“We are…wanted to steal a plant whose exact location nobody knows, in territory now defended by quinine barons under the protection of the government, and inhabited by tribal Indians who also hate foreigners and have killed everyone who’s got close in the last ten years.”
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley opens with Merrick Tremayne puttering around his family estate in Cornwall, busying himself with horticulture to keep his mind occupied following a serious injury to his leg that occurred during his most recent smuggling adventure. Resigned to a life of semi-retirement, Merrick wrestles with his failing body which exists in drastic contrast to his effervescent spirit. A sudden accident on the estate ignites the latent curiosity within Merrick.
There was a moment of quiet in which things seemed to settle and there was no sound but pine needles falling and the hissing of the remaining fires in the rain. But then, inside the house, something exploded.
A tree that was ordered to be removed by Merrick’s brother, Charles, catches fire and explodes. The discovery of the combustible tree is only one of the many eccentricities found in the estate garden. Merrick swears he has seen the statue that resides there move into different positions and even different locations. This brush with death illuminates Merrick’s current situation and allows him to contemplate a recent offer from the East India Trading Company to return to the field- to Peru, specifically, which holds much intrigue for Merrick as his grandfather and father both spent time there. However, he is also battling with the possibility that he is losing his mental acuity along with his physical prowess.
After a while, I went out to the statue. It had used to hold a candle when I was small and, having lit it, you had to make a wish. I took a candle from inside one of the greenhouse lamps and balanced it in the statue’s open palm. I hoped more than wished not to go mad, and not to be seeing things, and that it had been the gardeners after all, or even Charles doing his best to convince me to get my out of the house and save his pride before he had to fold and say we couldn’t afford to stay. The statue closed its hand around the candle. It didn’t otherwise move and I’d stood still for a long time, trying to tell if the motion was something I imagined after the fact, or if I had seen it.
When his long-time partner and friend, Clem, arrives with his wife to plead with Merrick to join an exhibition to Peru in search of quinine from the cinchona trees, Merrick is unsure at first if they truly exist. Still uncertain, Merrick gleans from Clem the gist of what this smuggling mission would entail- a treacherous ocean crossing, miles of hiking through unknown forest inhabited by all sorts: local tribes, competing smuggling groups and quinine barons vehemently opposed to reconnaissance missions, and the subsequent negotiation with these groups. The danger alone may have been enough to deter Merrick, his injured leg notwithstanding. However, he plays into Clem’s fantasy that he could hold his own and he agrees, mostly in an attempt to find proof that his isn’t losing his mind or his worth. What follows is an epic adventure that is equal portions danger and fantasy.
I had never really wanted to come to Peru, never been excited about it. There had been too much to worry about: walking, the journey, Clem, the altitude, and all the hundreds of stupid thing that could had killed us before we even began. I’d thought that something was gone in me and I would never be uncircumspectly pleased with anything again. But all at once it came back. The place where my father had stood and my grandfather, a place that was in my bones and stories and home but had been as lost to me as Byzantium for year- here it was. I felt like I’d drawn a door on the wall at home in chalk and gone through into an imaginary place where the river was a dragon and somewhere in the forest was something stranger than elves.
Merrick and Clem are brought to New Bethlehem by their guide Raphael, a somber, imposing figure that proves to be as full of surprises as this Peruvian village. Lanterns made from old clocks filled with the bioluminescent pollen that floats freely through the atmosphere, volcanic glass infrastructure, and silent, mobile effigies are just the surface of the fantastical elements Merrick and Clem are introduced to. Rapheal serves not only to lead them to this locale but also to instruct them on the proper etiquette demanded of the village. The reverence for the statues borders on religious idolatry and foreigners cannot be accepted into the village until they observe the proper ceremonial actions.
“Have you met the markayuq?” Inti said, as if she were talking about local landowners whose unofficial permission I’d need in order to say. “Yes, yesterday. They’re fantastic. I’ve never seen statues like them.” She laughed. “They’re not statues. Nobody could make anything like that. They’re people who turned into stone. Didn’t your father tell you anything?”
Here, Merrick begins to unearth his family history and forms a deep friendship with the people of the Bedlam stacks which complicates things for him. The mission not forgotten, the two must work together to accomplish their task within the constraints of the locally imposed security system which proves to be more difficult than they would imagine. Can Merrick betray his employer to uphold the belief of this village or can he betray the legacy of his ancestors knowing the benefit quinine holds for the health of the world?
The Bedlam Stacks is the perfect combination of adventure and folklore. Pulley writes with an impressive imagination and produces a tale brimming with heart, excitement and dedication that challenges our ideas of what is real.
A review copy of this titles was provided by Bloomsbury and Netgalley