“I dipped my hand into the cool water and stroked the petals of the lilies. I smiled at the beauty of it all. Unlike the faded grandiosity of the castle, the walled garden had been reclaimed by something greater. It gave an illusion of a sublime infinity perfectly captured and imperfectly held, like rainbows in water.”
In yet another instance of an absolutely stunning front cover initially capturing my attention, I saw this novel at my local used book store a while ago and upon reading the synopsis I was definitely intrigued. The story follows Catherine Helstone, a woman living in an alternative version of Victorian England, who travels to the land of the fae called Arcadia. She is drawn there by a desire to find her missing missionary brother named Laon, who went to Arcadia with the intent to convert its’ inhabitants to Christianity but has not been heard from in months. Upon her arrival she is told that her brother is still away on missionary work and she is to be confined inside the walls of a desolate and thoroughly creepy castle until his return. During her wait she becomes acquainted with the inhabitants of this castle including Ariel Davenport: a changeling ambassador between the humans and the fae, the Salamander: the mysterious reclusive housekeeper, and Mr. Benjamin: a kind gnome who is Laon’s only successful convert since his arrival is Arcadia. What follows is a beautifully written story full of mystery, magic and interesting discussions of religious philosophy, but that is also unfortunately hindered by slow pacing and generally un-charismatic characters.
This novel’s greatest strength by far is Jeannette Ng’s writing style and descriptions. The language she uses is very lush and evocative and it is able to effectively create a rich sense of imagery in this world’s mystical creatures and environments, as well as in conveying character’s feelings and emotions. The writing also did a great job at establishing an eerie gothic atmosphere, which when combined with the unique elements of this world’s fae/magic lore, made for some captivating passages.
“Passing one of the larger mirrors […] the corridor was reproduced perfectly in its glassy depths, but everything looked colder and darker. I saw all the other mirrors, a hundred thousand reflections, all reflecting. It created a hypnotic pattern. Peering like this in a looking glass, it was all too easy to believe such reflections to be the sum of existence, that all was but shadow upon shadow, that the endless worlds were all centered on me, wide-eyed, pale and very afraid.”
I do wish that elements of Arcadia and its’ inhabitants were more thoroughly fleshed out however, as while it excelled aesthetically in creating interesting visuals, the lore of the world itself seemed pretty basic in its interpretations of common fantasy creatures and tropes. I wanted to know more about how this land was discovered, as the book makes it seem as though explorers just happened upon it through sea-faring travel one day, and yet it also seems to exist in its own sort of dimension (with its own sun and moon). Where does it preside geographically? How has the rest of the world reacted to the discovery of this magical realm? Given that one of the main characters is a Christian missionary, I appreciated that the book took the time to examine how this sort of discovery would potentially conflict with teachings/understandings of creation and religion, but I still would have liked more explanation and development about this world’s lore in general. Each chapter begins with a short passage of text taken from writings that exist canonically within this book’s universe (essays, poetry, journals, etc.) that offer insight about more focused elements of this sort of history and lore, and they were consistently interesting… perhaps more interesting than the events of the main narrative itself.
This brings me to perhaps my biggest grievance with this novel… how incredibly slow it felt. Considering that the whole premise of this story is centered around the discovery of a vast magical land, the reader spends an awful lot of time inside this one drab mansion. Yes, this does an effective job at conveying to the reader Catherine’s feelings of claustrophobia and anxiety, but that doesn’t make the overall plot drag any less and as a result the pacing felt excruciatingly slow. This might not be so much of a problem if the story was inhabited by interesting and likable characters with dynamic chemistry, but again, this wasn’t so much the case. Catherine herself was pretty bland, and while I admired that she took initiative in seeking out answers to the mysteries surrounding her she still wasn’t a very gripping protagonist. Her brother Laon isn’t much better, as he is controlling, rude and frequently intoxicated, and while the relationship between these two is the focus of the story, the interactions between them usually consisted of either reminiscing about their childhood or quoting scripture at each other. The supporting characters were decent, with my favorite being Mr.Benjamin, as he was always kind, inquisitive, sensitive and supportive towards Catherine as she attempted to navigate this foreign world, but the rest weren’t very engaging… perhaps with the exception of this book’s villain, the Pale Queen. Her cold demeanor and condescending attitude towards those around her (especially humans) was delightfully detestable, and her owl-like appearance was fascinating to envision. Elements of these characters’ relationships delve into some uncomfortable subject matter, so be warned, but if nothing else it provided some shocking twists as I was squirming in my seat.
This book was a very mixed bag for me, as the things I liked were fantastic, but those that were more lacking really held back my enjoyment. Jeannette Ng clearly put a lot of time, effort and passion into this novel, especially its religious/biblical subject matter, and that shows in the exemplary quality of Ng’s writing. Its colonial subtext is another interesting element of this story that I failed to mention earlier, but that I really enjoyed. I wish that the characters and overall plot could have been injected with more life and personality to keep the story driven forward, but for what it was I still found this to be an alright read. If you are looking for a fantasy novel with a unique premise and interesting explorations of religion amidst a grim-dark fae setting, check this book out for yourself and see what you think. 3/5