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Bertram of Butter Cross
Jeffrey Barlough
Gresham & Doyle, 256 pages

Bertram of Butter Cross
Jeffrey 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. His previous novels are Dark Sleeper, The House in the High Wood, and Strange Cargo.

Official Website of the Western Lights Series
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Dark Sleeper
SF Site Review: The House in the High Wood

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Fans of Jeffrey Barlough's Western Lights series, set in a neo-Victorian alternate world where a catastrophic "sundering" has destroyed most of civilization, and prehistoric beasts (mastodons, sabercats, dire wolves, and others) survive into the present day, may have feared that they wouldn't see another book from this highly original writer. Good news: the series continues in a fourth volume from a new publisher.

The village of Market Snailsby nestles amid the bogs, marshes, and rivers of Fenshire, at the edge of dark and ancient Marley Wood. Savage predators stalk the brooding precincts of the Wood -- marsh devils, teratorns, spotted lions, and others even more dreadful. In the olden days, when men and women were bolder and more carefree, the courageous but eccentric Godfrey de Clinkers built a lodge deep at the forest's heart and held fabled hunting parties there. The descendants of those brave adventurers are more cautious, and in modern times the people of Fenshire avoid the Wood. But the march of progress may soon change that. A road is being cut through the mighty forest, to speed travel to the towns on the other side; it has just reached the halfway point, and in two more seasons will be complete.

Returning home from a visit, Miss Jemma Hathaway is distracted by the sight of two small children playing among the trees. When she calls out to them, they run away. Fearing for their safety, she plucks up her courage to follow them into the Wood -- and encounters a monster out of nightmare, a hideous, growling snake-necked creature with a human head and a waterfall of orange hair. This is just the first of a series of strange sightings that terrify the inhabitants of Market Snailsby. A troupe of ghostly riders gallops by moonlight through the Wood. A surly man in the garb of a bygone age challenges passersby and then vanishes into thin air. Memories of village mysteries return: the disappearance of a small boy thirty-five years ago, the unknown fate of Mother Redcap, an ugly old woman rumored to be a witch. Has the incursion of the road builders stirred some ancient force within the Wood? Is Market Snailsby, and the settled life its inhabitants hold so dear, at risk? What connection might there be between the strange events and the ruined hunting lodge of Godfrey de Clinkers? It's up to the stouthearted villagers to find out.

The Western Lights books are distinguished by their ingenious combination of mystery, fantasy, and horror, and by their unusual characters, richly detailed settings, and the pitch-perfect Victorian prose style (with dialogue to match) that is the author's specialty. Each novel also has its own focus. Dark Sleeper was a Lovecraftian epic of ancient awakened horror. The House in the High Wood paid homage to classic Gothic novels. Strange Cargo took a turn into post-apocalyptic science fiction. Bertram of Butter Cross is a rustic tale that gives as much attention to village life as to the frightening supernatural mystery that disrupts the villagers' cozily predictable existence.

The novel features a fairly straightforward storyline, with few of the elaborate twists and digressions that have marked previous volumes, and a cast of characters that, while amply provided with the eccentricities Barlough fans have come to expect (including Sir Hector MacHector, a Scottish laird who speaks in a thick Scots brogue, and Mr. Blather, who lives up to his name), doesn't include the extravagantly peculiar individuals who populate the first three books. Being a bit more ordinary, they are also a bit more sympathetic. The relative plainness of the plot casts into sharper relief the novel's theme of the conflict between nostalgia and advancement, between the desire to preserve things as they are and the inevitability of change. Monster-haunted Marley Wood is the sum of the villagers' darkest fears of the unknown, while the supernatural discovery they make at its heart is the perfect reflection both of their longing for stasis and their nostalgia for the vanished, and possibly more desirable, past. The road, which in breaching the Wood uncloaks the mystery, embodies the frightening yet hopeful march of progress. As it turns out, change and stasis can co-exist, as long as each is properly acknowledged.

One of the many delightful features of Barlough's books is his wonderful animal characters, who play nearly as significant a role in the action as the humans do. These four-footed companions are not in the least cutesy or anthropomorphized; they charm not because they behave like people in furry outfits, but because they are so thoroughly animal-like. This book goes farther than the others in incorporating them into the narrative; Snap the carriage dog, Rosie the mare, and several sharp-witted cats exchange frequent observations on the behavior of their humans (who of course don't perceive these discussions), providing a beast's-eye view of the goings-on. If this seems odd or arbitrary, there's a minor twist at the end that puts it into perspective -- also revealing that this story about nostalgia is itself a memory of time past.

Bertram of Butter Cross is a strong addition to one of the more distinctive of recent fantasy series -- a must for Barlough fans, and a good starting point for readers new to the author's work (since, like the other books, it stands on its own). In addition to a new publisher, Barlough has a new website, which provides more detail about the sundered world and its places, people, and creatures. The series' fifth installment, Anchorwick, is due in the fall of 2008.

Copyright © 2007 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Awakened City, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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