This is the sophomore book from Natasha Pulley, her first being the lovely Watchmaker of Filigree Street. It’s set in the same universe, but is an independent story, with the exception of one or two cameos from the first book.
Merrick Tremayne, second-son of a well-known family of gardeners and smuggler extraordinaire, is somewhat at loose ends after an accident involving Hong Kong, shrapnel, and his leg leaves him recuperating at home with his sickly older brother in his family’s dilapidated property. Financial and other circumstances as they are, he’s being threatened with a parsonage (despite not knowing how to parson) and the sale of his family home when he’s contacted by old friends and employers and offered a pretty shifty gig to smuggle cinchona trees, which make quinine, out of the uncharted territories of Peru.
With lack of any better options, and because his own grandfather and father had traveled there often as well, Merrick accepts and heads into Peru with his friend, Clem.
I’m simplifying here– there’s some political stuff going on, some personal stuff, some tree stuff, but that’s the thrust of it!
In Peru, Merrick and Clem are introduced to their guide, a native priest named Raphael, who is from the get-go, like, the Man of Mystery. He speaks perfect Spanish and English! He looks at Merrick like he recognizes him! Other Peruvians think he’s creepy! He’s really strong and like, just so intense, and good looking, and has such great posture.
Naturally, the mystery deepens as they travel to Raphael’s home village, New Bethlehem, which is shortened to the titular ‘Bedlam’, and Merrick has to deal with increasingly cranky Clem, moving statues, and Raphael, who on top of seeming not able to make up his mind about helping the two Brits or killing them, also has a mysterious illness that gets worse and worse through the book.
It is, as one might say, right up my alley.
Spoilers ahead (for both Watchmaker and Bedlam).
One of the major differences from the last book is that Bedlam is written in 1st person, and utilizes fewer flashbacks, so the story is more or less linear and consistent. This is always my preferred way to read– I can never keep track of multiple points of view, and you inevitably wind up with one POV that you don’t care about, no matter how central it is to the story. It’s also a more straightforward plot– quest-like, with a clearly defined goal that the main character works towards, so, happily for me, less brain power is required to follow.
Otherwise, the style, the humor, the characterization and the incredibly detailed nuances that stood out for me in Pulley’s first book carries over, and is just as, if not more, on display. There’s such an amount of detail and world-building that you really can build other entire stories from the bare hints she gives you– some threads in the book never wrapped up well; Merrick’s father, for instance, and why the markayuq left Peru for him, was never really answered, but I almost like it better that way. Makes it feel like there’s potential for more.
I’m a sucker for understatements and nuance– my favorite books growing up were by Diana Wynne Jones, who had an incredible way of building characters and relationships effortlessly. Her writing was lively and subtle, which made rereading her books a joy because each time, something new seemed to float to the surface. This book recalls that sort of experience– of reading something, a seemingly casual description or some such, and knowing that upon re-reading, you’ll understand everything in a new and different light.
The central relationship– the slow and uncertain and deepening friendship between Merrick and Raphael is as well done as Thaniel and Mori from Pulley’s last book. It’s a little less overtly romantic, but has plenty of parallels. There’s a lot of unfulfilled longing (not necessarily romantic, not necessarily… not) on both sides, there’s a lot of mutually unspoken understandings, there’s a lot of little domestic scenes. In this, there’s the idea of being thwarted by time, and bad timing– while Raphael doesn’t see the future as Mori did, his progressively serious condition (ie, turning into a divine statue) means he can’t control his moments awake, and hence misses his chances by not hours or days, but literal decades. But, like the Watchmaker, there is also the idea of a love and devotion that stretches across significant time and space. Where Mori literally lives his entire life in order to eventually meet Thaniel, Merrick is, despite the relatively short time he spent with Raphael, willing to wait another twenty years just to see him again.
This is the sort of thing I adore, so I’ll just sit back here and stare hard at the ceiling and pretend I’m not sobbing on the inside, it’s cool, whatevs.
I will note that it’s not all perfect. One thing that I do appreciate about Pulley’s books are the multicultural cast involved– the first book delved into Japanese British population in early 20th century London, and this book engages with Peru in the late 19th century. It’s a lot of research, and Pulley I think does a pretty creditable job of writing strong characters, regardless of background, and I certainly appreciate the deliberate engagement with different cultures and a portrayal of diverse London. But for those whom it would be a turn off, Bedlam is still written from the POV of a white Englishman, whose previous job involved smuggling opium into China and who is now trying to smuggle trees out of Peru and backing his quest with the threat of the British army. Tthe issue isn’t wholly ignored and there is some lip service about that, but on the whole, I wish there was more redress there. =/
One thing I will also note is that I do wish Pulley’s main characters did not seem to find their non-white counterparts so mysterious or otherworldly; the love interests exhibit that curious mix of exotic yet fluent enough in western culture to be therefore attractive or worthy of attention (side note: I side-eyed really, really hard in Watchmaker when it was noted that Mori dyes his hair blond to stand out less in London. Really? Truly? I ignored that.). Mori and Raphael both speak fluent English, dress in Western styles, and at one point, Merrick asks why Raphael looks down on his own people. The answer was something like, if only my people could explain things to Westerners in a Western way!
I think it’s worth noting that neither of the two other Peruvian men who accompany the main cast say anything, and the two boys who traveled with Merrick and Clem don’t even get names. There is one Peruvian woman who has a relatively important part, but even she is named after Merrick’s grandfather. The other significant Peruvian woman is a moving, murderous statue, so, well. Could do with a little less of that magical ‘othering’ overall, and a little less Eurocentric perspective. I’d be curious to see where Pulley goes next– I’d love to see her write something where the roles are flipped; maybe a Sepoy soldier in London gets tangled up with the fae. Wouldn’t that round this out into a nice series?
Also, sad, sad dearth of llamas.
The Bedlam Stacks is available July/August 2017.