Natasha Pulley’s second novel is a charming book full of magic and wonder

Although I hadn’t been shot at for years, it took me a long time to understand that the bang wasn’t artillery. I sat up in bed to look out of the window, half-balanced on my elbows, but there was nothing except a spray of slate shards and moss on the little gravel path three floors below. There had been a storm in the night, huge, one of those that takes days and days to form and gives everyone a headache, and the rain must have finally worked loose some old roof tiles.’

1859. Merrick, a crippled smuggler working for the East India Company, heads deep into uncharted territory to find cinchona trees, the only source of the quinine that can cure malaria. Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions.

Last year Pulley released her debut novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, to outstanding reviews. It was one of my favourite books of 2016, so my expectations were high for The Bedlam Stacks. Fortunately, Pulley has written her second novel in the same vein as her first and is clearly on to a winning formula.

Pulley seamlessly blends historical fiction and fantasy, whilst hopping through various other genres including thriller, steampunk and sci-fi. The plot takes the reader on an adventure into the fantastical wilds of Peru, where lamps are made of golden pollen, statues move freely, and no one crosses the salt line separating the town from the forest for fear of disappearing.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book were the characters. They seem so real and empathetic that you can easily imagine them stepping off the page and reaching out to shake your hand. The intimate, delicately written moments between characters are so awkward and realistic that you can’t help but fall in love with them. Merrick is a highly empathetic character, a man with an edge who is searching for a new purpose in life. In Peru he meets Raphael, a young priest, and their growing friendship is a delight to watch unfold.

As with The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, there is much more to this book than first appears. An adventure it may be, but it is also a heartfelt exploration of time, identity and friendship. The fantasy elements sit easily alongside meditations on duty and the contrasts between different cultures. Science and fantasy walk side by side, intertwining in wondrous ways and creating a beautiful tapestry of a story.

It does take a while to get started so it requires a fair bit of patience to muddle through the short sentences and long-winded descriptions in the opening chapters, but Pulley soon hits her stride and plunges you into an immersive, fantastical world.

Pulley writes with flair and imagination, juggling a complicated plot with apparent ease. If you’re looking for escapism, look no further. This is a charming book, full of magic and wonder, and I urge you to pick up a copy.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

How do you know you’re real if no one remembers you?

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

As memory of me faded, so did a part of myself. Whoever that Hope Arden is who laughs with her friends, smiles with her family, flirts with her lover, resents her boss, triumphs with her colleagues – she ceased to exist, and it has been surprising for me to discover just how little of me is left behind, when all that is stripped away.

Hope Arden is the girl the world forgets. It started when she was 16 years old. A father forgetting to drive her to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A friend who looks at her and sees a stranger. No matter what she does, the words she says, the crimes she commits, you will never remember her.

This is a very clever book with a lot to say. What starts as a tale of magical realism quickly deepens into an exploration of identity, friendship and perfection.

In this book, Perfection is an app which helps users achieve a ‘perfect’ version of themselves. Users score points for obeying the app’s instructions – going to the gym, eating a healthy meal, attending an A-list party – and lose points for refusing to go along with its demands. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the book and, as it’s not so far from the world we currently live in, strikes eerily close to home.

Hope is a character unlike any other and her unique situation provides North with plenty of opportunity to muse on complicated emotions of loneliness and fear. How can Hope hold down a job if her boss won’t remember her? How will she find a place to live if her landlord forgets what she looks like? How does she know she’s real if no one remembers her?

My main problem with this book is simple: it’s just too long. I have nothing against doorstopper books if the story warrants the longer length, but this book could have been cut in half and very little would have been lost. It starts off slowly and the slow pace works at first as we get to know Hope as a character, but before long the minute attention to every last detail of Hope’s thought processes becomes repetitive and dull. Despite the brilliant writing I still found myself skim-reading large passages because I was bored.

If you’re a quick reader I would definitely recommend this book. However, those who prefer to take their time and move through a book a little more slowly might find themselves becoming too bored to carry on.