Review by Kris Vyas-Myall
This is one of those novels that has already been so discussed and engaged with by people much smarter than I am. As such I worry than anything I have to say will add little of note to the ongoing conversation. With that in mind however it is a very rich book and worth exploring, even if it isn’t always entirely to my taste.
The first point that has to be touched on is the religious aspect. The discussions of theology were interesting and I recognised them well from my degree, religious background, and own reading for fun. The choice of the time period was, I am sure, intentional where we begin to see a movement to see a shift in doctrine by many churches (as a result of both the horrors of the industrial revolution and scientific advances such as fossils, Champollion’s aging of the pyramids and the theories of natural selection) but is cleverly counterpointed by having a world that is literalist. This actually becomes even deeper and more fascinating as it goes on (but will no say no more because…spoilers…).
Going on from that it is important to mention how much of a role race plays in this. Whilst it does not go into the full horrifying effects the “civilising mission” had on the world, it does go into the Victorian view on race and the Other, and so questions what would happen if they encountered another intelligent species and how it would fit in to their cosmological view.
However, this is not only rich in the ideas it explores, it is also in the more fantastical elements. Whilst I personally did not find it to be as atmospheric as some, I still found it to be well crafted and a great exercise in world building. I also have to say I found the Fae characters to be very interesting, much more accessible and alive than the human characters. This, I believe helps highlight the ideas mentioned before.
The plot itself is a very curious and clever one. On one level it is a device to explore the ideas, the world and the characters. That in itself would be reasonable with so much going on and perfectly enjoyable. But within this there are many more threads going on, often cleverly exploring a number of literary influences and with a very clever twist at the end.
So, whilst it was occasionally not to my taste it is an extremely strong novel and I will continue to look for Jeanette Ng’s work going forward.