UNDER THE PENDULUM SUN
Author: Jeannette Ng
Publisher: Angry Robot Press, 416 pages
This is a complex book, dense with meaning and allusions that I feel I won’t fully grasp until I read it again, more closely. I admit I rushed through it because I was anxious to know the fates of everyone involved. The way events unfold, I felt that it must all end badly, very badly and painfully. Well, they do and they don’t (no spoilers).
The premise is irresistible and strange, and Ng’s crisp and luminous prose is ideal for navigating faeland, a gloomy world, full of secrets and mysteries, and casual cruelty.
Laon Helstone is a missionary who has travelled to Arcadia to convert its natives. Having not heard from him for some time, his sister, Catherine, obtains permission from his sponsors to follow and find out what is going on.
When she arrives in faeland, Catherine finds that Laon has gone to meet with Mab, queen of the fae and although he is expected to return to Gethsemane, the castle allocated to him and, before him, the Reverend Roche, no one can say when she should expect him.
The idea of converting the fae to Christianity is preposterous, but it also makes perfect sense. That is, after all, what Christians are obliged to do: share the ‘good news’, and modern missionaries would be as compelled as Victorian ones to bring salvation to the ignorant and sinful fae, if such creatures were found to exist.
When I first heard about this novel, I thought it would explore questions regarding imperialism and colonisation, and the ethics of religious conversion. However, these are not questions that Ng’s fae are concerned with; nor are they issues that her humans, being typical Victorians in attitude and beliefs, grapple with.
Ng’s characters have other fish to fry. Our point of view is Catherine Helstone’s and for the first 90 or so pages, she is preoccupied with her brother’s whereabouts and figuring out Arcadia. She also begins reading Reverend Roche’s journal and other papers, the contents of which turn out to be the key to a number of interlocking mysteries about Roche and what happened to him, and the true nature of the fae and faeland.
The pace, until Laon finally makes an appearance in Chapter Nine, is slow and somewhat meandering, although I feel this adds to the reading experience. Many inches are taken up with world building and the creation of atmosphere, and both efforts are successful, as the reader sinks deeper and deeper, along with Catherine, into the cold, shadows of Arcadia, piling on the confusion and frustration of unanswered questions.
Laon enters the story, followed soon after by the Queen of the Fairies and her entourage. Predictably (and yet not, as Ng’s originality and inventiveness are quite astounding), things get creepier and stranger when Mab is around. Apart from anything, there is the suspense of waiting for something unspeakable to happen, given the Pale Queen’s reputation. There are also other developments that many reviewers seem to find too disturbing to stomach and (for some) spoil the novel, but, in my opinion, make it all the more curious and meaningful.
Being a story about the interactions between moralistic Christians and amoral fae, there are discussions about belief, faith and sin; the soul, salvation and damnation; heaven and hell. However, I found these a little too cryptic, open-ended and polite to be interesting. (Religious debate is only truly enjoyable if both sides are dead certain of their respective positions and aren’t concerned with making nice.) The excerpts from Roche’s papers were more illuminating and provocative: I wish more had been made of what they revealed.
Will Ng write more about Catherine and Laon? I would certainly like to see where the decision they make at the end of Pendulum Sun takes them, and for there to be further exploration of what their discovery of faeland means, in terms of their faith and their lives.
But first, I need to re-read this novel.