Going into Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was expecting a fantasy tale I suppose although, based on a few words of recommendation, I also hoped to find a horror story buried within the pages of this book. Having read it though, I can confidently state that it was not quite either of those things, though it contained elements of both. Looking back, I would say this book falls firmly under the heading of a victorian romance, albeit with a very strong fantastical bent.
Under the Pendulum Sun tells the story of a woman, Catherine Helstone, traveling to see her missionary brother who has been away for several years in strange, faraway place. From the beginning, we are introduced to an exotic land known as Arcadia which must be reached by ship but yet does not appear on any conventional map. We are led to believe that this strange continent exists on a connected but separate plane of existence to the realm of man – a land inhabited by a race known as the fae.
The fae are sentient inhuman beings taking various forms recognisable as creatures out of folklore and myth. Most central to the plot are the changelings, beings which are able to perfectly mimic the appearance and speech of humans, taking their place in the human world allowing the original to be taken back to the faelands for one purpose or another.
Most of the plot takes place at the castle by the name of Gethsemane in which Catherine’s brother, Laon resides. Our heroine is told that the wilderness outside of the castle is far too dangerous for humans to venture into alone and what little she sees on her journey is quite frightening and mysterious. Once she finds her brother, Catherine discovers that his mission to convert the fae to Christianity has been less than successful. In fact, aside from one notable convert, it has been a complete and utter failure.
The plot advances at a rather slow pace for the first hundred pages or so but picks up around the start of the second act. We are given very little information on the true nature of Arcadia and what information is dripped down is often purposely confusing as the fae seem to all speak in a very roundabout manner. And though it added to the mystery of the setting, I did find it a little frustrating to be constantly misled by unreliable characters. However, as the story unfolded, the riddles began to make sense and there definitely was a payoff.
This is a story about family, about a broken relationship between brother and sister. More than that, as Catherine Helstone spends days on end in Arcadia, her Christian faith is repeatedly tested as everything she sees stands in stark contrast to the world she knows, a world subject to the rule of God.
Arcadia itself is a wonderfully weird and unsettling place full of bizarre and whimsical sights. And though within the context of the book, the setting is thoroughly fleshed out, I find myself wishing that we could have seen a more in depth view of the land itself. Again though, knowing the ending and the reveal made therewithin, I can understand why the plot was contained within the walls of Gethsemane.
As for the ending, without giving anything away, while I personally found the subject matter engaging, I can see how some readers might find it somewhat distasteful. Whether or not you feel the same will be subject to your own taste and sensitivities.
Overall, I can say that Under the Pendulum Sun is a worthwhile read. Through the build-up was a bit slow, I enjoyed the world-building at play. The mood of the story fluctuates between high fantasy to otherworldly supernatural horror. I would not say that any part of this book was necessarily scary, but there were definitely scenes that leave the reader a bit unsettled. And while Jeannette Ng’s novel was not quite what I had been expecting, I found myself intrigued by the direction it took and I genuinely wanted to further explore the world presented once I finished the final page.