ARC Review: C.J.: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

review         book

Book Covertitle: The Bedlam Stacks
author: Natasha Pulley
pages: 336
format: Paperback ARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 3/5 (from hated to loved) or 5.5/10 (all books I've ever read)
recommended for: Fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Cat Winters anything, and other magical histories.
In 1859, ex-East India Company smuggler Merrick Tremayne is trapped at home in Cornwall after sustaining an injury that almost cost him his leg and something is wrong; a statue moves, his grandfather’s pines explode, and his brother accuses him of madness.

When the India Office recruits Merrick for an expedition to fetch quinine—essential for the treatment of malaria—from deep within Peru, he knows it’s a terrible idea. Nearly every able-bodied expeditionary who’s made the attempt has died, and he can barely walk. But Merrick is desperate to escape everything at home, so he sets off, against his better judgment, for a tiny mission colony on the edge of the Amazon where a salt line on the ground separates town from forest. Anyone who crosses is killed by something that watches from the trees, but somewhere beyond the salt are the quinine woods, and the way around is blocked.

Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods, and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions; why the villagers are forbidden to go into the forest; and what is happening to Raphael, the young priest who seems to have known Merrick’s grandfather, who visited Peru many decades before. The Bedlam Stacks is the story of a profound friendship that grows in a place that seems just this side of magical.

in depth

  • After loving The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, I had high hopes for The Bedlam Stacks. While they were not fully met, I still had a lovely time reading this book and will be happy to devour Pulley's next literary offering. Bedlam Stacks is a sharply written adventure about love and sacrifice, with a little bit of magic. 

  • The story is an important but lesser known historical phenomenon. Heard of the East India Company? They controlled pretty much everything, and at the time, quinine was a crucial resource. We take it for granted now (it's in tonic water), but back then it was the only defense against malaria. Pulley's mastery of historical detail, her ability to weave it seamlessly into the plot without a bunch of info dumping, is a strength of Bedlam. Even when it's draggy, it's never dry. 

  • Unfortunately, it does get a bit draggy. I'm not sure if the plot really did run too slowly in the middle, or if it was just too familiar. There are many elements familiar from Watchmaker: a sort of awkward, sensitive male protagonist; a dangerous political game; an intimate friendship that develops between the protag and a man of another culture, a friendship that trends towards romance. It was a bit too much deja vu. And while too much of this carried over, too little of Watchmaker's beloved cast was featured--although this is a petty gripe, I just loved them so much. We do get a fabulous cameo that I'll keep to myself. 

  • Despite the too familiar scaffolding, the new elements in Bedlam create a rich, luxurious near-fantasy world that dazzles and delights. Pulley paints a jungle village in Peru with loving respect and care and a bit of magic: moving statues, glass towers that set the land aflame, forest secrets. The atmosphere she creates is palpable in its wonderment. My only worry is whether she trespasses on any myths sacred to the indigenous people, or falls too close to the line of stereotypical magical natives. It's a question I hope native readers will comment on in their reviews. 

  • The glue holding Bedlam together is Pulley's writing. So precise and clever! Such evocative descriptions! Such natural dialogue! The conversations between Merrick and Raphael, a Peruvian priest, are filled with cleverness and snark. Merrick's white friend and companion is a little bit of a caricature of colonialist bluster, but he also allows Pulley to unpack some of the crude assumptions that fueled British imperialism. 

  • All in all, Bedlam was an intriguing read with a deep sense of magic about it. Though it did not depart quite enough from Watchmaker's formula, its complex world and strong emotional beats make it a worthwhile endeavor. 

      in a sentence

      Bedlam Stacks is a sharply written adventure about love and sacrifice, with a little bit of magic. 


      will i read this author again?  Yep yep   
      will i continue the series?  I would like more Keita and Grace and Thaniel and Matsumoto, please. 

      Note: I received this copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.

      1 comment:

      1. Hiya, I believe I promised a visit through Twitter, and here I am :) I wasn't blogging yet when the first book was on NetGalley, so I didn't request the second one either, because I hadn't read the first one. But now I'm regretting it, cause reviews are good :)