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Dark Sleeper
Jeffrey E. Barlough
Ace Books, 484 pages

Jeff Barson
Dark Sleeper
Jeffrey E. Barlough
Jeffrey E. Barlough is a trained biologist and veterinarian with a PhD. in Virology from Cornell, who has published over 60 research and review articles in scientific journals since 1979. He is also an armchair historian, and has edited small press publications of minor and archaic English works. Dark Sleeper is his first novel from a mainstream publisher.

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A review by Victoria Strauss

A common notion among aspiring writers trying to break into the speculative fiction market is that publishers' obsession with the bottom line makes it impossible to sell first novels that don't follow popular formulas, or are too literary, or don't fit neatly into genre categories. This is an extreme view, in my opinion; even so there's an uncomfortable amount of truth in it. Which makes Jeffrey Barlough's Dark Sleeper all the more welcome, for it's proof that demanding, quirky, hard-to-classify first fiction can still find a home at a major imprint.

Dark Sleeper is set on an alternate earth, where a catastrophic event known as the sundering (possibly a comet-strike) has wiped out most of the population and plunged the world into a second Ice Age. Only a narrow band of land along the west coast of North America, home to the ancient, fog-wreathed city of Salthead, was spared. For this tiny remnant of human civilization, life goes on much as always -- though icy winds blow down from the heights, and the wilderness beyond the inhabited areas is ruled by mastodon, saber-cats, and other prehistoric beasts.

As the novel opens, troubling visitations and apparitions have invaded the peace of Salthead. A ghostly sailor dances through the winding streets. A wrecked ship, magically plucked from the depths of the ocean, sails crewless into the harbor. A demonic child haunts a cozy inn. A vicious mastiff transforms into a manlike monster. When Titus Vespasianus Tiggs, professor of metaphysics, and his friend Dr. Daniel Dampe are called upon by a friend to investigate similar eerie happenings at an isolated country estate, they discover that these seemingly random events aren't so random after all. A dark force has been called back to life after centuries of dormancy, for purposes that can only be guessed at. It's up to Tiggs, Dampe, and their companions to make sure those purposes aren't fulfilled -- a quest that brings them face to face with demons, secret texts, immortal Etruscan sorcerers, and assorted breathtaking perils.

No plot summary of Dark Sleeper can begin to convey the wondrous eccentricity of this novel. Imagine a blending of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, interwoven with elements of H.P. Lovecraft, Mervyn Peake, and Arthur Conan Doyle, all of it filtered through the sensibilities of Tim Burton, and you'll have some notion of the impression this quirky, spooky, melodramatic, wordy, oddly warm-hearted narrative produces. Yet these comparisons are inadequate, for they suggest derivativeness, and whatever else Dark Sleeper may be, it isn't derivative. Barlough is a true original, inhabiting his neo-Victorian style with an authority that suggests he's the first ever to have used it. It's referential, but not at all imitative.

Plot is only half the fun of Dark Sleeper anyway. That's not to say the plot, with its gradually-uncovered mystery and mighty battle between the forces of good and evil, isn't well-wrought; it is, and Barlough's control of it keeps the novel's wildly diverse elements (mostly) from sprawling out of shape. But it's the characters and settings that are Dark Sleeper's real stars, brought unforgettably to life in Barlough's arch, ornate prose. Here, for instance, the law offices of Badger and Winch:

Masses of legal paraphernalia of every description... sprouted like malignant growths from every article of furniture. Ledger upon ledger, writ upon writ, folio upon folio, the most tremendous of these legal eruptions climbed towards the ceiling of the chamber; the ceiling itself being very high and blackened by tallow smoke, the tops of these monumental piles seemed to vanish into the upper darkness like volcanoes rising into the night sky.
Or Lawyer Winch himself:
His neck had a twist in it which caused his head to be screwed into a perpetual half-turn, as though he had been partly hanged. This oddity, combined with a certain reluctance to look his man in the face, but instead to fix his pupils on a spot somewhere about the chest region, lent him an air of slyness, as though -- heaven only knows why -- he was not to be trusted.
Mannered these descriptions may be, but Barlough is so at home with them, and invests them with such inventive variety, that they soon come to seem completely natural -- a wealth of detail that, far from weighing the story down, adds to its imaginative power, and produces in the reader a genuine sense of inhabiting another world. (The descriptions also serve a clever purpose, for they contain key elements and images that serve as identification tags, making it a great deal easier to keep track of the many characters and places.)

Dark Sleeper's leisurely pace and stylistic flourishes may put off more impatient readers, but those who persist will be richly rewarded. This is only the first of a planned many-book series (the Western Lights series). If the succeeding volumes are as good, fantasy readers have much to look forward to.

Copyright © 2001 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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