My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Under the Pendulum Sun came very heavily recommended to me. But as all TBRs go (even physical ones), it just sits on the shelf for a while... for 4 years in this case.
Let's start off with the heavy stuff, a content warning for incest in this case. If this is something you will never touch, then this is a book you'll want to skip, even if it only develops midway through. [Spoilers at the end of this review!]
Arcadia, the magical land of the fae, is a dark, mysterious place. Nothing is as it seems, everything is a construct, seemingly made to mirror or mimic the real world - but in strangely bizarre ways. No one knows if the fae have souls and yet missionaries do what they have always done - go into the darkest reaches of the world to bring the word of God. It is a very well-constructed world, one full of fancy and also full of darkness, and Ng does a fantastic job leading us through it. She utilises many familiar elements from fairy tales: Mab the Queen of the Fae, changelings and stolen children, the fae hunt - and yet it's intertwined with extra-biblical myth: Enochian the language of angels, origins of Lilith.
Catherine Helstone plunges blindly into Arcadia in search of her missing brother, Laon. There, she wrestles with the gospel and with sin. Is salvation only for humans or does it extend to the fae? Do the fae have souls or are they soulless, like animals or constructs? If they are soulless, can they then still be saved? Is there a point in having a missions outpost in the fae worlds if salvation is not extended to them?
Yet she is not the only one wrestling with faith. Laon, the missionary brother, struggles with sin and worthiness. Is he worthy to carry the gospel if there is sin in his heart, even if he doesn't act on it? Where is the line between resisting temptation and being sinful because he cannot let go of his lustful thoughts? What compromises can he make to carry the gospel to the innermost parts of Arcadia? Or will the requirements of the Pale Queen invalidate his testimony and his good works?
Ng peppers the book with quotations from scripture, as well as excerpts of medieval-sounding texts that present missionary efforts and theological arguments in an alternate earth where the fae are real. It sounds more Christian than I would expect from a fantasy book, exploring deep questions of faith and Christian theology; yet as it is a fantasy world and a fiction book, it does not provide any semblance of answers, only more questions.
Ultimately, however, the set-up of the creation of the fae and the fantastical underpinnings of fae society as imagined by Ng presents a skewed gospel; a reminder, that you will, that this is not a biblical work. Under the Pendulum Sun leads to an almost-inevitable ending, one I wish were not her conclusion.
Still, I would put it as a sort of fantasy counterpart to Steve Rzasa's sci-fi exploration of whether aliens can be saved in For Us Humans: A Tale of Alien Occupation.
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SPOILERS!The incestuous relationship is presented as one that Laon is actively fighting against; it's why he left for Arcadia in the first place. Someone reveals that Catherine, his sister, is a changeling (i.e. they are not real siblings despite growing up together, therefore it is not incest) and they work through the implications of that, but a final twist reveals that the revelation is untrue, it is a lie told to trap them. At the end of the book, Laon is still fighting against the relationship/attraction, counting it as a sin making him unworthy to carry God's word, but Catherine tries to legitimise it by saying that their sin makes them better qualified as missionaries.
Look! I managed to finish April's goal for the 2023 Booktempter's TBR Reduction Challenge!! Doesn't look like I'll get round to the stretch goal, at least within this month.