In 1859, ex-East India Company smuggler Merrick Tremayne is trapped at home in Cornwall after sustaining an injury that almost cost him his leg and something is wrong; a statue moves, his grandfather’s pines explode, and his brother accuses him of madness.
When the India Office recruits Merrick for an expedition to fetch quinine—essential for the treatment of malaria—from deep within Peru, he knows it’s a terrible idea. Nearly every able-bodied expeditionary who’s made the attempt has died, and he can barely walk. But Merrick is desperate to escape everything at home, so he sets off, against his better judgment, for a tiny mission colony on the edge of the Amazon where a salt line on the ground separates town from forest. Anyone who crosses is killed by something that watches from the trees, but somewhere beyond the salt are the quinine woods, and the way around is blocked.
Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods, and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions; why the villagers are forbidden to go into the forest; and what is happening to Raphael, the young priest who seems to have known Merrick’s grandfather, who visited Peru many decades before. The Bedlam Stacks is the story of a profound friendship that grows in a place that seems just this side of magical.
‣ POV: 1st person, Merrick
‣ Summary in Emojis: 🌲🔫🗿🌿🐒
‣ Trigger and Content Warnings: allusions to rape, violence, references to miscarriage, death of a friend
I would actually consider this The Watchmaker of Filigree Street #1.5 but you can definitely read it as a standalone. There is a tiiiiny amount of crossover and references to a character from Pulley’s debut book but you don’t need knowledge of that one to enjoy this one. It’s more of an ‘ooh’ moment for previous readers.
Now onto the review. Despite my high rating, I didn’t like this one as much as The Watchmaker. It has a bit of a slow, rocky start and I found myself a bit disappointed because my expectations were so high. I think because it’s in first person everything is very introspective and there isn’t much dialogue within the novel which I think tends to bog everything down. There is a lot of description, especially whilst Merrick and his group are travelling. I did find everything evened out a bit once they reach their destination and the world building and characterisation started picking up soon after that.
The relationships between the characters was a bit strange. They were all so violent and vicious towards one another and there is a lot of hitting that goes around. Poor Merrick is one very abused smuggler!
Regarding the smuggling I loved all the facts Pulley had in this novel, it felt more in depth than Watchmaker and you can tell the amount of research and detail that went into everything. I love reading the author notes at the end because Pulley always talks about her inspiration and also lays out what actually happened versus what happens in the books. There’s a lot of fantastical things going on but it’s all so grounded that everything seems very believable. It’s not hard to imagine why Merrick spends 80% of the book confused out of his mind.
Like with Watchmaker Pulley makes good use of flashback chapters to delve into the character’s past. In this case Merrick’s past as a smuggler, there is one particular chapter that will be interesting for fans of Watchmaker and it’s one of the reasons I would actually advise to read that one first before diving into this one. It just adds a bit of extra depth and recognition to the scene. And it made me smile.
I’m not sure whether to talk about the romance in this one or not because it’s such a subtle thing. I will admit I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending, but that’s just my preferences shading my enjoyment really. It does make sense, and everything is nicely wrapped up. It just wasn’t to my tastes.
Overall though I greatly enjoyed Pulley’s sophomore novel. Another delightfully detailed, intricately plotted historical fantasy/magical realism novel which delves in the history of Peru and features some very flawed, but wonderfully realistic, characters.