The Bedlam Stacks
by Natasha Pulley
Publication: July 13, 2017
Genre: Historical fantasy
My rating: 5/5 stars
Spoilers: None, because I really want everyone to read this!
The Bedlam Stacks blends historical fiction, fantasy, and magical realism so thoroughly that I invented the category "historical fantasy" to put in the header for the sake of succinctness. In brief synopsis, it is the story of Merrick Tremayne, a former "official" smuggler for the East India Company near the height of its influence in the 19th century. It's also the story of a Peruvian priest and guide named Raphael, who Merrick meets during a dangerous undercover expedition to source much-needed quinine from the Andes. Besides the magic itself, the interactions between Merrick and Raphael were my favorite parts of the novel.
I picked this book up on impulse because the cover was gorgeous and only later found that there's a previous novel in this setting whose events have no bearing on this one; its cover is amazing too, for the record. Anyway, this story deserved its excellent cover art, because it was an easy five stars! Elaborate setting, relatable characters, complex but captivating storyline. Let me elaborate.
First, the setting. Pulley has developed a fantasy version of the mid-1800s that's so credible in its depiction of British imperialism and the East India Company's voracity that you're able to accept the elements of magical realism easily. The Peruvian town of New Bethlehem, a.k.a. Bedlam, is home to a group of local outcasts, but also exploding ducks that incubate their eggs in a hot spring, trees whose wood floats, and clockwork mechanisms that provide everything from hot water to spiritual guidance. I appreciated that the descriptions allowed me to picture the setting without spilling over into purple prose.
Second, the characters. The main character met his best friend when said friend had him flogged while they were in the Navy; his superior in the East India Company once had him kidnapped and traded for a racing camel. Merrick has an interesting life for someone who describes himself as a gardener! He reluctantly agrees to go on the Peru expedition to escape the worse fate of stagnation. His previous work left him with an injured leg that makes travel and daily life difficult, and he finds and tests his new physical limits during the course of the narrative. One of ways in which this novel most appealed to me was its inclusion of two major/main characters with disabilities -- Merrick has the leg injury and Raphael suffers from analgesia and catalepsy.
The plot was a paradox: familiar from a historical perspective, but shaped by twists of fantasy and character choice that were entertainingly unpredictable. This is a Victorian colonial novel with all the social tensions that implies, but it also takes full advantage of its potential as a fantasy. The magic isn't overt, but it's certainly present!
I recommend The Bedlam Stacks to people who want to discover new worlds, because this is one of the best adventure stories I've ever read. Natasha Pulley's voice and sense of humor won me over by the end of the first chapter, and I've already got her earlier book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, on hold at the library.
Recipe: Cacao Hot Chocolate (Two Ways)
This whole post is going up later than planned because I had such a hard time getting this recipe the way I wanted it, and I was determined to do the book justice because it was so incredible. The only information I had to go by was that the chocolate Merrick and Raphael made into drinks was in a container pre-mixed with sugar, so I experimented/improvised a lot! I eventually came up with two versions of this recipe, one more "authentic" and one more convenient. They taste pretty different, but I think both are delicious!
The Easy Way
1 oz unsweetened 70-100% cacao chocolate, chopped
1/2 tbsp unsweetened cacao powder
1 tbsp sugar
1/3 cup water
10 oz milk (I used goat's milk because that's what would have been available in the book)
Combine the sugar, cacao powder, and chopped chocolate in a small heatproof bowl. Heat the water to boiling and pour it over the sugar/chocolate mixture; let sit for a minute and then stir until sugar is dissolved and chocolate is mostly melted. Pour the mixture into a mug. Heat the milk until small bubbles start to form around the edges, then pour over the chocolate in the mug. Stir and enjoy!
The (Possibly) More Authentic Way
1/2 oz cacao nibs, finely crushed
1/2 cup water
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp unsweetened cacao powder
8 oz milk
1 stick cinnamon (optional)
Put the crushed cacao nibs in a tea infuser or piece of cheesecloth and place in a large mug; boil the water and pour it over the nibs -- basically, you're steeping them as though you're making tea. Steep for 15 minutes; in the meantime, combine the sugar and cacao powder in a small bowl. Remove the cacao nibs from the water and discard. Stir the sugar and cacao powder into the cacao water. Heat the milk until small bubbles start to form around the edges, then pour over the mixture in the mug. Stir (with a cinnamon stick if desired) and enjoy!
A recipe note and brief lesson on cacao and cocoa: You can absolutely substitute cocoa products for cacao ones in all the parts of these recipes. Cocoa is cheaper, more readily available, and less bitter than cacao...it's just not what people would've been using in 19th-century Peru. Anyway, if you go the cacao route, here's what you'll be looking for! Cacao nibs, which are just roughly chopped cacao beans; cacao powder, which is a product of cacao beans minus the cacao butter; and a (chopped) cacao bar, which is cacao paste derived from the beans by heating at a low temperature and shaping into a cooled slab.