“Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her soon – but the Queen of the Fae and her maniacal court are hard on his heels.”
Thanks given to Netgalley and Angry Robot for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Under the Pendulum Sun is Jeannette Ng’s debut novel, a gothic narrative following two Victorian missionaries as they attempt to bring Christianity to the newly discovered Fae. Our protagonist is Catherine Helstone, who follows her brother Laon to Arcadia after three years and only sporadic, terse correspondence from him. I was initially attracted to this novel for its stunning cover, but also, who can pass on the premise of missionaries visiting the Fae?
The novel embraces its gothic, Victorian inspirations and Ng does a remarkable job of writing in that style and tone. The writing feels suitably authentic and the descriptions, both of Catherine’s emotional journey and the world she encounters, are beautifully imaginative.
However, the story is a slow mover. It languishes in the house of Gethsemane and revels in revisiting Catherine’s inner turmoil – it is a gothic narrative. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – and in fact I did enjoy this change of pace from my usual fare – but if you’re expecting a novel driven by action then you may be disappointed. What I believe makes this slow, almost passive, plot actually work is the strength of the worldbuilding. Arcadia is full of wonder at every turn, and it was a delight to explore these lands and all they have to offer – being at turns engrossed and happily perplexed by everything on show.
There is a mystery at the heart of the novel, touching on the fate of Laon’s predecessor in Arcadia and the unfolding relationship between Catherine and her brother as they navigate the treacherous world of the Fae and an impending visit by Queen Mab. The mystery does serve to pull the reader through the novel, though perhaps not as effectively as it could – Catherine’s actions to unravel this mystery lack urgency for most of the novel, and it’s difficult at times to care about answers when Catherine isn’t pursuing them with fervour. However, I think part of this is down to the tone and type of story Ng is telling… and the worldbuilding more than compensates.
A lot of this novel is devoted to unpacking personal relationships and exploring the nature of sin. Ng does this well, and the novel is an incredibly strong thematic read, but the way this is explored (and through which characters) may prove uncomfortable reading for some. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers, but I will say that it establishes a barrier between the reader and these characters which hampers empathy. It’s not insurmountable, but some readers might be unwilling to even make the attempt.
Still, Under the Pendulum Sun is a towering work of imagination. It was a delight to explore the lands of the Fae, and so I give this novel four out of five stars. The slow plot did detract slightly from my enjoyment – although I concede it fit with the tone and style of this gothic narrative – and I couldn’t fully empathise with Catherine, however it was a welcome change from my usual reading.
I really liked it.