Bedlam Stacks is the second novel by Natasha Pulley, author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. I received this galley at Winter Institute 2017 in Minneapolis, and the final book will be released August 1, 2017. It follows injured, ex-East India Company smuggler, Merrick Tremayne as he looks for another adventure while trapped at his home in Cornwall, England. The India Office recruits him to fetch quinine, a treatment for malaria, from deep within Peru. He knows this is a bad idea, but accepts in a last-ditch effort to leave his home and the plotting of his brother to send him into service of the church. He heads off and ends up at a village on the edge of the Amazon where a salt line separates the village from the forest. “Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods, and living rock” he must work to separate fact from fiction, while earning the trust of the village and more importantly Raphael, a young priest, and entering the woods to get the quinine for the East India Company.
I enjoyed the characters and their relationships. While Merrick was an annoying narrator he seemed to be aware of his own faults and instead of overcompensating for them through his story he accepts them and asks the reader to do the same. At times, he seemed as annoyed with himself as I was. Clem and Minna, the couple sent by the East India Trading Company to gather Merrick and send him on his trip, were interesting. I wish that Minna hadn’t been written out of the story through a pregnancy plot upon arrival in Peru, she had a quick wit and was ready to challenge both Merrick and Clem whenever a challenge was needed. Raphael was my favorite character. At first, he came across as rude and unkind, as his interactions with the East India Company were brief and tense (rightfully so), but the members of his village are all sick in some way, in his interactions with them you see that he cares for other people’s well-being and comfort. These dynamics were interesting and added to the fantastical elements of the story. By the end of the novel, the only main characters were Merrick and Raphael and the novel delves into their relationship they develop a begrudging respect for one another. They come to an understanding and each work to help the other achieve their goals and what brought them together.
The imagery is beautiful, the characters are interesting, but there is no real drive to this story. As much as I hate to brag at 330 pages I should have been able to finish this book in a day, instead, I felt myself picking it up and putting it back down. I wanted to solve the mystery of the forest, the statues, and the trees, but it felt like I was the only one who wanted that. The characters stayed fairly still, not exploring the magic that was turning up all around them, and in turn not allowing me to find the magic of what was happening.
Recommendation: The concept of this book is interesting, and Pulley knows how to place small moments of magic that will pull the reader in for a moment despite the slow, at times tedious, pacing of the plot. Ultimately these moments raise more questions than they end up answering, and the story left me wanting. The images are beautiful, and it certainly shows Pulley’s talent as a writer, I’m excited to find a copy of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and see if this sense of magic holds in the rest of her writing. If you like slow books that are more about the images of the place this is the book for you, if you’re looking for something with a little more drive I would try to find something else.