by Jeffrey E. Barlough
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
Only in the hands of a master like Jeffrey E. Barlough can the appellations “more of the same” and “unpredictable” seamlessly combine to become a cause for celebration; indeed, Barlough’s new supernatural page-turner, Anchorwick lives up to the considerable standard set by the author’s previous works, offering more of the unique writing style, enjoyable characters and excellent story telling that Barlough fans have come to expect. On top of that, Anchorwick also manages to take Barlough’s fantastic fictional realm in unexpected new directions.
Anchorwick is Barlough’s latest Western Lights novel, the fifth stand-alone tale set in a world where a remnant of Victorian-era society lives in ice-rimed isolation after a mysterious, world-shattering event called the Sundering–a milieu that Barlough augments with his rich pseudo-Victorian prose style.
Anchorwick revisits the setting and some of the characters featured in Barlough’s first novel, Dark Sleeper, returning to the seaside city of Salthead some 30 years before the events of that book. The narrator this time out is Eugene Stanley, a glazier’s son doing some scholarly work for his uncle, Christopher Greenshields, a professor at Antrobus College in Salthead University.
While studying one night, Eugene is visited by a misty apparition crying out for help. Curiosity piqued, Eugene postpones his deliberations about whether or not to become a student and launches an investigation with the aid of his new college chums. But his poking around soon snares him in a web of larger and seemingly unrelated mysteries, including the baffling disappearance of an esteemed Antrobus professor, the seeming reanimation of a recently dead one, and the rediscovery of an ancient magic that is somehow tied to a monstrous old clock that is not really a clock at all.
Anchorwick once again treats readers to Barlough’s signature blend of elements that make his work so hard to classify–occult mystery, allohistory, scientific romance, Victorian horror–all culminating in a sprawling, gas-lit Fantasy that should be doubly enjoyable for long-time Barlough readers, as it reunites them with the key characters and settings that turned them on to the Western Lights series in the first place.
That’s not to say that Anchorwick offers nothing new; quite the opposite. Just as the third Western Lights novel Strange Cargo was of a decidedly Science Fictional bent, so Anchorwick plays with the notion of multiple universes and overlapping realities. As for how the characters reach those realities, let’s just say that Lucy Pevensie’s magical wardrobe ain’t got nothing on Eugene Stanley’s sinister clock case.
Classic influences like these demonstrate Barlough’s firm grounding in the staples of the genre. But he never shies away from stretching their boundaries to expand the Western Lights universe. The true testament to his writing talent is that he can mesh all these diverse elements into a cohesive and satisfying whole. Every Western Lights book plays like a unique scene in a fantastic tapestry that Barlough continues weaving in unexpected directions. It’s what makes you keep coming back to his work, because in one sense you know exactly what you’re going to get, yet you never know how it will manifest itself.
Ironically, this intriguing unpredictability may be the chief reason Barlough is now on his third publisher. His first book, Dark Sleeper, was released by Western Lights Publishers—evidently a self-publishing effort that led to a trade reprint by Ace, which also published two subsequent Western Lights books, though the company never seemed able to effectively position or promote them. Barlough has since moved on to Los Angeles publishers Gresham & Doyle, which released last year’s Bertram of Butter Cross and now Anchorwick.
The smaller press is a perfect fit; The Western Lights books now get a much more focused push, and Gresham & Doyle are obviously betting on Barlough’s talent and loyal following to help grow sales. The bet must be paying off, because Gresham & Doyle recently acquired the sixth Western Lights book, A Tangle in Slops. (How can you not love a title like that?)
And for those readers who also appreciate books as objects of beauty, the Gresham & Doyle editions fill that bill, too, replacing Ace’s often misguided cover art with classic paintings and spidery text that exactly capture the essence of Barlough’s work. His writing has always been in a class by itself; now it finally has a presentation to match.
The Western Lights series just keeps getting better on every level, as Anchorwick so ably demonstrates. So whether you’re visiting Barlough’s eldritch realm for the first time or you’re a seasoned traveler making a return journey into Salthead’s foggy heart, you’re in for a bewitchingly delightful trip.