Picture it, Sicily… but not really. Really it’s South America – Peru in fact, circa 1859, the home of some very important trees that are the source of quinine, a treatment for malaria.
The Bedlam Stacks opens in a run down estate in Great Britain. Merrick and his dog are wandering the grounds. He thinks he sees one of the statues move. A tree explodes. His brother questions Merrick’s sanity.
Merrick is approached to go on an expedition to Peru to get some cuttings of trees that produce quinine by the India Office. India is in the throes of a major malaria epidemic. Faced with the decision to stay in England and work as a man of the cloth or have one last adventure, Merrick chooses adventure. He and a close friend ship off to Peru in search of the trees they need. It’s awkward and dangerous because of his injured leg, his friend’s altitude sickness, and the fact that often expeditions in search of the cinchona trees end up dead or missing.
The characters are well-developed and flawed. No one is perfect reflecting the real world. Merrick has physical flaws and some mental ones that are revealed as the story goes on. His friend Clem makes me think of the phrase “ugly American” even though he is quite British. Raphael is multilayered. He comes across at first as only a bit of a scoundrel. Only later is he revealed for what he truly is. I also liked the minor character of Inti. She was a take charge kind of woman and accomplished in spite of being physically handicapped.
The story has elements of magical realism. There are, for example, statues that move, lamps that are powered by glowing pollen and bits of clockwork, and exploding trees among other things.
The plot jumps around a little in place and time. The sections are clearly labeled though, so it’s not hard to follow. The story of how Merrick’s leg got hurt is interesting. And it goes to further characterize him as well. All the parts ultimately blend together. Everything is useful and not as extraneous as it might seem at first.
The way the community of Bedlam functions is interesting as well. There is a salt and bone border between the community and the jungle. Merrick and Clem are told that no one passes over the boundary from the community without risking certain death.
I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars. Overall it’s well written both plot wise and character wise. It’s a good book for people who enjoy a bit of an adventure story with some fantastical elements.
Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley is due out August 1, 2017 from Bloomsbury USA.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions herein are my own and freely given.