I first heard about this book on twitter, where another author was tweeting very passionately about it and I thought ‘dang, I have to pick this up’. I checked it out and the premise intrigued me–Victorian missionaries go into the lands of the fae to spread the good word.
But it’s not really about that. Our protagonist, Catherine Helstone, goes into the lands of the fae looking for her brother, a reverend and missionary who has been incommunicado for some time. Worried about his fate, she decides to go after him. When she arrives it turns out he isn’t at his residence and what has happened to him, and what has happened to the prior reverend there, becomes a mystery to solve.
It’s not really about that, either. But, I’ll get back to that later.
From the start, the author sets the tone with her atmospheric prose. For the first thirty percent of the novel I was reminded very much of the beginning of Rebecca or parts of Jane Eyre. You have Catherine arriving to a place she’s never been before, a castle, where only a couple of servants are in residence. She is told her brother is away, but when questioned how long he’s been gone, when he is expected back, or where he has gone to, no one seems to want to give a straight forward answer. In fact, no one seems to want to be straight forward about anything. There is a sense of isolation for Catherine, despite the near constant companionship of a changeling woman, Ariel Davenport, as a sort of chaperone/guide. Everything is mysterious, nothing works as it should, including time and distance-the sun itself is a literal pendulum swinging back and forth in the sky above. There is a quality at times that feels like when you awaken from a dream but can not quite remember anything and your mind is a fog. Everything seems just so much off kilter because you are only given so much information to go on. (This is, without a doubt, my favorite type of writing and probably goes a long way to explaining why I loved this so much.) Even with the knowledge that some things are supposed to be strange and work in different ways, there are still other factors that seem askew. Hints here and there begin to be dropped that something is very, very wrong.
In latter parts of the book, other characters finally arrive and the story picks up a bit, as does the mystery. There is a strange language Catherine becomes obsessed with decoding, encounters with a lady in black, and what about that strange servant of the castle that is rarely seen? The fae are delightful and cruel oddities. And there are other strange things such as whales that hold the sea inside them. No, really. If you like weird stuff, this has some top-notch weird stuff in it. As the mysteries pick up, so does the creep factor. Oh boy, does it. Be prepared to go into this and be thoroughly creeped out. (Remember when I said this book wasn’t about ‘that’? Well…..) Oh, and once into the later chapters, expect the theological aspects to kick in a lot more as well.
Even though I loved this book, I think my biggest issues with it were the pacing (the first half or so felt incredibly slow-moving as there is little to no ‘action’, but I don’t think we’d get such a lovely, mysterious, gothic atmosphere with a quicker pace either so…) and that the characters felt somewhat distant. Normally for me to love a book I like to feel like I could be in that character’s shoes, that I can be made to relate to them. But I never really connected with the characters here on that sort of emotional level. In some ways, that may actually have turned out to be a good thing and that’s why, even though that is a bit of a negative for me, it didn’t really bother me all that much at the end of the day. These are characters that you probably don’t want to hold too close to your vest.
In summation: great prose, effectively told story, utterly captivating and super weird. Loved it.