Gruesome and Gothic

“In that womb and grave of nature, He sculpted a world, telling it to Himself like a story, word after word. This part of the story you already know, although most would have you believe He made it idly, effortlessly, summoning it into existence like a dream, but I tell you — and I am telling you tales — He slaved those six days. He hammered out the heavens, flat and smooth, like a mirror. He kneaded the mountains out of mud, built pillars to hold up the sky and smoothed the basin for the sea. He carved each and every tree, scratching out the grooved bark with His fingernails and tearing dark eyes into the skin of white birch.

“Each creature — not all unique, not all beautiful — He made and moulded. I like to imagine Him joyful in the exertion, but I think of Him more driven half mad by the sheer enormity, complexity of his undertaking.

“He picked faces out of the clouds and gave them form. They were as beautiful as the blushing dawn, as the twilight sky, as the morning star. His voice He gave to them, and they spoke his own words back to Him.

“Angels, he called them.

“They were almost company, chattering back to Him in their lofty, echoic voices. They praised all that he did and urged him on with indulgent smiles, blinking their empty eyes at Him.

“But how long can one mind, however fragmented by madness, be content with hearing only echoes of Himself?” — Jeannette Ng, Under the Pendulum Sun

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(Photo Credit: Goodreads)

Title: Under the Pendulum Sun

Author: Jeannette Ng

Publisher: Angry Robot

Genre: Historical fiction

Year: 2017

Pages: 409

Price on Amazon: $12.50 CDN

“In that womb and grave of nature, He sculpted a world, telling it to Himself like a story, word after word. This part of the story you already know, although most would have you believe He made it idly, effortlessly, summoning it into existence like a dream, but I tell you — and I am telling you tales — He slaved those six days. He hammered out the heavens, flat and smooth, like a mirror. He kneaded the mountains out of mud, built pillars to hold up the sky and smoothed the basin for the sea. He carved each and every tree, scratching out the grooved bark with His fingernails and tearing dark eyes into the skin of white birch.

“Each creature — not all unique, not all beautiful — He made and moulded. I like to imagine Him joyful in the exertion, but I think of Him more driven half mad by the sheer enormity, complexity of his undertaking.

“He picked faces out of the clouds and gave them form. They were as beautiful as the blushing dawn, as the twilight sky, as the morning star. His voice He gave to them, and they spoke his own words back to Him.

“Angels, he called them.

“They were almost company, chattering back to Him in their lofty, echoic voices. They praised all that he did and urged him on with indulgent smiles, blinking their empty eyes at Him.

“But how long can one mind, however fragmented by madness, be content with hearing only echoes of Himself?” — Jeannette Ng, Under the Pendulum Sun

It isn’t often I come across a story of fairies that understands their classical nature. Modern fae lit, however daring and wondrous, usually categorize fae into two sides: wicked or lovely. Seelie or unseelie. Jenny Greenteeth and the Queen of the Water Court or the Copper Prince and household brownies.  And while the intriguing trickster nature of fae hasn’t been lost, it is rare that I find a story that paints them in true moral greys.

Under the Pendulum Sun, a Victorian tale of the fae by Jeannette Ng, is one such story that defies and redefines the genre’s norm.

Arcadia, the Faelands, has been found. The world is flooded with knowledge of fairies, and with that knowledge comes the desire to conquer, to take, to teach and civilize. People have taken sides: either the fae can or cannot be civilized and converted to the light of Christianity. But when Catherine Helstone receives word that her missionary brother, Laon, goes missing while bringing God to Arcadia, she is sent to the continent to find him. She is welcomed to the shadowy, treacherous house of Gethsemane by three citizens of Arcadia who claim to know Laon but mince words in a way only fairies can manage. But when Laon returns, it is with the Pale Queen Mab and her mad court of subjects. And as with the most insane of courts, chaos follows.

Having had a Christian upbringing that sprouted into a discovery of neo-paganism, I knew from the first page that this book was for me. It brought together two seemingly opposing universes: the wild, ancient world of fae, and the sacred, philosophical world of Christianity and God. The concept of bringing God into Arcadia is one question I had yet to ask, and one I’m so glad that the likes of Jeannette Ng has answered.

Ng explores the ins and outs of religion, faith, morality, and fae politics, showing where they overlap and where they careen in completely different directions. It is a question of how far God’s gaze can reach, how far He wills it, and what creatures are and are not considered to possess souls. Ng uses her background in theology to question the mission Laon and Catherine are sent on and keep the reader doubtful at every turn. When a protagonist born and raised in strict religion begins to question themselves, it gives the tale a sense of unease that lasts from the first unbolted door to the last revelation. Ng is expert at sowing in creepy happenings in broad daylight and making her readers uncomfortable, asking the hard and taboo questions.

Ng has captured the fae in ways I have waited to see in modern literature for years now. Their treacherous whimsy, their desire to disturb and challenge and destroy just for the fun of it. Their confusion, their impossibility, their double entendres, the weight of their worlds, names, and promises. These fairies don’t steal socks and pinch toes. They steal trinkets far closer to grief and they are far more devious in their violence.

This book does not organize the fae into elemental categories and paint them as strictly good or evil. (In fact, it is very self-aware of the trope, questioning the elemental boundaries and approaching that business in a scientific and philosophical way, offering other theories.) It shows them as creatures bound to promises and pacts, who jump from loophole to loophole and guided by a morality that takes words in the literal sense. Ng explores the concept of bringing Christianity to this world,eah chapter seeming a duel between opposing images: a good and pious missionary versus a chaotic neutral fairy queen. But even there, shades of grey are shown.

Such is art, I may interpret this the “wrong” way, but I see no strong themes besides the nature of sin, religion, and what it means to be human. This is a story for story’s sake, a tale meant to spur one’s heart to thundering. A tale whose lessons is, “Beware the fae” and has no cause for more. I would not say I didn’t learn something from this novel. On the contrary, Ng challenges both the Bible and fae politic in every chapter. It is, ultimately, a question of morality that forces the reader to either accept what is happening to and between Catherine and Laon, with all its conditions and considerations, or oppose it.

Early on, I described Under the Pendulum Sun as an abstract painting in its beginnings and a sort of Renaissance piece in its end. It is vibrant, complex, and engrossing, but confusing and uncertain in its first chapters. It is the mood of the work that keeps the reader hooked. But as the story continues, details can be picked out from the colours. By the end, you’re left breathless, staring at a sorrowful, heartfelt masterpiece, wondering how exactly you missed all the hints for so long.

Ng’s voice is unlike any I’ve read before. She paints Arcadia in bright and hazy colours, only touching the outsides of the wild land but managing still to enrapture the reader. How she thought of a literal pendulum sun and fish moon, I can’t fathom — but I adore it. This truly is a return to old fairytales. This world Ng has created, with its ballrooms cast in mirrors and shards of glass, its sudden goblin markets selling dreams and answers and lost things, and its manual seasons where death is painted and life is worked in soil and blood, is a world I want to explore more. Ng has imagined the fae, birds of stained glass and men of sand, in an entirely unique and wonderful way. I can only hope she’ll return us to Arcadia one day soon.

It is impossible to review one part of this book, which is an important part to talk about, without spoiling it — so I’ve left it to the end. (And, being pro-trigger warning in all media, I think this warrants a note.) Ng explores a dynamic that is considered taboo in many places: sibling incest.  It’s one I’m not comfortable with, but also one I’ve yet to see examined in this way. Two faithful followers of Christ, trapped in a land of sin and wonder, are tempted beyond their wills to indulge in the one desire they’ve both resisted — either knowingly or unknowingly — for their entire lives. As someone who is, admittedly, usually uncomfortable with incest, I think Ng approached the concept with grace and respect for the reader and her characters. For much of the novel, the attraction between Catherine and Laon is all eluded to. Nothing is ever said outright and nothing has to be.  This strange, Gothic tale is much like the mists surrounding Gesthesmane: shifting, hinting, but rarely confirming. Ng allows the reader to draw their own conclusions and doesn’t go into detail, which suits the story and the subject. However, there is no mistaking the intent. You may be a little confused to start, but by the end all will be revealed.

In all, Under the Pendulum Sun is an excellent book. It is well worth having been reminded of my Catholic school days with the Bible quotes. This is a book of lies atop lies, of sin and pain, and of faith and questioning it. I believe all who read this will come out of it changed, but not in the same way.

One thing is for certain: all of us will be salting out food for months, maybe years, to come.

(I’ve changed the way I rate books. Learn more here.)

Author: cekinsella

Reader, writer, reviewer, roleplayer, poet, pagan, feminist, fighter, queer, quiet, and a reluctant slave to alliteration.

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