If you get lost enough, you can find Arcadia. The South Seas Company are keen to limit access to maintain their monopoly on trade. The Church, with no such worldly concerns, wish to bring the Word of God to the Fair Folk. And Catherine Helstone wants to find her beloved brother Laon, missionary to the Court of the Pale Queen…
In terms of ways to grab my attention, pitching me ‘Victorian missionaries go to Fairyland’ is a dead cert. It is an idea rich with opportunities, and Jeannette Ng’s impressive debut never sets a foot out of place. This is no Romantic vision of faeries with silken wings and artfully-lit faces – this is a full-blooded Gothic horror, all fangs and scales and malice. So it’s right up my street. I’ve got strong opinions about the Fae, and ‘terrifying’ is high on the list of adjectives I like to see associated with them.
We meet Catherine aboard The Quiet (ominous, much?), lost in the North Sea in search of the lights of a Fae port. When she sights it, it shifts from cobbled streets to dragon to harbour – even the geography and architecture of Arcadia is not to be trusted. It’s the first of many unsettling details (distances aren’t measured in miles or time; shortcuts aren’t to be trusted. If it will take a shocking revelation and a white lie, then that’s what it will take). Trust nothing. Believe in nothing.
It’s a tall order for a missionary.
Enter Ariel Davenport – “I’m not the real Ariel Davenport, of course” – a changeling who has returned to Arcadia; tasked to be Catherine’s companion until Laon returns. She won’t say what happened to the real Ariel Davenport – it’s rude to ask – and Catherine is rightly mistrustful of her elusive answers and attempts to befriend her. And yet Ariel is perhaps the most comforting creature Catherine will meet at her brother’s new home of Gethsemane (another well-omened name, right?)
Mr Benjamin the groundskeeper is a fervent believer, the first convert in Arcadia, who questions the Bible with an intensity even well-trained Catherine is hard-pressed to answer. He warns her against the secretive, rarely-glimpsed housekeeper, the Salamander – just as Ariel warns her against leaving the grounds.
It’s a brilliantly Gothic set-up: the ingenue in a dangerous place, surrounded by those she cannot trust, in search of one she loves. She has been instructed by the Society not to read the first missionary’s papers, nor try to find out what happened to him, but there’s only so much time a clever girl can fill with prayer and crochet. It’s inevitable she will explore the castle by candlelight, read forbidden books in lost languages and sniff out mysteries.
Laon’s return – closely-followed by the arrival of the Pale Queen herself – is a shocking disruption; welcome but not reassuring. As the tone slides from foreboding to outright threatening, we see more of the Fair Folk. These are ‘the most human’ Arcadia has to offer, whose revels are soaked in sacrifice and who delight in teasing away human sanity. Just what are the Pale Queen’s dubious intentions? Is Laon right to wish to send Catherine away for her own safety?
Gloriously atmospheric, the novel’s slow-building intensity is rich in scriptural context and dripping with unnerving imagery. The effect is a distracting whirl of glamour and suggestion, intellectually seductive and emotionally devastating. I delighted in the twists and turns (Ng’s imagination happily aligned with mine in terms of what to expect from the Fae) and was utterly won over by the dark elegance and ambition at its heart.
This is a masterful debut, although it won’t be for everyone – it’s slow, often ambiguous, as religious as it is profane, and takes great joy in its broken edges.