In 1859, Merrick Tremayne is living in the ancestral home in Cornwall, doing the best he can with a ruined leg. The leg was ruined working for the East India Company, for whom he had done such varied services as run a tea plantation and smuggle opium. No longer of use to them, he lives with his brother, to whom the house and lands belong entirely, who wants him out and gone as soon as possible. The two solutions the brother puts forward are either Merrick take on a rural parsonage, or he’ll be sent to a mental asylum. Why the asylum? Merrick swears that the statue in the garden moves, and that someone is messing about in his greenhouse.
Merrick is a plantsman (who just so happens to have had a grandfather and father who went to Peru), so when the East India Company (who desperately need more quinine for the rampant malaria in their areas of operation) needs someone to locate high-yield quinine trees in Peru, take and smuggle out cuttings, and get them started in an area the EIC operates in, they come calling in the form of Merrick’s old friend from the Navy, Clem Markham. Never mind that there have been no successful ventures into the Peruvian jungles, or that Merrick can’t walk without crutches. It’s better than the asylum or the parsonage.
The first part of the novel moves very, very slowly. Training Clem to take cuttings. The sea voyage. The mule journey to the Peruvian interior, at high altitude. The fact that the man who provides them with a guide to lead them to “frost resistant coffee trees” will kill them if he finds out they are after quinine. Thankfully, when they reach the village of New Bethlehem (“Bedlam”), the white gunmen leave them with the native guide, and things get weird. The village is on volcanic glass, with hot springs warming the river. There are trees that burst into flame from even a tiny spark, golden luminescent pollen in the air, clockwork statues that move when approached, and the forest is bordered by a line of salt that only the priest (who is also their guide, Raphael) may pass.
This story is adventure both supernatural and natural, historical fantasy, a touch of steampunk, an indictment of how Europeans treated the people of other continents, and a love story. The plot speeds up after they reach Bedlam, thankfully, but it is never a high speed story. The descriptions are beautiful. The characters are built up, layer upon thin layer, as are the relationships. I fell in love with this place and with this book. I totally forgive it for moving slowly. Five stars.
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