Having recently finished reading N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy which featured stone humanoid creatures called stone eaters, I was well-prepared to meet Natasha Pulley's Peruvian markayuq, humanoid creatures that give every appearance of being stone statues. Gradually it becomes apparent that the markayuq are actually capable of movement and that they are guardians of a sacred forest. They are treated like Christian saints by the villagers in the area where they exist. The villagers bring offerings to them and pray to them. But all of this is far along into the story told in The Bedlam Stacks. The beginning is something else altogether.
It is 1859 when we meet Merrick Tremayne on the family estate in Cornwall. He is - or has recently been - an employee (actually a smuggler) of the East Indian Company until he was caught in the middle of the Opium Wars in a battle near Canton where his leg was injured so badly that he almost lost it. Now, he's back home with his brother, Charles, on the sprawling, crumbling estate called Heligan. He's able to walk with the aid of a cane, but he is far from recovered.
Strange things are happening at Heligan. A tree explodes, setting off small fires, and a stone statue that overlooks Merrick's and Charles' father's grave appears to move. When Merrick mentions the moving statue, Charles threatens to have him committed to an asylum, where their mother is already in residence.
The estate is virtually bankrupt and Charles, insisting that Merrick must earn his way, secures a post for him as a parson in a nearby village. It appears that he may have no choice but to accept, until his old employer comes to the rescue with a scheme to send him to Peru to secure cuttings from the cinchona trees from which quinine is made. There is a serious outbreak of malaria in India and quinine is desperately needed.
Merrick initially turns down the assignment with the response that he is physically unfit for such a trip, but then his old friends Clem and Minna Markham show up to persuade him. Clem will lead the expedition and all that will be required of Merrick is to get the cuttings and deliver them safely to India. Easy peasy, as my kids used to say.
Most of the action in the book takes place in Peru in a village called New Bethlehem or Bedlam to which Merrick has a familial connection. His father and grandfather had been there before him.
The Bedlam Stacks are actually volcanic obsidian formations around which the village is built. The priest of the village is named Raphael and he is charged with guiding the Markham/Tremayne expedition. Curiously, there is a salt line barrier between the village and the nearby forest and everyone is forbidden from crossing that line. Anyone who does cross it will be killed, as several previous expeditions have learned to their sorrow. The one person who is able to freely cross the line and return safely is Raphael.
Raphael is an interesting character, probably my favorite. The growing friendship between him and Merrick is one of the most compelling plot lines in the story. It becomes particularly important when Markham proves himself to be an overweening jerk. But I mustn't give too much away...
This is a book that is hard to categorize. It is part historical fiction, but has elements of a thriller and of science fiction or fantasy; however, at its heart it is the story of a unique friendship. The book starts slowly and the parts that take place in Cornwall are a bit confusing at first, but once we arrive in Peru, the action quickly picks up speed. The prose is beautiful and the descriptions of landscape make the reader feel as though she is there. All in all, a fascinating read.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars