Under the Pendulum Sun

Jeannette Ng

Book cover

I, like many others, learned about Jeannette Ng when she received the 2019 Hugo Award for Best New Writer–and called the award’s namesake out for being a fascist in her acceptance speech! More than enough to make me want to read her book. (In addition, Ng has a pretty interesting and wide-ranging page on Medium (@nettlefish); see e.g. her essay “Harry Potter and the Spectre of British Identity.”)

I thought this was a solid first novel and I’ll be interested to see what Ng publishes in the future. (The ending of this book definitely left the door open for a sequel.) As a brief precis, the book follows Cathy Helstone, the sister of a 19th-century British missionary who has gone to the fae lands (which have recently been discovered as a real place) to try to convert the natives, as she follows her brother and pieces together what he has been doing there. It’s a good idea for a book, and allows Ng to provide some interesting commentary on actual 19th-century British missionary practices (see some interesting more explicit writing about this on her Medium blog too). I really enjoyed the epigraphs to each chapter, where Ng often modifies actual contemporaneous historical sources to encompass the fictional discovery of the fae realm. Ng also nails the Gothic atmosphere–admittedly I have not done a lot of reading in this genre, but a lot of the initial descriptions of Gethsemane castle put me in mind of Stoker’s “Dracula,” and I think it’s mostly just down to both authors being very good with atmosphere.

Overall I also found the mystery plot to work well. I guessed correctly at some of the later reveals, and incorrectly at others, which seems like a desirable balance. The material about the Enochian language and the esoteric backstory about Adam and Lilith reminded me a bit of Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum.”

The main aspect of the book that didn’t work for me was the pacing. The beginning starts off really well with Cathy’s voyage to and arrival at Gethsemane, and her initial encounters with the castle. But I felt that it really bogged down in the middle, with seemingly very little of import happening for a long time. I get that this is the actual situation Cathy finds herself in in the story, and perhaps we as readers are supposed to feel it along with her. But it felt like a drag to me at times, and I felt there wasn’t enough character development going on to carry us through the lull in the plot.

I am still trying to figure out what I think about [spoilers removed]

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars