I picked up The Bedlam Stacks because it takes place in 1859 Peru and I had recently returned from a trip hiking the Machu Picchu trail in that country. The experience was magical, and The Bedlam Stacks called to me as a book that would give me an even stronger connection to the history of the country. I seriously thought it was pure historical fiction. I was very wrong.
Magical realism. Books like Big Fish by Daniel Wallace and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern consistently get rave reviews, yet I can never buy into their concepts. I like realistic fiction and I like fantasy, but combining the two and blurring the lines between them tends to rattle me. I feel like I don’t know which way is up when reading them. If I’d have known that The Bedlam Stacks was magical realism, I probably wouldn’t have started it. Instead, it taught me to step out onto that uncertain terrain and enjoy the ride.
It is 1859 and the India Office (formerly the East India Company) has tasked an expedition with finding a rumored cinchona grove in the depths of Peru. Outbreaks of malaria are getting worse in British occupied India, and cinchona trees provide the cure: quinine. The British government is desperate to obtain cuttings of cinchona trees so they can grow their own forests rather than rely on the inconsistent and exorbitantly priced quinine their rivals occasionally provide. To that end they send their last qualified expeditionary, Merrick Tremayne, to Bedlam, Peru, the last known city on the edge of the only known trail to a rumored cinchona woods. As a bonus to the India Office, Merrick has a family connection to the city: he visited it with his father when he was a young child. Though he has no memory of that trip, it provides him with a much-needed cover story.
Merrick, who is still nursing an injury from his last expedition, is reluctant to go on another dangerous journey while he is still recovering but allows himself to be talked into it as things at home have gotten…strange. Moving statues and exploding trees, not to mention the unreasonable hatred of his brother, help persuade Merrick that a mission might be a good idea. Yet what Merrick finds in Peru is no less odd, and encountering the beliefs of the villagers in person will stretch the limits of his sanity and courage and may, in fact, kill him.
The plot of The Bedlam Stacks is twisty and contains action and danger and a lot of hacking through undiscovered country. It is also full on magical realism, introducing the reader to a spiritual world of old gods and hidden cities. Merrick is the grounded, logical character that keeps it from flying off into full fantasy. He is the most fully developed character and the book is told from his point of view. By linking the reader to Merrick, the author has given us both an anchor and a path forward. We experience his disbelief as it turns to acceptance. We meet people through him and his changing opinions change our views of them. We are there as his guide, the priest of Bedlam, the only other developed character, connects Merrick (and us) to the fantastical world Merrick is reluctantly discovering.
I recommend The Bedlam Stacks to fans of magical realism and historical fiction. Read it with an open mind, and let it take you on a fantastic adventure.
Note: I was given a digital Advance Reader Copy of this novel by the publisher. The views expressed above are my own.