In this extraordinary first novel, the British Empire attempts to exert its commercial and cultural influence into the Faelands, also known as Arcadia, with predictably disastrous results. Narrated by Catherine Helstone, sister of missionary Laon, the story at first channels and then pretty much becomes a sublimation of Romantic ideals as the siblings attempt to gain favour with the Pale Queen to explore the interior of Arcadia, a realm thus far out of bounds to all humans.
This is one of the must erudite and layered novels in any genre I’ve read for a long time. Like the Faelands themselves, it shouldn’t work at all; but in the end, simply does. Often, fantasy authors include their own lamentable attempts at verse; in ‘Under the Pendulum Sun’ Jeanette Ng has the courage to include resonant excepts from Shelley and Shakespeare alongside her own fictional documents, including the beautifully titled ‘The Arcadian Voyages’, which is surely the best title for the novel after the one chosen.
It would have been a misnomer anyway, since Catherine and Laon don’t actually get to voyage much at all. They are trapped inside Gethsemane, a fairy castle made up of random bits of architecture culled as much from various stories as from different historical periods. Indeed, there is a danger that the frustration Catherine feels about being cooped up in this way as she waits for her brother leaches into the reader a little too deeply.
Or it may be that the brilliant conceit of the novel could be framed another way: one structure made of nonsense (the Empire and its insane, contradictory religion) is set against another (the Faelands, in which the sun is, literally, a pendulum, the caretaker is a gnome and the Pale Queen’s retinue includes men made of sand). Catherine and Laon are caught between these two vast, improbable forces as they try to make sense of the fate of Laon’s predecessor, the Reverend Roche, whose journal Catherine has been forbidden to read, not that that stops her. There is a lot in the story about being forbidden to do things, and the rules set in place by the Pale Queen are no less absurd and arbitrary than the ones imposed by the various warring versions of Christianity or the wretched English class system.
The Empire’s colonial arrogance is an almost visceral dark energy in the novel, and is only balanced by the genuine love of God and desire to do good, however misguided, of the two main characters. Meanwhile, the South Seas Company, pitiful sibling to the East India Company and almost beat-for-beat precursor to the architects of the 2007 financial crash, slithers behind the scenes of ‘Under the Pendulum Sun’ like the Salamander, the actual one, who works in Gethsemene as a housekeeper. In the book, the South Seas Company is enjoying an unlikely resurgence in its fortunes following contact with the Faelands, which you can only reach if you are well and truly lost (big hint, there). The journal excerpt that mentions the company’s representatives mingling with a congregation of the converted elsewhere in the Empire does so in the same deluded, euphoric terms as supporters of the 45th US President, as they frantically try and persuade themselves that he’s human.
The novel, then, has a healthy dose of the politically subversive about it; but it goes further than that. From the writings of John Locke to Thomas Hobbes, the story attempts to define what they Fae are and how best to deal with them when the Leviathan the two main characters encounter is a sea whale that has the sea inside it instead of the other way around. When one of these incredible creatures beaches itself against Gethsemene and Catherine and Laon explore the interior of its body the level of inventiveness in the writing becomes almost frenzied. Not for nothing does the relationship between the brother and sister enter a new, potentially disturbing, but also beautiful phase afterwards.
Their exploration mirrors that of Jonah and the Whale, which in turn reflects the story of Jesus and his Resurrection. A Fae brother and sister taunt Catherine and Laon; Catherine’s companion in Gethsemene is a Fae changeling called Ariel Davenport and Gethsemene itself is decorated with mirrors for the Pale Queen’s banquet. Everything is about reflection; reality and unreality and their place in the universe. At one point, the incredible Pale Queen, who embodies this duality with everything she says and does, taunts Laon with the bitter truth that even Jesus bringing the Word of God did so understanding that there would always be those who could not be included.
There are many great twists in this story that make it a worthy modern Gothic; however, there is a generosity of spirit to the narrative that has time to consider the loneliness of God before Creation, or, if He was the last of some other, inconceivably mighty race, His terrible grief. The author displays a deep understanding of the Bible and its contradictions and has woven an original, haunting tale from them. There is that eerie feeling of a writer grappling with the inestimable; the psychological cables that make some stories so powerful that they underscore the domination of a quarter of the world. There’s an excitement to it, which is perhaps why there is so much creepy or downright crazy invention.
For all the bird people and sand men, there is a science fictional rigour to the world-building; the laws of physics are treated with respect, although it’s the kind of respect one has for a doddery old relative. For instance, the Prussians (inevitably) invent a device for locating the Faelands now that there’s a shortage of truly awful human navigators. The device seems to work rather like the machines in the National Lottery draw and is similarly based on a combination of luck, hope and nonsense. In a land in which truth is used as a weapon, such mundane inventions are doomed to failure; instead, the pressure on Catherine increases to a level that often feels like insanity. Fortunately, she is a strong woman, albeit a confused one.
Not since Kafka have I read a story involving quite so many multiplying realities, all of which appear to be at war with each other. Catherine’s obstinate courage is offset by her decency and, rather touchingly, very English sense of decorum. However, even that restraint is ultimately cast aside with an ending that, despite is skilful build-up, still comes with a jolt. This is a novel whose big heart enables it to engage with big ideas. Read it carefully, and be rewarded.