“The Bedlam Stacks” by Natasha Pulley

Bedlam Stacks

“The Bedlam Stacks” is an enchanting mixture of historical fiction and fantasy. It’s 1860, and Merrick Tremayne, former employee–read: smuggler-of the East India Company, now an invalid, is sitting around in his family estate, which is falling down around his ears. When his old boss invites him to go on an expedition to Peru to smuggle cinchona trees out of the Andes in order to combat the quinine shortage in India, at first he turns down the invitation. How can a man with only one good leg go trekking through the Andes? He ends up taking on the mission, though, only to discover that the cinchona monopoly isn’t his only problem. The village he finds himself in–Bedlam–isn’t just built on quaint Inca ruins; it has moving statues, glowing pollen, and something very mysterious going on around it. And what’s wrong with Rafael, Merrick’s native guide?

The period details are mixed with a modern casualness of style that makes “The Bedlam Stacks” read differently from many historical novels, and from high fantasy. This is more like steampunk, although not quite; it’s really a kind of historical urban fantasy, to coin a genre. The magic is unusual: it clearly *is* magic, but it straddles the line between “real” magic and a 19th-century scientific understanding of the world. When English explorers were discovering new-to-Britain countries and peoples all the time, why couldn’t they stumble across something that contradicted everything they knew so far about botany and biology? How could they know that what they were encountering was “magic,” and not just another foreign culture? This makes the magic of the book–some of which is truly lovely–rather matter-of-fact at times, as hardened adventurer Merrick tends to accept what is going on around him, even when he can’t understand it, with a very British calm. Fans of fantasy may or may not enjoy this book: it’s certainly not your run-of-the-mill genre fiction, although for literary fiction it’s light and fast-paced. What it is is a unique, spirited take on the colonial travel and adventure story, with some imaginative fantasy thrown in for good measure.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Buy links: Barnes and NobleAmazon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s