Catherine Helstone is determined to find her brother. He has been missing for some time on his mission to bring Christianity to the fae of Arcadia. She’s finally received permission to follow him
The land of Arcadia is like nothing she imagined, with mystery upon mystery to uncover and cryptic inhabitants who never seem to let her get close to the truth. Even finding her brother does little to solve the constant mystery of the castle they’re confined to, the world that is so alien and the inhabitants that do little to encourage their presence
Laon is convinced that the way to learn the truth - and bring the fae to Christianity - is to gain access to the interior. But to do that requires the favour of the alien and frightening Queen Mab.
This is not an easy book to read.
Not because it’s offensive, or badly written or otherwise broken. But because it’s intelligent, it has layers and to truly appreciate it you need to sit and think and examine and explore every line, the implications, the nuances and the thinking. A decent grounding or interest in theology wouldn’t go amiss either (which, honestly, I don’t have, but still appreciated the wrangling over holy writ and lots of awkward questions and wrangling).
The foundation for this book is less a story and more an exploration. Oh we have lots of Catherine’s journey to Arcadia, her living there and the relationship with her brother Laon (more on that later) but the main point of this is exploration and thought. What is faerie, how alien is it: and I have to say here that I have rarely read a depiction of faerie as alien, as fanciful, as weird and as downright creepy as I’ve seen here. From the nature of the individual fae, the the bizarre sun and moon to distances being measured in dreams and epiphanies to the seasons and how things change - it’s utterly perfectly alien. The use of salt on the food, the nature of changelings and Mab and her terrifying, ethereal court: the aesthetics, the theme, the whole feel of this world is excellent. It’s worth reading this book fro this alone.
And to this we add the missionaries - Laon and Catherine, so utterly out of their depth, desperately trying to apply their faith to a world that seems utterly unrelated top it, trying to find the secrets from past missionaries, trying to understand the very nature of the fae and faerie. Complete with twist at the end and excellent machinations from the fae queen
I think I would have appreciated more challenge from the fae at the very idea they need a missionaries - or even a challenge to the nature of missionaries themselves., especially within an Imperial Victorian context. Seen through Cathy’s eyes we never really have any doubt that missionaries do the right thing or bring anything other than truth - despite the theological challenges that are excellently raised throughout the book
Pacing wise, it has to be said, this doesn’t make for a fast or exciting book. In fact it’s damn slow, very verbose and there are huge periods of the story in which nothing really happens. Normally this would be a death knell for me - but I didn’t feel the slowness. The beauty of the setting, the sheer alienness of the fae and the layers of thinking and examination all let me see past that. But it was an issue even if it didn’t break me as it usually would.
I also just didn’t especially see the need for Laon. At all. In any event. Especially the really unnecessary twist in their relationship: everything that was interesting and fascinating in the book could have been covered with Cathy never actually finding her brother… let alone the unfortunate turn in their relationship towards incest - which was really really not needed.
Diversitywise - we really have not much. No POC, no LGBTQ characters (though, I suppose to be fair I should add we only have 2 actual humans in this book) - but we do have a female lead who repeatedly rails against her station that is forced on her because she’s a woman. She resents that she doesn’t have the education lavished on Laon and insists she is his equal - something he accepts (largely) recognising when he is being unfair in not acknowledging the education she was denied and sharing with her the knowledge he has gained, his books and his experience. I like that he does accept her intelligence and how she adamantly refuses to take a secondary role or not be considered capable, intelligent or academic just because she is female
This book is just very very very different from most other books out there - and it’s fascinating because of the thought and research that goes into this book makes it an excellent, if difficult, read. This is not a casual read. It’s not even a fun read. But it is an interesting read and a beautiful one and definitely worth the effort