Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Book Review 2017 #3 - Natasha Pulley's The Bedlam Stacks

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Published by: Bloomsbury USA
Publication Date: August 1st, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 352 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★ 
To Buy

Merrick Tremayne worries he may be going insane. Yes, prolonged removal from society for recuperation on his family estate in Cornwall doesn't help, but he has precedence; his mother went insane at about his age and is locked up in an asylum. A very nice asylum, but an asylum nonetheless. She claims she saw a stone statue move and Merrick is sure that he has just seen the same thing. Therefore the arrival of his old comrade in arms, Sir Clements Markham from the East India Company with his wife Minna is a welcome diversion. Clem wants Merrick to go with him to Peru and smuggle out some cinchona cuttings because India is in desperate need of quinine, which is made from the bark of the cinchona trees, and the Company is sick of paying the Peruvian monopoly. Merrick is uncertain, before his injury he wouldn't have questioned his ability to pull off this heist, but now? Yet Clem is insistent that the expedition needs Merrick. Their destination is New Bethlehem, lovingly christened Bedlam. The Tremayne family has a connection to that town going back generations. Merrick's grandfather lived there for awhile learning to speak Quechua. Therefore if their cover as "mapmakers" is exposed Merrick's connection might save their lives. Merrick accepts. Mainly because if he is going insane he might as well go out with one last great adventure. With their guide, Raphael, who is the local priest in Bedlam, Merrick learns that what is commonly accepted by the world at large isn't necessarily so once you get off the beaten track. There is danger in the woods, statues that are revered, and a mystery surrounding Raphael... how could this young man have known Merrick's grandfather for a start?

I love magical realism. I love seeing the world we know and love with that little something extra. That spark of magic that makes everything just that much more marvelous. Most people think of magical realism in a modern setting yet, when you think about it, my most favorite subgenre of all, Regency Magic, is magical realism but set in an historical setting. Because I love nothing more than magical historical fiction. Seriously, I can't think of a combination of all the disparate things I love coming together perfectly than in this motley blend. Which is why I love The Bedlam Stacks. Sure, it's set some twenty-two to thirty-nine years after the Regency, depending on whether you believe the Regency ended when Queen Victoria took the throne or before, but it has all those wonderful elements that I love about Regency Magic. There's the real, human need for quinine, but there's also the deeper human need for fables and folk tales and how they come to be. This gives The Bedlam Stacks a mythical quality. There's what is real and what people believe to be real. And Sir Clements Markham's 1859 journey for cinchona actually happened. It happened entirely different, but the core, the basic framework is there. Which is why the magic is so easily grafted on. It's believable that in this foreign country you could wander into a land that time had forgot. Because magic is just something we don't understand. As I remember Philippa Gregory saying in a talk once about writing The White Queen, she wrote the witchcraft as witchcraft because that is how it appeared to the people of the time. This merging of the magical and the historical results in a fairy tale that would be worthy of Doctor Who. Early Doctor Who. Because there's your learning moment and then there's your adventure.

But then there's the Steampunk element. As you probably have guessed over the years by my reading choices and some of my sartorial choices at conventions I have fully embraced Steampunk in many aspects of my life. And there is this element here. Though I would go further and analyze this more, because I think most people are basing this label on the cover coupled with Merrick's insistence that the statues in Bedlam are clockwork. Needless to say covers are designed to sell and Merrick is very much mistaken. Yet I do believe that categorizing The Bedlam Stacks on the outer fringes of Steampunk isn't wrong. The reason I believe this is because of the lamps. Yes, the lamp on the cover is one of them. Sure, they have clockwork in them, but it's not the clockwork in my mind that makes them Steampunk. What makes them Steampunk is that they are utilizing technology and knowledge available to them and creating something new and functional. Much like the fantastical creations in Steampunk based on steam power being the only option these lamps use clock gears to constantly stir up the pollen of the trees in the woods that give off light. The Bedlamites have made something that is completely unique to their region, trees with lighted pollen and a tendency to go boom, and found a way to make it work for them. Throughout the Stacks, there are just little things here and there that show the ingenuity of these people, but there is no greater example than in these lights. I also very much want one for myself.

While the Steampunk elements might be a fascinating aspect of this book it's not why I am so in love with it. What got me was the human element. The connection that each and every character has to the other. Clem and Merrick, who have a strained friendship, in fact prior to his injury Merrick didn't even think they would consider each other friends. Seeing them put through their paces and how their comradely nature erodes is a feeling anyone who has traveled with friends will relate to, and they didn't even have the ability to have the whole music/no music while driving argument. The business nature of Clem versus the more exploratory nature of Merrick allows Merrick to forge connections in Bedlam with the locals. He becomes a part of their community. And as the community of Bedlam is made up of all injured or disfigured people Merrick's leg injury doesn't seem like such a burden anymore. He is considered more fit than the majority of the residents. This, more than sitting in Cornwall with his brother, does more to help him recover than anything else. Yet it's his constantly evolving friendship with Raphael that is the cornerstone, the bedrock, the ONE THING, that this book is about. Two men, from totally different cultures and times, coming together to be friends. The layers of Raphael's reluctance that are broken down and through over time, that let Merrick see who he truly is, that's almost the most magical aspect of The Bedlam Stacks. Though I do have this caveat, their relationship is ambiguous to whether or not it evolves into romantic feelings. Some people are all for this, some people are not. I have no problem with this and do agree that what they felt for each other was love, but I'm uncertain if I think or want it to be romantic in nature. At the end this reveal seems a little forced. They love each other and I don't think it needs definition.

Throughout the whole story, magical and human, I have come to one conclusion, I would die of altitude sickness. I had kind of thought this in passing before but now I have 100% certainty. I would die. This started years ago when watching An Idiot Abroad with Karl Pilkington when he made it three-quarters of the way to Machu Picchu and gave up requesting a Sir David Attenborough-esque voice-over. I'm pretty sure this would be me. Is the journey worth the reward? Worth the pain? Well The Bedlam Stacks made me think 100% no. As Natasha Pulley said, she had no idea the horror of altitude sickness and now her research made sense once she experienced it first had. The inability to think, like you're living in a fog. The headaches, the nausea, the incapacitation, all of it! Weird asides like Sir Clements Markham being unconcerned his team were being followed, because he didn't have the ability to care or worry! Yet the nail in my coffin was the whole nosebleeds issue. As in you get them all the time up there where the air is clear. Here's the thing. I have a lifelong fear of nosebleeds. Why you might ask? Well, I used to have them daily. Also horrifically. Once I had a nosebleed while in Milwaukee when I was little that lasted the entire trip, two full days. I just laid on my uncle's living room floor thinking everything in his house is white what will he do if I get some blood spattered about... he went ballistic when he thought I broke his toy robot, which I didn't by-the-way. Once in grade school I got a nosebleed at recess that soaked my entire sweatshirt before I could get to the nurse's office. This all culminated in my having to have my nose cauterized in 2002. Therefore to willingly go somewhere where this could happen? Sorry I'm out. Ah books, showing us places we could never go to. Now that's magic.


Newer Post Older Post Home