@CharlotteJain, #Young_Adult, #Fantasy, #Mythology, 3 out of 5 (good)
Set in the same universe as The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, this book is not a sequel although one of the main characters from the previous books makes a couple of quite lengthy appearances - while that book was set in London, The Bedlam Stacks takes place mostly in Peru, as our protagonist is part of a mission sent to try and steal cuttings from cinchona trees in order to help produce quinine for the East India Company.
We first meet Merrick Tremayne when he's recovering from a serious injury at his family home in Cornwall, which is literally falling apart around his ears. Against his better judgement, he agrees to take part in an expedition to Peru and follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. With Merrick and his companions, we spend a lot of time travelling and eventually arrive at New Bedlam, in the company of its priest, the taciturn Raphael. The village itself is on the border of a mysterious forest, the shortest route to the cinchona but also both the village and the forest are guarded by the markayuq (who Merrick mistakenly believes are clockwork).
Anyway, matters come to a head, Merrick and Raphael end up travelling into the forest regardless and Merrick subsequently discovers there is much more going on in darkest Peru than just the cinchona. In a flashback sequence, we discover that Merrick's injury was deliberately engineered by a much-younger Keita in the hope that it would stop him going into the forest, so I wouldn't be surprised at all if the aftermath of all Merrick's actions comes back to have significant consequences in a future novel.
Unlike both of the main characters in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, I found it difficult to empathise with Merrick - he comes across as quite weak and frightened of social consequences a lot of the time, even when he is doing things he knows are morally reprehensible. Raphael is a more interesting character, facing his own immortality in many ways, but he still didn't quite work for me either. As a result, while I'd said in my previous review that I felt it was unlikely I'll re-read The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, in hindsight I think I was wrong about that just on the basis of the relationship in it between Thaniel and Mori and it's probably The Bedlam Stacks I won't want to re-read.
I'm still looking forward to seeing what Natasha Pulley writes next, but it'd be nice to see her write about women too. Grace Carrow got fairly short shrift in the previous book and women are very much supporting characters here too, either devoted wife to Merrick's fellow explorer or helpful villager and that's just about it.
I've been putting off reviewing this book for a while, trying to come up with something new to contribute to what has become a very large conversation. I don't think I'm going to succeed, but I will add my thoughts. Here's the thing: All the Birds in the Sky very swiftly became the "It" book of 2016, and now in 2017 it is up for All The Awards. Many many people love this book. So when I sat down to read it for my book club I had really high expectations. Did the book rise to meet them? In some ways yes and in other ways no.
I quite liked that a fair amount of this book put fantasy and science fiction into the same world and made them ideologically opposed. We have the young witch and the young mad scientist, and we stick with them as they grow up and the world falls apart. Both the strength and the weakness of the narrative is that at its core this book is really only about two people. If you manage to invest in these two characters and their relationship then you will likely like this book. However, if you want to see an epic battle between science and magic, or you want to focus in on how the world is falling apart, or even the world-building or other characters, well, you are going to be really disappointed.
This is a book that presents a bunch of enormous, epic, sweeping plot points...and then pushes them into the background so they merely serve as the backdrop for a slow-burn romance. Which is honestly something I haven't seen before. I was okay with it, but it was a surprise, and could be really disappointing depending on what you want (or if you strongly dislike the two main characters, which wouldn't be difficult as they can be quite abrasive). The climax of the book felt subtle to me in that the book could have ended in several previous points with equal punch. In many ways it reads like three connected short stories - it has a light touch, close focus, and the bigger plot in the background is overshadowed by a more intimate and close perspective. Again, I didn't particularly mind this, but it was an unexpected choice.
Overall I liked All the Birds in the Sky because I was fine with the soft focus and narrowed plot. The side characters were flat and interchangeable, but that didn't hurt my enjoyment since they were so secondary to the focus. The world-building left a lot of questions unanswered, but again, that wasn't the focus. There were some jarring tonal shifts, and the comedy was occasionally bizarrely executed, but I was having fun so I didn't mind that either. Bottom line, I could see reasons to dislike this book, and problems, but I enjoyed myself and the book despite all of them. There's one thing I'm a stick in the mud about though: there were better fantasy/sci-fi books in 2016. I liked this book. I really did. But it was not the end all be all of books in this genre. Worth the read? Absolutely. Worth the hype? Debatable.