Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

Under the Pendulum Sun
Jeannette Ng
Angry Robot, 416 pages
Review by Marija Smits

The central premise of Under the Pendulum Sun is a strong one: to what lengths will a missionary go to bring faith to the faithless? But here’s where the premise gets really interesting – the faithless are the inhabitants of Arcadia, the fae.

Laon Helstone is the Victorian missionary in question, and yet the story is told from the viewpoint of his sister, Catherine. It is Catherine who goes in search of him when his letters from Arcadia suddenly stop arriving, and it is Catherine who reveals to us the wonders, perplexities and mysteries of Arcadia as she first sets foot in the world of the fae.

Under the Pendulum Sun very obviously draws from classics such as Jane Eyre as well as the literary works of the Romantic poets. Indeed, the heroine, Catherine is somewhat like Jane, though she is not nearly as likeable (or morally upstanding). There is also the influence of the more modern depictions of the fae (I’m thinking particularly of Susannah Clarke’s excellent Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and though perhaps unknowingly, the similar-in-tone The Spider’s Bride by Debbie Gallagher).

Ng draws us into the fantastic quickly, with gorgeously imaginative details. I particularly liked the idea of the sea whale – a whale that ploughs through the earth and contains the sea within it, as well as the semiotic moths who ingest words. A real Goblin Market was a charming addition too.

On the whole, the story is intriguing and well-paced. The fae characters are suitably enigmatic and the milieu as fantastic as any lover of fairy tales can ask for, but creating the world of faerie 100% successfully will always be a difficult task. When Catherine and Laon discuss the sea whale,

Catherine, herself, explains the issue:

It is Arcadia,” I said. “Who knows what’s natural here?”

Readers will bring their own, deeply personal, ideas of what faerie is, (and what it looks like) to the book. Most readers will also understand that faeries are notoriously tricksy, that they can’t be trusted and that their behaviour defies logic; hence an author has a tough job to do when writing in the genre – they have to bring consistency to an inconsistent world, and to the events and the various characters’ actions, otherwise they won’t be able to keep the reader on side, and believing in the unbelievable. Even Tolkien himself was wary of the work involved in bringing the fae to life through words:

Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible.

On Fairy Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien

On the whole, Ng has managed to keep things consistent, although certain twists of the plot and character actions (the central romance, even) weren’t believable. In trying to comprehend the actual mechanics of the pendulum sun (and the implications of how, biologically-speaking, humans would respond physically to such a strange sun) I was puzzled for too long; this wrenched me away from the story.

The core strength of the book is most certainly Ng’s attention to detail when it comes to the theology. I appreciated the biblical enigmas presented, and relished Catherine’s dialogues with the gardening gnome, Mr Benjamin – a deliciously eccentric yet empathetic character – about what it means to have faith in God.

The book doesn’t so much end, as pause, which will, no doubt, irritate some readers, but for those who enjoy spending time in fantastical milieus, the promise of more journeying through Arcadia (and one as evocative and rich as Ng’s) will be appreciated.

This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 9.