Natasha Pulley’s anticipated second novel, The Bedlam Stacks, is a rich, deep dive into fantasy and history, but a word about my personal history first. I am Indian, and my family has been affected by English colonization. My review comes from this perspective, and as this book is tangentially about the colonization and occupation of India, that should be kept in mind in regards to this review.
When Merrick Treymayne injures his leg and is forced to leave his position as an opium smuggler with the East India Company, he is left in the care of his brother. Faced with exploding trees and a moving statue, as well as a brother who thinks he’s gone mad, Merrick has little in the way of options for how the rest of his life will go.
With quinine unavailable and the British occupation of India in jeopardy due to disease, Merrick is sent to Peru in search of tree cuttings to bolster a supply of vital drugs to stop the scourge of malaria. Despite the disability, a lack of navigable terrain, a pregnant team member, monopolies and sickness, the team sets off on a journey with nothing from their pasts left to lose.
The Good Stuff:
I genuinely enjoyed reading this book. I haven’t read a ton relating to the operations of the British occupation of India, and the framing of this novel is removed from the horrors of colonization, leaving more of a smuggling adventure than anything else.
This book reminded me most of the adventurous tone from The Virtuous Feats of the Indomitable Miss Trafalgar and the Erudite Lady Boone by Geonn Cannon, in the way that it followed a friendship and the quest a group of people are on. The journey, adventure, the bit of mystery leads to an immersive reading experience.
One of the more fascinating parts of reading this book was watching the friendship between Merrick and Raphael develop. The relationships are what really made this book.
The Meh Stuff:
Unfortunately, this book is paced poorly. I found myself distracted through reading it, and unable to fully concentrate on the text (a rarity for me). This book is rich in description, but often this means waiting for it to take its sweet time to get to the point. This novel made you feel like you were trekking through the Amazon in 1859, as it’d be a long and arduous journey. I feel that some of the descriptive matter, side characters and action could have been cut for a faster-paced story.
A quick note about the colonialism of this book. The quinine tree cutting that needs to go to India is a McGuffin with a time table. The book is set up around acquiring a plant to bring to India to stop the malaria outbreak among the officers. The way that Merrick and Clem interact with the world is from that perspective, as they have both lived and worked in India. And it is from this perspective that they interact with the native Peruvians. This leads to some slightly cringe worthy moments racial moments that rub in the wrong places. So you have a dominant class trekking through the land of a colonized people so that they may better maintain colonization of a different colonized group. The set up could have been really anything, but the context of history is everything. And fiction where the marginalized don’t have a voice, especially in 2017, ends up ringing hollow.
I don’t have anything inherently negative to say about this book. This was an enjoyable, albeit long read, and if it holds your attention, you’ll be in for a real treat. This is worth the buy for the story and characters, especially if historical adventure is your genre of choice, and I am interested enough to pick up Pulley’s previous work after having read this one.