cover image The Bedlam Stacks

The Bedlam Stacks

Natasha Pulley. Bloomsbury, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-62040-967-1

On account of a leg injury, botanical expert Merrick Tremayne, the hero of this witty, entrancing novel set in the 19th century from Pulley (The Watchmaker of Filigree Street), initially declines to travel from England to Peru for the East India Company. Because Merrick insists that a heavy statue overlooking his father’s grave has mysteriously moved, Merrick’s half-brother, Charles, worries that he’s afflicted with the mental illness that landed their mother in an asylum. To avoid either of the unpleasant choices that Charles offers out of fear for Merrick’s sanity (taking work at a parsonage where he’d no longer see the statue, or being confined with their mother), Merrick joins the treacherous expedition, whose ostensible purpose is to retrieve cuttings from the rare trees that are the only source for quinine, needed to alleviate a malaria epidemic in India that has adversely affected the company’s business. On arrival in Peru, Merrick encounters more oddities, including animated statues that give benedictions and a border made of salt and bone that is fatal to cross, which cause him to feel that he has entered “an imaginary place where the river was a dragon and somewhere in the forest was something stranger than elves.” His quest to both stay alive and to obtain the precious cinchona plants leads to more marvels—and to tragedy. Pulley makes the fantastic feel plausible and burnishes her reputation as a gifted storyteller. Agent: Jenny Savill, Andrew Nurnberg Associates (U.K.). (Aug.)