off, against his better judgment, for a tiny mission colony on the edge of the Amazon where a salt line on the ground separates town from forest. Anyone who crosses is killed by something that watches from the trees, but somewhere beyond the salt are the quinine woods, and the way around is blocked.
Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods, and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions; why the villagers are forbidden to go into the forest; and what is happening to Raphael, the young priest who seems to have known Merrick’s grandfather, who visited Peru many decades before. The Bedlam Stacks is the story of a profound friendship that grows in a place that seems just this side of magical.
I received this book for free from Bloomsbury in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
When Ali got an advanced copy of ‘The Bedlam Stacks,’ it seemed like a story that would be right up my alley: East India Company operatives in Peru, perhaps with elements of Magical Realism, and cover art featuring gears (Steampunk in Peru?)? An era I enjoy reading about, in an exotic locale, in a style and genre I love… homerun, right? This book started on track for a solid four stars, but unfortunately lost one along the way.
My major complaint:
My major complaint with this book is the magical realism elements. I love the idea of a book set in South America, the land of Marquez and Borges, riffing off their most famous literary export, but it turns out magical realism is a fine needle to thread and Pulley may have missed the mark.
In my mind magical realism isn’t just about the magic (that would be fantasy) and obviously isn’t just about the realism – it’s creating a world in which the fantastic seems commonplace and the commonplace can seem fantastic. Here the author went over the top with the magic, introducing luminescent pollen, exploding ducks, things that float in air that normally wouldn’t, glass roads… I could go on, and not even give any spoilers, because it seems there is a new fantastical element on every page. Pulley tries to explain these elements, which ultimately cheapens them (as a medical professional, I find myself saying ‘that wouldn’t make a duck explode,’ rather than, ‘that seems legit’).
I get that Peru is supposed to be a down-the-rabbit-hole experience for the main character, but he would likely be aware of the crazy stuff going on down there since it is set in colonial times, his family had previously been there, and things this bizarre and out of the ordinary would likely at least be curiosities to educated circles. In short, I wish there was less, or at least more subtle, magical elements, and more focus on the very interesting plot of East India Company men sneaking trees out of Peru to break a quinine monopoly.
But I really enjoyed!…
What I really liked about this book was Rafael, the Peruvian priest, and his mysterious history. I liked the references to ancient Incan culture and civilization, either historical or fabricated. As I mentioned above, I really, really like the main plot that seems to get muddied up in all the fantasy elements. Two men smuggling quinine out of Peru, with hints of a conspiracy covered up by the local superstitions. And, for all my whining about the magical stuff, some of it made for some evocative scenes and I was disappointed that I got burnt out on it. The inexplicable winter-in-summer atmosphere, the glowing pollen leaving trails through the forest, the mysteriously sentient stone statues would’ve been just enough (exploding ducks can apply elsewhere, thank you).
This book is for someone who enjoys South American settings, and those who enjoy a lot of magic in their magical realism.