A Tangle in Slops
by Jeffrey E. Barlough
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
Before reading my review of A Tangle in Slops by Jeffrey E. Barlough, you should know something up front: this is the first book that’s ever blurbed one of my previous reviews. Not only that, but top blurb on the back cover. Publishers Gresham & Doyle sent me an advance copy of Tangle unbidden, so I guess they were banking that I’d like this one as well. It was a safe bet.
Jeffrey E. Barlough’s Western Lights series has had me hooked since its first installment, Dark Sleeper, and I had been dying to dive into A Tangle in Slops long before I knew they’d given me a shout-out. Despite this, I had some very specific trepidations going into this book, which turned out to be well founded. But Barlough took all the elements I was most fearing to encounter and turned them into the strongest part of this exceptional Western Lights entry. Put simply, A Tangle in Slops is Barlough in top form.
The bleakest of bleak midsummers has descended wet and drear on the Shire of Slops, bringing events strange and tragic to the Village of Plumley.
It’s a dark time for the denizens of Orkney Farm, where a rogue mylodon has snatched the venerable Foud, Mr. Magnus Trefoil, out of his study. Now the giant beast has returned, sniffing around the bedroom widows of the late Foud’s little daughter Mary. Telltales in the coffee room of the Hop Toad attribute this ill fortune to Trefoil’s recent unearthing of a cache of mystical items belonging to his late ancestress Tronda Quickensbog, a sorceress of legendary repute. How else to explain the mossy creature suddenly glimpsed around Isham’s Pool, if not the vengeful Tronda in her signature green cloak, returned from the dead?
And what of the reclusive Mr. Tom Posthumous who has lately taken up residence at the deserted old hermitage of St. Guthlac’s under the lee of Brindle Forest? Might he have anything to do with these eldritch events? And one mustn’t discount the irascible kramkar, returned from wandering who knows where. No good can accompany the reappearance of that itinerant old peddler.
To add to the confusion, more outsiders have lately arrived in Plumley, relatives of Mr. Magnus who have come to hear the reading of his final wishes, including a Miss Ada Henslow of Market Snailsby in the neighboring Fenshire, accompanied by her trusted friend and counsel, Mr. Philip Oldcorn.
And many are the adventures that follow, as A Tangle in Slops revisits the rustic corner of Barlough’s sundered realm first introduced in Bertram of Butter Cross, which also features characters Ada and Philip. But as with all other Western Lights novels, Tangle stands alone, requiring no knowledge of the five previous books in the series.
Like Bertram before it, Tangle has more in common with the Brothers Grimm than M.R. James, foregoing Barlough’s usual gothic horror and venturing into more enchanted territory—which leads to the trepidation I mentioned earlier.
I felt that Bertram crossed the line from quaint to eye-rolling with the inclusion of animal point-of-view in the narrative—family pets and work beasts and the like. I found it a bit too precious for an adult book, and it took me out of the story whenever I encountered it.
When I learned that Tangle would take place in an adjacent setting and revisit some of the same characters, I was uneasy about the prospect of yet more anthropomorphic musings—worries that were justified right out of the gate, as the book’s framing device is a man telling the novel’s story to a squirrel, and getting some cheeky squirrel answers in return.
Through the scattered dog POV, horse POV and further squirrel POV that followed, I tsked Barlough for so needlessly interrupting an otherwise terrific, funny and engaging story. But my faith in the author is such that I grit my teeth and read on. And I’m happy I did, because old Jeffrey E. had an amazing twist up his sleeve.
He actually gave all the cutesy animal elements a logical and very powerful reason for being included, and wound them up for an ending that was like a punch in the stomach. In its final pages, the narrative pushes thematically beyond the outskirts of the enchanted woods and into the deepest darkest part of the forest—we’re talking Jack Cady territory here—to arrive at an epilogue that is markedly haunting and tragic compared to the light comedy that preceded it.
It is a darkness most welcome, thoroughly redeeming the Bertram-verse in my eyes, which suffered a bit from an overly-mannered-all’s-well-that-ends-well-old-chum kind of vibe.
That being said, Tangle is on the whole a lighter story that revels in moments of comedy, both droll and farcical. And though you’ll probably start to piece together key elements of the book’s mystery long before the characters do, there’s still the delight of discovery in watching the bigger picture emerge.
In the end, Tangle may not seem the most ambitious of Barlough’s books, considering the more intricate plots and bigger SFnal ideas explored in previous Western Lights volumes like Dark Sleeper, Strange Cargo, and Anchorwick. But Tangle’s deceptive simplicity shows that the author is becoming a virtuoso of his own style. Barlough’s writing has always had a bit of woolgathering about it and his stories often wander roundabout towards their conclusions. That’s a big part of their charm. While this charm remains in Tangle, there’s something more immediate about its prose that really ups the tension and atmosphere in key scenes. Barlough has taken the best of everything that’s come before and honed his narrative voice to start hitting the high notes.
Which bodes well for future Western Lights volumes. Book seven, What I Found at Hoole, is currently in the works and I’m looking especially forward to it, as it revisits characters and settings found in The House in the High Wood, my favorite Western Lights book. Better yet, there probably won’t be any talking animals in sight.