The Bedlam Stacks is a historical fiction by Natasha Pulley that has elements of magic and magical realism.
Set in the nineteenth century, the story features a quest to Peru to find a rare tree that is supposed to have magical properties. Along the way, the characters meet many magical and mythical creatures, and they must overcome a variety of challenges.
The world-building in this book is vivid and fascinating. I was sad to leave it behind when the book ended.
We meet Merrick at his family home in London. He’s given up working for the East India Company after an injury and is pottering around the house with his brother. The house is in a state is disarray, worsened by the unexpected explosions of the branches of a tree after it crashes into the roof.
Merrick spends his time in the greenhouse, a pastime of his late father, which he’s resurrected. Near the greenhouse, where his father is buried, stands a statue. Merrick is afraid that he’s losing his mind when he notices that it’s moved on several occasions. He also sees signs that someone has been inside the greenhouse. This worries him. Although he doesn’t talk to his older brother, Charles, about it, Charles realizes that something is wrong and decides that Merrick needs something to do. He finds him a job as a parson.
Merrick does not want to be a parson but with his hurt leg, it seems like the best option. The East India Company had tried to engage him in a mission to collect cinchona trees to use for making malaria medication in Peru, but he declined because of his leg injury. His friend Clem shows up with his wife Minna and is much more convincing.
Clem convinces Merrick that they need his connection to Peru and his knowledge of plants for the mission. Clem’s father had been born in Peru, in a deserted community, where Clem’s grandfather had lived for years. The leader of the agency, Sing, reveals that the company doesn’t expect a successful delivery of plants, but that if Clem is killed, this will give the army an excuse to invade the area and get plants that way.
Mission to Peru
Once in the mountains of Peru, in Azangaro, which was the last town before the Andes, they are greeted by Martel. He is a showy character, Spanish. He warns them away from stealing anything from the cinchona woods and assigns them a guide, Raphael. Their cover story is that they went to collect coffee they will grow in particular conditions. Markham takes care to remind them that everyone in the recent Dutch delegation for quinine was killed, and the same would happen to anyone who tries to steal cinchona trees.
After a difficult journey, worsened by altitude sickness, they get to New Bethlehem, where Merricks dad and grandparents had lived. Rafael is the local priest, so they stay at the church. Clem is interested in Incan history and the history of the place. He wonders about the markayuq. They appear to be clockwork statues that move. Merrick finds out the statue in the garden back home is one of these.
The Hospital Colony of New Bethlehem
Once they are in NB, they are snowed in. By then, Rafael knows their true goal and tries to scare them away (someone hit Merrick on the head one day). That doesn’t work and Clem decides to go back to Azangaro to ask Martel for some helpers to clear the path in the forest.
While Clem goes off, Merrick gets to meet some other locals and learn more about the culture. He learns that NB is a hospital colony and that children who are not perfect are dropped off at the church, to be raffled off to new parents. As the priest, Raphael is the one who pulls an eligible name from a hat, after people who want to be the child’s parent submit their own name on a knot string.
When Clem returns, it’s with news that Martel is coming with some men. After Matel arrives, it becomes clear that the plan is not to help them clear away the snow, but rather to make sure that they don’t reach the cinchona woods.
The locals all believe that if you cross the border made of salt, you will be killed. The trouble is that Merrick and Clem need to go through the forest, past the salt border, to be able to get to the cinchona woods. Clem starts to doubt the stories of the locals and sets off on his own to find the path. He is returned dead.
At first, Merrick suspects Raphael of killing Clem, as does Martel. Martel makes a show of holding Raphael responsible for Clem’s death. Once Merrick speaks to Raphael about it, he believes Raphael that he didn’t kill Clem. He learns that Raphael was supposed to kill him, but he couldn’t because Merrick looked so much like his father Harry. Merrick tells Raphael that the army will attack if he is not successful in retrieving cinchona plants. This convinces Raphael to brave Martel’s wrath and they head off.
Journey To and Beyond the Cinchona Woods
Martel gives chase after them and reaches them on a small island. They get a chance to escape when Martel’s men are killed by a markayuq. When Martel catches up to them again, once more the markayuq saves them. Merrick was passing as a local with a string of words that Raphael tied for him, a local way of writing. But after he got too close to the markayuq, it realized that he’s not local and unwelcome on holy ground. Mark manages to sufficiently distract it to save himself from attack. When the markayuq finds him again later on, he is surrounded by some other markayuq who protect him.
Raphael and Merrick make it to the cinchona woods. After they take enough samples, Raphael tries to send Merrick off on his own. In the end, Merrick manages to stay, even though Raphael attempts to sneak off several times. It’s a good thing too because Raphael is turning in markayuq and needs help to get to his home, a spectacular, holy place that floats in the sky. Merrick shouldn’t be there but Raphael gives him a pass. When Raphael goes to sleep, a sort of hibernation for markayuq, Merrick is returned by ship to Arequipa, where Minna is waiting. She’d stayed behind because during the mission she was pregnant.
How Merrick Got Hurt
We find out on a flashback that Merrick’s leg got hurt due to shrapnel from an explosion during a navy attack on China. The British empire was letting its might known after Chinese boarded a ship they suspected of illegal activity. Merrick was on a smuggling mission to move opium into China and take silk out. The attack was earlier than planned. He was in the water and got hit by shrapnel. He’d gone in to save his Japanese friend, Keita. Or did Keita save him from greater harm?
How It All Turns Out
To end the story, we find out that the cinchona trees grow fine in Ceylon. Merrick decided to grow some whitewood. The whitewood he grew kept its special capabilities, of being able to float, even in the air, and being explosive. In fact, Merrick is able to walk with less pain than before due to a leg belt that one of the ladies in NB, Anti, made for him. Merrick hopes they with his secret plantation, he can supply the wood and keep foreigners away from the Peruvian interior, thereby keeping the holy city safe.
The Bedlam Stacks ends with a reunion. Charles has passed away and Mark has been renovating the house. He’s allowed Minna to throw a party, even though the only person he knows to invite is Sing. The surprise visitor is Keita. Destiny has something in store for him and Cecily, Minna’s daughter. He also wants some of the magical fluorescent pollen from Peru, used in the interior to light lamps.
In cleaning the house, Mark finds some old deeds. They are for New Bethlehem and the land above it. This puts him even more in the position of being able to protect it and the monastery above. The story ends with Merrick’s return to the holy city. It had been 21 years and 6 months since Raphael had gone into stasis, and he was about to wake up. Merrick had promised to come back to visit, and he kept his word. The story ends with them sharing a cup of coffee.
There are many fantastical elements in The Bedlam Stacks. Raphael’s episodes of staring into space are actually catalepsy. In his case, it’s a sign of his holiness and destines him to be a priest. He was once cataleptic for 70 years and didn’t age at all in that time. So he is the same priest who knew Merrick’s grandfather. He had to go on serving as the priest at NB until his replacement was revealed, and after many years of waiting, it was finally time.
NB is built on stacks of glass. Mercury rains from the sky. At some places and depending on where the sun casts its shadow, NB is freezing. At other times, it’s hot enough to burn.
There are also exploding ducks, a convenient way to get some food, and glass duck eggs. Raphael is slowly turning to stone. Then he will still be able to move, but will also have long periods of “sleep”. His home as a markayuq is a monastery floating in the sky, safe from outside tradition. The same wood that provides the floating ledges for the monastery will also burn and explode when subject to sparks. This is the place of perfection, while NB is its hospital outpost.
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