Laon Helstone is a British missionary to Arcadia, the recently discovered land of the fae. Laon hasn’t been heard from for a while, so his sister Catherine sets out to find him, travelling alone (but with the approval of the Catholic church) to Arcadia. When she arrives at the house where Laon has been living, she finds out that he hasn’t been seen there in quite a while, but is expected home soon.
As Catherine waits, she befriends a couple of the house’s residents and learns that the fae aren’t too interested in hearing the Gospel. Most don’t see themselves as needing salvation. Catherine also spends time studying the journals of the first (mysteriously deceased) missionary to Arcadia. They may contain important secrets about the nature of the universe and God’s relationship to the fae.
There’s a lot to like in Jeanette Ng’s debut novel, Under the Pendulum Sun (2017). The “pendulum sun” refers to Arcadia’s light source which is actually a lantern swinging on a pendulum over the land. This creates uneven day/night cycles which make Arcadia seem suitably strange (I wish Ng had done more with this). There are several other charming oddities, too. Laon’s house in Arcadia (ominously named Gethsemane) has a wonderful gothic feel, like Wuthering Heights. Catherine and Laon, good-hearted Catholic missionaries, are believable, and Ng’s fae characters (Queen Mab and her entourage) are wonderfully alien and frightening. The atmosphere is terrific and I enjoyed some of the theological discussions, too.
So why didn’t I like Under the Pendulum Sun? A few reasons. One is that the pace of the story was too slow for me. I didn’t like the characters or the setting well enough that I wanted to spend that much time sitting in the house with Catherine while she waited for Laon. Also, the narrative is repetitive in places (including the parts that are a little too blatantly forecasting one of the climatic events in the book).
There’s a bigger reason why I didn’t like Under the Pendulum Sun, but I can’t tell you that without spoiling a significant part of the plot. Anyone who’s read it will know what I’m talking about and I think a decent percentage of Ng’s readers will agree with me. It’s the major point of tension that drives the story. This “thing” is so icky and revolting and ever-present (foreshadowed and then present) that I was uncomfortable and just grossed-out most of the time I was reading Under the Pendulum Sun. (If you want to know what it is, highlight the following text: Catherine and Laon are in love with each other, and we’re not talking about brotherly love here. Incest. They pined for each other all through the book and then succumbed. Yuck. I can’t deal with that.)
Readers who love stories about the fae or love gothic novels may be able to overlook this better than I was able to. Under the Pendulum Sun is imaginative and well written. It’s not surprising that Jeanette Ng was nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Though I didn’t like Under the Pendulum Sun, I look forward to reading another novel by Ng.
By the way, the audio version (Tantor Audio) narrated by Emma Lysy is beautifully performed.