The Bedlam Stacks, Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury 978-1-6240-967-1, $26.00, 332pp, hc) July 2017.
In The Bedlam Stacks, Natasha Pulley’s unconventional imagination finds a new voice. Merrick Tremayne spent the 1850s working for Britain’s notorious East India Company as a kind of agent/enforcer/drug smuggler in China. This left him washed up at age 30, back at the crumbling family home in Cornwall with little hope of full recovery from a bad leg wound. He’s relying on the scant good graces of elder brother Charles, a polio victim who never really liked him. Their father died when Merrick was just a kid, his mother went to the madhouse, and he didn’t grow up as a family favorite, but the junior version could accept dad’s wayward moods, and shared his love for fairy tales.
Strangeness still lingers in the battered greenhouse and worn grounds of the estate: relics from two generations of Tremaynes obsessed with New Bethlehem, a Roman Catholic mission village in the wilds of the Peruvian Andes. (“Bedlam” is English slang for Bethlehem, and the former Spanish Colonial outpost perches on cliffs overlooking huge “stacks” of volcanic glass.) According to dad’s stories, it’s a wondrous place where trees explode and stone giants walk. Though Merrick thinks he’s done with travels, now his old employers want him for another mission: to smuggle cuttings from a woody Peruvian plant used for quinine (sole cure for India’s plague of malaria). He turns them down.
Nevertheless, as Part Two opens in the New Year of 1860, he and a fellow Brit are heading toward the Andean cloud forest and the Bedlam Stacks. Once they arrive, his outlook changes. Believing that he “never really wanted to come to Peru” and had lost all sense of wonder long ago, he’s astonished to feel like he’s “drawn a door on the wall at home and gone through into an imaginary place where the river was a dragon and somewhere in the forest was something stranger than elves.” When he talks with Raphael (a local priest known to at least one other Tremayne), it sometimes recalls The Watchmaker of Filigree Street: Raphael collects clockwork, and some unknown Inca mechanism might explain how the village’s great stone “guardians” can respond whenever worshipers approach.
In Part Five, nearly 20 years have passed when a minor figure from a passing flashback shows a new guise, turning this into a prequel! The connection never becomes direct, though. Since other mysteries persist (in both land and sky), there’s room for further exploration. I have no idea where Pulley will go next, only that if a series does emerge, it won’t keep to the limits of any form.
Faren C. Miller, Contributing Editor, worked full-time for Locus from 1981 to 2000, when she pulled up stakes and moved to Prescott, Arizona (a “mile-high city” not as widely known as that one in Colorado) with the man she subsequently married, Kerry Hanscom. She continues to review SF, fantasy, and horror — enjoying, analyzing, then forgetting all the details on a regular basis — and hopes to keep doing it for many years to come. Author of one fantasy, The Illusionists (Warner 1991), she is working on another which she’s confident will be finished before the next millennium rolls around.
This review and more like it in the August 2017 issue of Locus.