Under the Pendulum Sun
by Jeannette Ng
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This book was surprising in a number of ways. The narrative is more subtle and less fantastical than expected, even though there are more than enough fantasy elements. Since the author was born in Hong Kong I thought there might be an Oriental perspective, but she has lived in the UK for several years, earning an MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Other interests include role-playing games and costuming, which are put to good use in the scenes with the Pale Queen, Mab, queen of the fae, and her entourage. It's more gothic romance than high fantasy, with the Brontė sisters and other Victorian writers referenced as strong influences. It is set in Arcadia, the land of the fae, sometime in the mid-19th Century. Arcadia is in an alternate pocket universe or dimension, and instructions on how to find it consist of "you have to get lost first." Each chapter begins with an epigram, a quote from a prominent historian or religious figure, sometimes it's an excerpt from the Bible or a poem. Some of the people quoted or referenced are historical figures, such as Captain James Cook, the first British explorer to discover the fae lands.
The first-person narrator is Catherine Helstone, whose brother Laon is a missionary to the fae. She has written him often but has received no replies, so she decides to travel to Arcadia to find out why. She has the permission and blessing of her brother's order, although later she discovers the arrangements were made by someone else. The ship hired for her voyage, The Quiet, somehow finds the way, and when she docks at the port of Pivot she is met by Ariel Davenport, a companion of her brother's. Ariel wastes no time in admitting to Catherine that she is not human, but rather a changeling, who had taken the place of the real Ariel when the fae kidnapped the child. Upon reaching adulthood she left England and returned to Arcadia, although she can't explain why, since she doesn't feel she belongs in either place. A changeling is a construct, not a true fae. Religious and philosophical questions abound, such as: Do the fae have souls? Are they creations of God or of the Devil? This perspective is also reflected in the four different narrative sections: Gethsemane, Gilead, Golgotha, and Gehenna. Gethsemane is the name of the castle where Laon lives, although when Catherine arrives he is not in residence, and she can't get a straight answer as to where he is or when he might return. Until he does, Catherine is told she has to stay inside, it's too dangerous for a human to wander alone. The only others at Gethsemane are Ariel, the man-servant Mr. Benjamin (gnome-servant actually), and the mysterious, seldom seen caretaker/cook known as the Salamander.
There are more mysteries than just the nature of the fae. One is the fate of the previous missionary, Jacob Roche. Is he dead, or lost in the outback of Arcadia? Has his widow been informed of either situation? During her explorations of the castle, Catherine discovers what she believes are the Reverend Roche's journals, as well as pages in an unknown script, possibly identified as 'Enochian,' which she suspects might be the language of the fae. Her attempts to translate them are frustrating and inconclusive. After several weeks of going stir-crazy, she defies Ariel and Mr. Benjamin, and leaves Gethsemane. She gets lost in the mist-shrouded land, the same type of mist she witnessed on the carriage ride from the port, so she has no idea of the nature of the landscape and its inhabitants. Luckily, she is in the right place at the right time, encountering her brother on his return. He believes she is an illusion, a trick of the fae, as he has just been in council with the duplicitous Queen Mab, trying to get permission to spread his missionary work to the inland fae. He has made only one convert so far, that being Mr. Benjamin. No other fae ever attends his services.
Both Ariel and Mr. Benjamin imply that the fae are ephemeral, products of their own imagination, their own stories, their nature and that of Arcadia are illusory. Is Gethsemane even real? Is Catherine even in Arcadia, or is it all a dream born from her separation from Laon. Several things hint toward their relationship being more than just brother and sister. Is that all in her head? Is Catherine even real, and if so, is she human? Could she be fae without realizing it? Or a changeling? The plot twists and turns, leading you to certain conclusions, only to twist them again at the end. That might sound confusing or frustrating, but it's not. It's intriguing and challenging, and had me backtrack several times to re-read certain passages to see if I might have missed a clue. Even though another title has not been announced, I feel sure that Under the Pendulum Sun is just the beginning of a marvelous tale. I hope to return to Arcadia soon, now that Mab has given Laon and Catherine permission to travel the fae lands with her full protection. I also want to spend more time with Catherine, a woman just discovering that her life does not have to be bound by tradition, or her station in society, or by her gender. She is definitely the stronger of the siblings. Could she possibly be strong enough to challenge Mab in the future?
As I type this, on the evening of March 16, it's about six hours until the deadline to finalize my Hugo nominations. In almost any other year, when I was reading less, there would be no question this book deserved a spot. And yet, I submitted a tentative ballot last night before finishing this, and I still haven't decided if it should bump one of the other five, very strong titles I had already selected. Whatever I eventually decide, this is a great book, highly recommended.
PS: I'm not saying which book got bumped, but Under the Pendulum Sun was one of my nominations for Best Novel. By the end of the month we'll see if it got enough recognition to make it to the final ballot. [EDIT: Unfortunately it did not.]
UPDATE: On the strength of this novel, Jeannette Ng was a finalist for this year's John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and she won the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer as part of the 2018 British Fantasy Awards. The novel was also a finalist for the BFA as Best Fantasy Novel.
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