The moment I heard the premise of Jeannette Ng’s debut novel, I knew that I wanted it. Victorian missionaries in Fairyland? Dark Gothic alt-history inspired by the works of the Bronte sisters? This sounded like the book of my dreams.
And indeed, Ng’s novel is a dream that does not disappoint. It’s a rich, strange, increasingly nightmarish phantasmagoria of both horror and beauty. It’s impressively erudite and sly. It draws the reader expertly in, builds steady tension, then lays shocking plot twist after plot twist. It’s a novel that opens into landscapes of wonder, and becomes a moving, even rapturous, journey.
In the alternate-history world of this novel, the Faelands (also known as Arcadia) were discovered on the fourth voyage of Captain James Cook, when “the greatest navigational mind became impossibly lost and thus impossibly discovered a different realm.” As with all other lands discovered by the English, the English of this novel decide that the Faelands must be opened to trade and to the Gospels of Christianity. Reverend Laon Helstone has seemingly disappeared while trying to bring the Good Word to the Fae. His sister Catherine Helstone sails to Arcadia in search of him. She takes up residence in Gethesmane, the strange castle where her brother was staying and to which, she is assured, he will soon return. Mysteries surround her as she waits. When her beloved brother finally arrives, the mysteries only deepen. The Pale Queen follows on her brother’s heels, and she and Laon are pulled into sinister fae mind-games which they cannot even begin to comprehend.
One of the most immediately impressive feats of this novel is how well the author nails the mid-nineteenth century narrative voice. Catherine’s story feels almost as though it could indeed be a real novel from the Victorian period. It’s as though plucky, spirited Jane Eyre had been transported to Fairyland and the weirdness and horror that’s always lurked in the Bronte novels turned up to 11 (incidentally, I kept imagining her brother Laon as the spitting image of Jane Eyre’s St. John Rivers). Jeannette Ng completely inhabits her Victorian narrator’s mind, and a consequence of this is that the story takes the characters’ Christian faith with absolute seriousness. That’s a rare thing in the fantasy genre, and in contemporary literary fiction in general as I’ve seen it. I started the book expecting an obvious take-down of the main characters’ colonialist attitudes. Indeed, a contemporary awareness of that cannot help but hover in the story’s edges. But Ng isn’t going for obvious take-downs here. Her story is subtler, more nuanced than that. Catherine and Laon sincerely believe in Christ and in bringing His message to the fae. They both have doubts, and they anguish over these as they passionately debate abstract points of religion with each other and with the book’s sole fae convert. They are woefully in over their heads (as becomes increasingly and painfully clear), but the novel does not scorn them for this. It takes them seriously.
And beyond the novel’s impressive style—the skilled evocation of Gothic Victoriana, the dazzling display of erudition and wit, the gorgeous and startling imagery and invention--is a moving story with a claim on the heart. Catherine Helstone is a winning character, in the tradition of all plucky Gothic heroines who brave a sinister castle’s halls in search of answers. Not all the answers are to her liking, but she does not turn away. About a third of the way through this novel, the brooding story plunges as though off a cliff into ever deeper psychological horrors (even as fae magic also grows wilder and more enchanting). Emotions reach a pitch worthy of Wuthering Heights and the great English Romantics. I was utterly swept up.
To summarize: two Victorian missionaries travel to the Faelands to save the Others’ souls. In the process, both confront their own darkness and sins. This is a gorgeous, haunting book. I’m very much looking forward to following Jeannette Ng’s career.
Note on faery magic: In the Faelands, the sun is a pendulum swinging over the flat earth. The moon is a fish. There are whales swimming through the soil. And yes, you absolutely want this book.