Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2016 Evelyn C. Leeper.


BERTRAM OF BUTTER CROSS by Jeffrey E. Barlough:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/02/2008]

BERTRAM OF BUTTER CROSS by Jeffrey E. Barlough (ISBN-13 978-0-978-76340-4, ISBN-10 0-978-76340-8) is the fourth of Barlough's "Western Lights" books, the first three being DARK SLEEPER, THE HOUSE IN THE HIGH WOOD, and STRANGE CARGO. Those were published in trade paperback editions by Ace, but apparently they did not sell as well as Ace hoped, so this volume (and the upcoming ANCHORWICK) is being issued by Gresham & Doyle.

While the books are part of a series, they each stand on their own. The back-story of the series is that the last Ice Age did not end, so Pleistocene mammals still survive: mastodons, smilodons, and short-faced bears, among others. There are also Lovecraftian touches, connected in part with "the Sundering", which has destroyed all but a small area of civilization, now stuck in a Victorian Era culture--hence place names such as "Yocklebury Great Croft" and "Upper Lofting, Butter Cross, Wuffolk".

I am really glad that there is a publisher willing to publish Barlough, because I love his style. Here, for example, are the opening paragraphs of BERTRAM OF BUTTER CROSS:

"In the springtime of our grandparents--that is to say, when our grandmothers and grandfathers all were very young--there occurred in the town of Market Snailsby, in Fenshire, a mystery of singular character and incident. More precisely, it was the unraveling of this mystery that occurred, for the mystery itself had been a staple of popular legend for a good many years, during which time it had resisted all solution. This is the story of the working out of that mystery, and of what was discovered in Marley Wood, and who discovered it and how, and what came of it all in the end."

"Market Snailsby was one of those long, lazy, meandering sorts of towns that are often met with in the marshlands. Its quaint old houses and ancient cobble streets were scattered in profuse array along the banks of the River Fribble near its junction with the River Lour. The Fribble was rather wide for a Fenshire river, but not very deep, and navigable only by the lighter barge traffic. It was a good eel-river, though, and a fine one for fishing, and of much benefit to the townspeople. There was a beautiful old stone bridge crossing it, at a point midway between the Market Square and the Church of All Hallows. On the other side of the bridge, on the river's south bank, stood the pretty little ivy-covered posting-inn called the Broom and Badger. It was here at the Badger that the drivers of the mastodon trains used to put themselves up, after putting their teams out behind it on the broad, open stretch of meadowland that was Snailsby Common."

If that doesn't grab you, well, then maybe this is not for you.

One difference that has occurred with the change of publishers is that this book (at 270 pages) is considerably shorter than the pevious ones (484, 318, and 481 pages, respectively). Whether this is Barlough's choice, or whether Ace asked for the previous novels to have a certain minimum length longer than this, I do not know, but at least now I have the feeling that Barlough is able to write the novels the way he wants to. (ANCHORWICK, I notice, seems to be back in the longer range--387 pages)

I loved this book, and I eagerly await ANCHORWICK in October.

(I noted in my review of STRANGE CARGO that Barlough seems to be part of the movement called by Frederick John Kleffel "The New Victoriana", which includes books by such authors as Tim Powers, Neal Stephenson, and Susanna Clarke. See http://trashotron.com/agony/columns/2004/09-03-04.htm for more on this movement.)

To order Bertram of Butter Cross from amazon.com, click here.


THE COBBLER OF RIDINGHAM by Jeffrey E. Barlough:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/18/2016]

I finally read THE COBBLER OF RIDINGHAM by Jeffrey E. Barlough (ISBN 978-0-978-76344-2), which I had bought several months ago but waited until I was in the right mood to savor it. This is another in Barlough's "Western Lights" series, for which the premise (according to a note at the end) is that the last Ice Age never ended, medieval England sent out explorers to find more habitable climes, and they found a North America with no humans but still populated by Pleistocene megafauna. Then, in 1839, the "sundering" happened. All life on Earth was apparently destroyed, save that along the west coast of North America.

Much as I like the books in the series, I have to say this is a load of codswallop. In the books, in spite of an Ice Age that never ended, British civilization developed along exactly the same lines: there is a Wales (and they are known for their harps), there is a Scotland (wouldn't it be covered in ice?) (and they are known for their stinginess, and there was a Henry Tudor and an Oliver Cromwell. If anything, wouldn't there be even more of a chance that the Americas were colonized from Asia, across a land bridge that was much wider because so much more water was tied up in ice? And this "sundering" has no logic behind it, unless one argues it is a supernatural event caused by God (which, in the sense that it is a naked plot device created by the author, I suppose it is). And in this world of different climates, where are people finding tobacco, tea, ginger, and coffee in the first place?

That said, the books are enjoyable, with their Dickensian language and characters. I fear, however, that Barlough may be getting carried away: he has his tradesmen in this named Woolsack (tailor), Pinchbeck (bootmaker), Derby (hatter), Sweeting (confectioner), Dousterwweed (tobacconist), and Casken (vintner). Barlough is also going a bit steampunk, with dirigibles. The earlier books had more of a sense of mystery, though I suppose Barlough cannot write eight books without providing somewhat more information about the world he is writing in than the vague hints he started with.

Still, the writing is wonderful, full of obsolete yet evocative words, and it makes overlooking the plot holes allowable.

To order The Cobbler of Ridingham from amazon.com, click here.


STRANGE CARGO by Jeffrey E. Barlough:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/29/2004]

STRANGE CARGO (ISBN 0-441-01160-8) is Jeffrey E. Barlough's third novel, all of which are set in some strange not-quite-our-world which has mammoths and saber-toothed tigers, Lovecraftian creatures, Wellsian inventions, and a cast of characters (and a plot) right out of Charles Dickens. In STRANGE CARGO Frederick Cargo is trying to find a Mr. Jerrold Squailes named as an heir in Frederick's grandfather's will, while Mr. Threadneedle and Tim Christmas (now there is an obvious nod to Dickens!) are busy tinkering at something, and Miss Wastefield has a terrible secret. We also meet the Rev. Giddeus Pinches and his sister Griselda Pinches, Mr. Moldwort, Mr. Jobberly, Mr. Kix, and Mr. Lovibund. The background world does not bear close inspection. The blurb describes it as "set in a world where the Ice Age never ended and only a narrow coastline of civilization survives," but it is clear that this world's history is the same of ours--without Ice Age--through at least Classical times, and there is at least some basis for assuming it is the same considerably later. One character claims the situation arose about two hundred years earlier due to the impact of a lost spaceship--but that hardly accounts for the existence of the mammoths and saber-tooths. The only solution is just to "go with the flow" and do not try to analyze it too closely. I love Barlough's books for their atmosphere and settings, and recommend them to anyone who likes Dickens.

(Barlough seems to be part of the movement called by Frederick John Kleffel "The New Victoriana", which includes books by such authors as Tim Powers, Neal Stephenson, and Susanna Clarke. See for more on this movement.)

To order Strange Cargo from amazon.com, click here.


A TANGLE IN SLOPS by Jeffrey E. Barlough:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/20/2012]

A TANGLE IN SLOPS by Jeffrey E. Barlough (ISBN 978-0-9787634-2-8) is the sixth book in the "western Lights" series. I have reviewed a couple of the previous books; this maintains the quality. "Slops" is Slopshire, another one of Barlough's glorious place names. There is a small hiccough in a reference to the Tudor kings--Barlough has been pretty diligent in avoiding a specific historic background for his world, which must perforce differ from our own due not only to the extension of the last Ice Age, but to the "Sundering", whatever that was.

The series itself seems split in two parts. The first three novels (DARK SLEEPER, THE HOUSE IN THE HIGH WOOD, STRANGE CARGO) are clearly set on a western coast of a North America isolated from the rest of the world by the Sundering and in the grip of a new Ice Age. But the last three (BERTRAM OF BUTTER CROSS, ANCHORWICK, and A TANGLE IN SLOPS) seem to be back in Britain, and in a climate that, while often dreary, is not an Ice Age. In particular, the references in A TANGLE IN SLOPS to Orkney and Zetland, and the Scandinavian names of some of the characters, would seem to place the action in the British Isles rather than North America. This is a bit peculiar, since everything I have read indicates that all the books take place in North America and there are overlapping place names between the first three and the last three books. But there is a definite difference in the feel of the two subsets.

Also included is a "Western Lights" short story for children, "Ebenezer Crackernut".

To order A Tangle in Slops from amazon.com, click here.



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