This review is based on an ARC given to me for free by the publisher, Angry Robot Books; it is slated for release on October 3, 2017. This does not in any way affect my review.
Trigger warnings for this book can be found at the very bottom of this review.
Some time ago, there was an article on Lithub titled “The Greatest Goths in Literary History”: something fun and light that poked gentle fun at some notable writers. Since I have some friends who are fascinated by goth culture and even participate in it, I posted the link on my Facebook and tagged the friends in question. One of them pointed out that Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies is actually very much goth – especially if one believes in “old-school” fairies: by which she means the Fae of European folklore.
That is an idea I very much agree with. After all, if “gothic” can be broadly defined as “dark, eerie, and slightly macabre”, then the Fae very much fit into that definition. It takes some digging, since so much of the older stories has been obscured by more recent interpretations of fairies, but a quick reading of the older stories shows that the Fae are not the bright, happy, cherubic creatures so often portrayed in children’s literature and media. They are harbingers of death, or givers of blessings. They are impish pranksters who mean little to no harm, or wilful deceivers who lead mortals into harm’s way. They steal men, women, and babies; sometimes they return them, but always with caveats. Oftentimes, they are all those things, all at once. The Fae occupy a space in the imagination that seems limned with light, but if the reader looks close enough, looks hard enough, he or she realises that all that light actually hides – or creates – some very deep, very dark shadows.
This is the vision of the Fae that Jeannette Ng presents in her novel Under the Pendulum Sun. Set in an alternate history of the 1800s, the narrator is Catherine Helstone, who journeys to Arcadia, the land of the Fae, in search of her brother Laon. Upon arrival, however, she is brought to Gethsemane: an old mansion where she is told to await her brother’s return from whatever journey he has gone on. But Gethsemane hides secrets within its walls, and as Catherine starts piecing those secrets together, truths are gradually revealed that could alter her perspective of Arcadia, the Fae, her brother – and herself.
One of the first and most important things readers need to know about this book is that it is multilayered, and those layers go pretty deep. On the surface, it looks like the standard gothic novel with some fairytale elements, but if the reader digs deeper then he or she begins to find threads that point to other sources. The literary references are fairly obvious: traces of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci can all be found quite easily, and likely spring to mind easily as well, given the references to the Fae.
But less obvious are the theological references: callbacks to Milton, Dante, Calvin, and other theological authors and philosophers are littered throughout the text. Then there are other, far less obvious references that I cannot tease out due to my lack of knowledge of said texts. On one hand, this makes sense, since Catherine and Laon are meant to be missionaries converting the Fae to Christianity, but on the other the references go deeper than that. They all tie into the themes: questions about the nature of God, faith and the soul are obvious, of course, but there are also more philosophical questions buried in there, questions about how to define truth, and how stories and storytelling play into the creation of truth.
Of course, all of this means that this is a rather complicated, multilayered read. Indeed, reading this novel reminded me of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. In Too Like the Lightning, Palmer uses Enlightenment philosophy as the primary underpinning for the novel; similarly, Ng uses theology and medieval and Renaissance literature as the primary underpinning for Under the Pendulum Sun. If the reader does not have the same level of knowledge that the author does, then he or she is likely going to miss something, or have a reference go over his or her head.
Personally, I do not think this is a bad thing; part of the reason why I read books in the first place is to learn new things, and if a book exposes gaps in my knowledge then that’s quite fine with me. It just means there is more to discover out there, more things to learn, and I am one of those people who is always happy to know that the horizon of my knowledge has not yet come so close that I am running out of new things to know.
I am aware, however, that all of this subtlety is not to other readers’ tastes. That is understandable, since some readers just do not have the patience for untangling all the small references that the author has layered into this book. In some novels, this might be a make-or-break kind of deal, but fortunately in this one, that is not the case. This novel does not require a degree in theology, or one in medieval and Renaissance literature, to enjoy – though of course, such knowledge certainly adds to the enjoyment. Readers are free to read this purely as a gothic horror story, but if they have the kind of background knowledge to understand all the references included in the story, then they will derive that much more enjoyment from it.
And speaking of plot, this novel has an amazingly well-crafted one. I like it when I cannot always predict which way a plot will turn, and this novel had quite a few twists and turns that I rarely saw coming. I encounter such books fairly rarely, so when I do read one it is always a genuine pleasure for me.
I must note here, however, that one of those twists makes use of a trope that I am not sure other readers will enjoy. I shall not mention it, since to do so would be to give away a particularly large spoiler, but I would like to reassure readers that the author manages to handle it fairly well, all things considered – especially given how other creators have handled this particular trope. Still, it is there, and if readers of this review are concerned about it, I would be willing to inform them of it in the comments.
Overall, Under the Pendulum Sun is what I call a “Chinese puzzle ball” story: beautifully crafted and structured, but containing a deeper, hidden heart that takes patience to reach. As is often the case with many puzzles, the pleasure is not in solving the puzzle, but in the journey to that solution: the many possibilities and options the mind considers as it tries to get to the heart of the matter. That is very much the case with this novel, and while some readers might not enjoy its intricacies, I am certain there are plenty more out there who will derive great pleasure from this rich, multilayered read.