The Bedlam Stacks: A charming historical fantasy

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

After her enchanting debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley returns with another multicultural Victorian adventure, this time in the form of a quinine expedition to the deepest, darkest corners of Peru.

The Bedlam Stacks (2017) follows the escapades of Merrick Tremayne, whom we initially meet in the bucolic backwaters of Cornwall. He is living under the good grace of his brother, Charles, after sustaining a leg injury working as an agent-cum-smuggler for the East India company. His mother has been committed to the madhouse (society being a little less politically correct in 1859 than today). Both Merrick’s brother and mother are keen for him not to turn to the ways of his father, though mystery shrouds just what exactly these ways might have been. Cooped up in his crumbling Cornwall house as he is, it is almost inevitable that when the India Office requests Merrick for another mission, it is not long before he is en route to the Peruvian Andes.

On the expedition is (real historical figure) the explorer and geographer Sir Clements Markham, who assists Merrick in his mission to gather cinchona plants and seeds — under the guise of collecting coffee plants. Guided by Raphael, a local priest, it is not long before things begin to unravel: Markham suffers from altitude sickness, Merrick hears a strange voice through the wall claiming to know the real reason why he has come on the expedition, and a corpse swings from a cliff marked with the ominous sign: “I stole quinine trees.”

It is not long before Pulley begins to weave her particular brand of magical realism into the story: a satisfying mix of myth and history. There are stone statues that may once have existed as real people, a river that was a dragon. It is a plot of impressive scope, incorporating flashbacks, Incan traditions, superstition and mystery. There is even a nod to the famed watchmaker, as it becomes apparent that The Bedlam Stacks actually functions as a precursor to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street.

The novel is undeniably readable and possesses all the Victorian charm of Pulley’s highly successful debut. Whilst the plot does, at times, meander to the point of losing momentum, there is no doubt that Merrick remains a compelling enough character to carry readers through the somewhat more bloated episodes. His redemptive relationship with Raphael, in particular, is a pleasure to read, as we discover that his father also once knew the young priest.

Whilst perhaps not quite as charming or tightly-plotted as The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Bedlam Stacks is still a pleasurable read, and will tick boxes of fantasy and historical fans alike. Which direction Pulley will take next — and whether Merrick or the watchmaker will appear again — is unknown, but readers will surely be left wanting more.

Published in 2017. In 1859, ex–East India Company smuggler Merrick Tremayne is trapped at home in Cornwall with an injury that almost cost him his leg. When the India Office recruits him for an expedition to fetch quinine–essential for the treatment of malaria–from deep within Peru, he knows it’s a terrible idea; nearly every able-bodied expeditionary who’s made the attempt has died, and he can barely walk. But Merrick is eager to escape the strange events plaguing his family’s crumbling estate, so he sets off, against his better judgment, for the edge of the Amazon. There he meets Raphael, a priest around whom the villagers spin unsettling stories of impossible disappearances, cursed woods, and living stone. Merrick must separate truth from fairy tale, and gradually he realizes that Raphael is the key to a legacy left by generations of Tremayne explorers before him, one which will prove more valuable than quinine, and far more dangerous.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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