Dark Sleeper is a delightful, debonair and decidedly Dickensian departure from dime-a-dozen fantasy. Jeffrey E. Barlough, who published the book in 2000, attempts and mostly succeeds in writing an entire fantasy novel in the style and form of Charles Dickens, with a dash of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thrown in.
Let me be clear. This is not a steampunk novel, set in the nineteenth century while incorporating twentieth-century technology, winking at the sensibilities and conventions of the time. Barlough has created a genuine alternate world, and tells a nineteenth-century story that includes demons, magic, immortals, mastodons and saber-tooth cats.
The setting of Dark Sleeper is Salthead, a bustling harbor city in a land that is sparsely populated and quite cold. Some centuries ago, the “sundering” occurred: an event that ushered in another ice age. Europe, Asia and Africa are apparently “sundered” from the New World, which is where our story takes place. While the tone, clothing and social mores of Salthead seem to be mid-nineteenth-century, some inventions are glaringly absent. There are no cannons, guns or locomotives. Men carry swords. Roads have only recently been cleared into the mountains that flank Salthead, and two characters are caught in the transition from mastodon or “thunder-beast” caravans to horse-drawn carriages and lose their business as a result. Even with the new roads, the stage rides through the mountains are perilous. Travelers confront the risk of short-faced bears and the dreaded saber-cats.
Against this detailed background, strange happenings plague the city and its environs: ghosts, animal monsters, and a derelict ship that drifts into the harbor even though water still gushes through the massive hole in its hull. Professor Titus Tiggs and his friend the diplomatically-challenged Dr. Dampe begin investigating these goings-on, which are tied to the theft of an ancient work of art from a wealthy young man who lives on a manor in the countryside. Soon the reader is learning about Etruscan gods and their lucumones or human priests, so powerful that some have been granted immortality. Two of these beings are struggling to control the stolen artifact, and have unleashed an Etruscan demon.
Like any good Dickens novel, Dark Sleeper is aswirl with characters. Titus and Dampe, nominally the “heroes,” tend to function as educated observers. There is the artful, dodgy Samson Icks, the shady lawyer Mr. Winch, and the addled Richard Scribbler; the honest and sentimental Mr. Hoakum and his nephew Blaster, who care for the mastodons; Laura Dale, the governess with a tragic secret in her past; Mr. John Hunter and Mr. Jack Hilltop, both new to Salthead; and my personal favorite, Miss Moll Honeywood, proprietor of the Blue Pelican Inn, a paragon of efficiency and brusque kindness. Sally Sprinkle, a ninety-year-old lady still mourning her lost love, brings poignancy to the story; and Josiah Tusk, the miser who enjoys tripping people in the street, is someone you love to hate. The Jacks sisters, Mona and Nina, function mostly as decoration; a few too many maids bob curtseys and trill, “Oh, la, miss!” to be distinguishable. The Professor’s niece Fiona, who starts off as a bright, strong-willed child, devolves into a cliché fairly quickly. Samson Ick’s group of confederates suffers from the same problem, with the exception of Cast-Iron Bill. This is not a huge problem; with a cast of characters this size, a few can be stereotypical. Sticking close to the Dickens theme, Barlough invests some of his characters with catch phrases, which makes them memorable and generates affection for them — or, in the case of the miser, antipathy. Miss Honeywood is fond of saying, “It’s either black or white for me; there’s no grey in it,” while Josiah Tusk is fond of reminding everyone that he is a “conscientious man of business.”
Repetition is a big part of any Dickens novel. His work was serialized and Dickens owed it to his readers to catch them up, particularly when a character had been missing from the action for a while. Barlough does this well, by giving certain characters a distinctive article of clothing like a bottle-green coat. In other places, he slavishly follows the Dickens style when he doesn’t need to. He did not need to tell me three times what the antechamber to the lawyer’s office looks like, for instance.
I thought the second half of Dark Sleeper (where, paradoxically, the action is starting to come together) moved slowly. This may just be the cumulative effect of the very dense prose and detailed subplots. The fantastical resolution is, surprisingly, the kind of thing I would have expected Dickens to come up with — a bit mild by our standards, but appropriate for the time period. I think that means the book is a success.
This is not a book I could read on a break or in little scraps of time between errands. I had to devote uninterrupted time to it. Be aware of that, if you decide to read it. If you evaded Dickens with all your might in college, then pass this book by, because it will just frustrate you. If you like the idea of a dreamily familiar yet truly strange setting, clever language, and frightening scenes where a pair of saber-tooth cats attack a horse and carriage, or a train of mastodons stampede, then look this one up. There is a bonus for cat-lovers, too, and it isn’t a saber-tooth.