- Dark Sleeper
- By Jeffrey E. Barlough
- Ace Books
- Trade paperback, Sept. 2000
- $14.95/$20.99 Canada
- ISBN 0-441-00730-9
Salthead is unaccustomed to spectacles any more bizarre than its stonehearted miser, Josiah Tusk, tripping a child into the gutter on the way to some dastardly business deal. Yet strange things have been happening, starting with a long-drowned sailor seen dancing a ghastly jig on the wharves one night. Other dead people soon appear as well, joined by an ominous hulk that sails nonchalantly into the harbor, heedless of a massive breach at its waterline.
As word of these events reach Titus Tiggs, the noted professor of metaphysics, a former student summons him to his country estate with hints of even stranger occurrences. Tiggs' party is set upon by huge saber-cats while crossing the mountains and escapes only by the insane bravery of a fellow passenger, Hilltop, and the timely arrival of a mastodon caravan.
The student reports having seen a winged man of foul aspect shortly after the theft of a singular heirloom: two tablets of glowing metal, etched with indecipherable lettering. Tiggs, perusing a transcription, realizes the tablets are a relic of vanished Etruria, the enigmatic nation that once ruled Rome only to be conquered by it. The artifact somehow survived the catastrophe of the Sundering, which destroyed most of the Earth over a century ago.
At this point, Hilltop admits he is himself an Etruscan relic, one of three city-kings to whom Apollo granted immortality. He explains that the winged man is a demon, the keeper of the dead. Another beneficiary of Apollo's gift, called Hunter, invoked him using the inscription on the tablets. His plan is apparently to release the Etruscan dead, who will then resume rule over the surviving cities of the world.
The tablets, however, have been stolen again from Hunter. Neither immortal can find them to control the demon, who returns to terrorize the city. Its luckless populace is powerless before the primordial fiend.
Smoking jackets and mastodons
Dark Sleeper is a wry, character-driven Dickensian melodrama that happens to feature fantastic elements -- though for the good citizens of Salthead, mastodons are just proud transport animals, and huge saber-cats are just one of the dangers you risk in the mountains. More peculiar are the eerie visitations from dead folk and the opaque activities of two new arrivals, not to mention the leather-winged apparition who turns out to be Apollo's familiar.
The novel is shot through with familiar Victoriana -- sitting rooms, ostlers, dog carts, clever rogues, stern tapmistresses and the like. Yet Barlough manages to convey an impression of having invented all of these things out of the whole cloth, and then invited his readers to find our world similar to his. In his seamlessly integrated panorama, 19th-century characters can encounter Paleolithic monsters and Etruscan demons with equanimity.
This vivid environment begets colorful individuals. Many, of course, conceal unexpected surprises (being an immortal Italic king is only the most obvious), or are unexpectedly related to someone else, or earn an unexpected comeuppance. Most are more complicated than they appear, like the mute law-clerk, Scribbler, and the crafty bounder, Icks. Their stories mesh together, yet the episodes read like character studies told by way of example. Mr. Tusk is a hard, cruel man -- why, look at how he treats Fiona in this next scene!
Dark Sleeper is told in a deliciously droll tone which does not mock its characters, but leavens the tale with dry Victorian humor. Barlough seems to have a permanent twinkle in his eye, right up to the climax (which has a were-you-paying-attention flavor) and down to Tiggs' self-satisfied cat, Mr. Pumpkin Pie. This novel is sure to delight both the romantic reader and those who enjoy visiting strange worlds very much like our own.
As a student of ancient Rome, I was delighted by the Etruscan angle; no ancient race is better suited to a mystery than these enigmatic early Italians, whose culture, literature and language were a puzzle even to their Roman contemporaries.