Publisher - Angry Robot
Price - £8.99 paperback (out now)
Catherine Helstone's missionary brother, Laon, has disappeared while bringing the Gospels to the Dark Continent - not Africa, but Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae.
Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey to that extraordinary land, but once she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister hour of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her - but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.
For many the word Fae conjure up images of blond ethereal beings – houses made of wood, flowing robes and ancient wisdom. Elrond and Legolas have recently cast a long pointy-eared shadow over the genre and even in SF we get the likes of the Minbari and arguably Vulcans playing a similar role to aid humans. But there is an alternative side to the Fair Folk and that’s when we tend to think of them as the Faerie – magical Fae of a slightly older and wilder time. Less trustworthy, wild and magical with a hint of cruelty lurking under smiles. The tricksters of Midsummer Night’s Dream or in Pratchett’s stories simply cruel vicious monsters who smile widely and despite their gorgeous looks are not human in either their behaviour or morality. In this excellent debut Jeannette Ng gives us an excellent eerie trip into their own world and leaves the reader trying to work out if a trick or treat is being offered.
The story is set in an alternate 19th Century where Captain Cook discovered not Australia but instead getting lost he found an entrance to Arcadia – the Land of the Fae. A tacit trade relationship is starting to form but it’s also led to people asking some interesting questions about where humanity and the fae fit into theology that placed white English speaking people at the top of the tree. Hence Laon decided to cross the ocean to convert the Fae to Christianity and then no more is heard from him. We start the tale just as Catherine arrives off the ship searching for her brother. Arcadia is a mysterious place with swirling fogs; an almost constant sun swinging through the skies that sets both her and the reader on edge. Then she is taken to the large ruined castle of Gethsemene and with a former Changeling and a religiously converted fae servant she tries to piece together what exactly happened to her brother and the previous missionaries who have gone silent.
This is very much a story in the gothic tradition. The atmosphere of Gethsemene and Arcadia is as much as character as the human and fae we meet. It’s unsettling to Catherine who comes from the Yorkshire moors (which itself nods towards some other stories!); this land of warmth, shadows in the fog and a house that has doors that mysteriously open; the sense of eyes watching and remnants of earlier occupants that need decoding. As a reader you’re very much put in her position – all of this world is new to us and its certainly initially alien seeing what appears to be an old stately home in a faerie kingdom. Catherine must always remember to salt her apparently human food or risk enchantment – there are constant reminders she is no longer in her world anymore from a wild moon in the shape of a fish to the way the House seems to guide her to certain rooms when it wants. At the same time, it’s fascinating to watch Catherine subtly change from purely a determined loyal sister into someone keener to explore the secret history of the Fae and start herself to answer questions about theology just for herself rather than serving her brother. None of the Fae seem to think Catherine is not a person in her own right or not able to ask questions or give instructions to others which starts to highlight that perhaps Arcadia isn’t wholly need of changes.
However, as the novel starts to introduce the other characters it moves from what could be a simple tale of a woman finding her independence into something more unsettling and challenging. Ng does this primarily through introducing three different characters that Catherine has to interact with. There is Miss Davenport her companion/liason who explains Fae customs but is quickly identified as a changeling (a fae swapped for a human baby) who has moved back to Arcadia. Her loyalties seem the most complex and her stories start unsettling Catherine’s own view as to her past. Eventually we find a key Fae noble The Pale Queen that Laon was trying to convert – she is very much the Faerie Queen we see in other stories. Aristocratic, cruel and unsettling equally happy to hunt living people and hold parties she gives the impression of having other motivations about letting two missionaries attempt to convert her to a religion they don’t recognise. That every other Fae character is terrified of the Queen makes it clear Catherine is in danger but it’s not immediately clear how. Is it her life or is there something more the fae want to bring out in her?
The final character into the mix is Laon who eventually Catherine finds alive but not quite the brother she remembers. The traditional Victorian missionary keen to teach lesser nations about the ways of the Church is on the one hand arrogant and dismissive of Catherine studying the Fae history herself but at the same time obviously very close to his sister and caring. Arcadia seems to be having the opposite impact on him making him keen to drink as he gives sermons to a congregation of one servant. But Catherine is incredibly attached to him and has been throughout what was clearly a bleak childhood they both were keen to escape – their bond and relationship is a theme that the novel takes to unexpected and challenging places. Ultimately have the Fae decided the siblings are fair game to play with for their own amusement (and may have been for years before their arrival in Gethsemene) or has Arcadia just given the two a chance to finally be themselves outside the conventions of their society? The story keeps you guessing al the way to the end with small clues, red herrings and just a constant sense that nothing is quite what it seems.
This is achieved by a very textured sense of place. We see the Fae have their own hierarchy, mythology and customs. It’s not a backward place in need of westernisation but its own powerful kingdom. Part of the story is that culture clash and that the Victorian values (focused on men) Laon wants to impose may not be the most appealing. So while the reader may feel unsettled how Catherine’s story plays out there is also a sense that exactly how arrogant the Bristich are to think they can convert a whole culture to their way of thinking (and ultimately imperial power). Each chapter starts with a piece of Fae history either about it’s wider traditions or how it’s started to now fit with the rest of the world.
Overall this was an immersive read. You are plunged into a world that was uses familiar ideas of the Fae but very much uses it in a way I’ve not seen before to cast a mirror on our own world. It’s challenging and unsettling and is more than happy to trick the reader into exactly the type of story we are getting. If you would like a chance from fantasy that constantly looks for a quest or quasi-detective story then I think this would be a perfect novel to take you away but you may not be quite the same person afterwards. Pass the salt…