Missionaries to the Fae

Under the Pendulum Sun by [Ng, Jeannette]Title: Under the Pendulum Sun
Author: Jeanette Ng
Genre: Pervy Gothic Fantasy / Alternate History
Pages: 416
Rating: 1.5 of 5

This book caught my attention when I was trying to find something similar to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. There are some definite similarities in that both feature an alternate 19th century where the fae (of the not-very-nice / not-very-sane sort) are very real. However, the tone and subject matter of the two books are very different.

This book has a strong Gothic Brontë vibe and focuses on religious themes: what would it look like to be a missionary to Faerie? Do the fae have souls? Do they have some connection to certain apocryphal stories? What about changelings? Why won’t Queen Mab let us into the interior of Faerie? Lengthy portions of the book consist of sitting about pondering and agonizing over these and similar issues. Don’t expect a lot of answers because Faerie is so trippy and illusory and the fae so inhuman that a lot is left up in the air (which I think works). On the other hand, the few big revelations that we do get are mostly telegraphed chapters in advanced with ham-handed foreshadowing.

If that’s all there were to this book, it would probably fall into my 3-4 star range for fascinating worldbuilding and interesting thought experiments (after all, I grew up in a missionary family so imagining missions work among the fae is right up my ally). My problem is with the other pervasive thread that runs through the whole book. It’s pretty obvious from early on, but if you don’t want it spoiled don’t read the last paragraph of this review, and we’ll just say there’s some pretty perverted/taboo stuff that drives the main plot. Nothing explicitly described, but ewww!

 

 

*SPOILERS* Pretty early on you pick up an incest-y vibe between the main brother and sister characters. This develops into a largely unapologetic, fully consummated romantic/sexual relationship by the end and is one of the driving plot elements in the book…not cool! *END SPOILERS*

Also, this is another book checked off the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge!

Quick Fire Fantasy Tag

This might be the first one of these I’ve done on this blog, but it gives me a chance to talk about some of my favorite books, so here we go!

The Rules

5-Star Book

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis isn’t quite as well known as some of his other works, but it should be! This retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche illustrates Lewis’s assertion that “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” As we read one woman’s diatribe against the gods, Lewis explores themes of beauty, jealousy, longing, and theodicy.

Always Going to Recommend

This is the book that got me into fantasy:

Image result for the lion the watch and the wardrobe book cover

I have reread The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, and all The Chronicles of Narnia, every couple years since first reading them at the age of 7 or 8. Every time I do, I get something new out of them. Read it as a charming story about children having adventures in a world of talking animals and mythological beings…and then read it for the “deep magic” where Lewis supposes “there was a world like Narnia and supposing, like ours, it needed redemption, let us imagine what sort of Incarnation and Passion and Resurrection Christ would have there.” This is the place to start when you read The Chronicles of Narnia (don’t go with the new chronological ordering).

Own It But Haven’t Read

So many books, so little time…

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake has been languishing on my shelf for a few years now. I have seen the gothic Gormenghast series described as a masterpiece on par with other seminal fantasy works, and I have seen it described as tediously over-descriptive and depressing. I don’t always mind lengthy low-action character-driven works (see final entry below), so one of these days I’m going to give this a shot!

Would Read It Again

More like “have read it again, multiple times” for most of the fantasy books I really enjoy…

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion Wooden Book Cover Wall image 0

The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien doesn’t resonate with most people like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but after a couple attempts I now love it! Sure, the tone is more like reading ancient mythology than a novel, the plethora of similar sounding names can be confusing at first, and most of the storylines don’t have happy endings. Tolkien’s language-nerd side ran away with him a bit on this one, but this sweeping history covering thousands of years emphasizes that there is courage, nobility, and beauty even in the midst of (often self-wrought) tragedy…and it provides amazing backstory that enriches LOTR if you’re willing to make the connections.

In Another World

So, pretty much anything that isn’t urban fantasy or alternate history?

Image result for The Black Company Cover

The Black Company by Glen Cook kicks off the series that helped define the dark fantasy sub-genre. Rather than “rogues with a heart of gold,” the men of the Black Company are true mercenaries. They aren’t always completely heartless, but they are pretty amoral as their primary goals are to survive and to get paid (and sometimes that means making sure that their world survives the machinations of powerful magic-wielders). I don’t like to read this kind of fantasy all the time, but it’s an interesting change of pace and I intend to go back through the whole series at some point.

Back on Earth

Hardcover Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Book

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrelby Susanna Clarke reads like a fantasy novel written by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens after they had read On Fairy Stories by J. R. R. Tolkien. It is set mostly in England during the era of the Napoleonic Wars and has elements of alternate history and old fairy tales (where the fairies are neither particularly nice, nor sane). The character-driven plot is slow and meandering with extensive footnotes that offer snippets of this England’s grand history of fairy magic. Some people find it tedious, but it’s one of my favorite books.

I Tag:

Compressed Alternate History

Title: The Tyranny of the Night:
Book 1 of the Instrumentalities of the Night
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Alternate History
Pages: 432
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Imagine that all the most interesting/infamous people and religious/geopolitical situations from the 1200’s through the early 1500’s existed and happened contemporaneously. Also imagine that the world oozes with dark godlike powers and beings. That’s pretty much the worldbuilding behind Glen Cook’s Instrumentalities of the Night series.

If you don’t know your Medieval Crusader-era history, you can easily become hopelessly lost in the bewildering tangle of politics and religion that drive the plot. Even if you do know that history, it takes a while to sort things out since Cook has renamed all of the people, places, and religions. At the end of this post I’ve listed the identities of some of the major players as far as I can figure them out (and you can find similar lists elsewhere). I didn’t bother with individuals since some of them seem to be composites of a few people (though there are clear analogues to Rodrigo Borgia, Raymond VI, Saladin, Genghis Khan, and others).

At this point, I’m hard-pressed to say what the overarching plot is. We spend the most time with a Praman (Muslim) secret agent who worms his way into the heart of Brothen Episcopal (Roman Catholic) power, but other major strands include Maysalian/Connecten (Cathar/Languedoc) politics, Devedian (Jewish) self-preservation (or possibly world-dominating conspiracy; I can’t decide whether it’s just our Praman/Muslim agent or Glen Cook himself who is coming off a bit anti-Semitic), and a healthy dose of Norse mythology.

In spite of a few overly graphic bits (the crusading era was brutal and Rodrigo Borgia’s papacy was decadent and perverted) and an incredibly unfocused plot, I found this book fairly enjoyable. Cook mixes together vast swaths of history and a lurking dread of dark powers into something unique…messy but interesting so far.

 

A partial list of places and religious/ethnic groups as far as I can tell (If you’ve read the series, I’d love your input):

Andoray- Scandinavian nation (Norway?)
Arnhand- France
Brothe- Rome
Calzir- Barbary pirate states but located in Southern Italy (and Sicily)
Connec- Languedoc (Southern France, home of the Cathars/Albigenses)
Direcia- Iberian peninsula (mostly Muslim occupied, but being “reconquered”)
Dreangerea- land of the (Fatimid?) caliphate south of the Holy Land (Egypt?)
Eastern Empire- Byzantine Empire
Firaldia- Italy
Friesland- Nation conquering/uniting Scandinavia (Denmark?)
Grail Empire- Holy Roman Empire
Great Sky Fortress- Asgard
Lucidia- land of the (Ayyubid?) caliphate north of the Holy Land (Syria?)
Navaya- Navarre (or Castile)
Platadura- Maritime city-state, Muslim ally of Navarre
Shippen- Sicily
Sonsa- a major maritime city-state
Viscesment- Seat of the anti-pope (Avignon?)

Chaldarean – Christian
Episcopal – Roman Catholic
Maysaleans- Cathari/Albigenses
Brotherhood of War- Templars with shades of the Inquisition
Devedian- Jewish
Dainshau- Orthodox Jewish?
Praman- Muslim
Sha-lug – Mamelukes (or Janissaries)

Espionage & the Afterlife

Title: Summerland
Author: Hannu Rajaniemi
Genre: Espionage Thriller / Alternate History / Supernatural Fiction
Pages: 304
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/26/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

The overall plot of this book follows a mole hunt on the order of LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. However, in this alternate 1938 death is merely a transition into a different dimension (or something) that still interacts with the world of the living. “The Great Game” continues on both sides of death as the British and Russian Empires vie for supremacy with the Spanish Civil War as their chessboard.

I won’t go into much detail about how Summerland (where dead Brits go) and the Presence (the Soviet collective afterlife) work because gradually discovering how this world operates and what kind of effect the meaninglessness of death has on society is half the fun. The actual spy storyline is well-plotted, incorporating historical characters and events and heading in an unexpected direction by the end.

Unfortunately, there were a few issues with the writing style that detracted from my enjoyment of the book: weak characterization that made it hard to tell characters apart, stilted dialogue due to no one using contractions, and too much time spent on our protagonist’s relationship woes. Some of that may be my own personal preference or exhausting schedule lately, so don’t let me discourage you if this sounds interesting. The author has created a fascinating world, and I would love to read another book set there.