Jeffrey E. Barlough,
Strange Cargo
(Ace, 2004)

I usually start by describing some of the plot, but the storylines are only about a third of this book's considerable charm. So....

This is an alternate history tale, as far as the setting goes. It takes place on Earth, and more precisely in (what is left of) England. But, this Earth had no Ice Age, it was struck by an object (popularly believed to have been a meteor) that caused the Sundering (the seas rose, the land was mostly submerged, cultures lost touch with one another, the climate changed drastically) and humans live side-by-side with mastodons, mammoths, glyptodonts and other creatures that did not perish (because there was no Ice Age). The result is an isolated England that retains much of its past, but has culturally evolved away from what it is (to us).

I am not sure that I have ever read another book populated by this many quirky, interesting, amusing, well-developed characters. These are very realistic people, living in a surreal time. Even their names are colorful, quirky and interesting: Dr. Pinches, Mrs. Matchless, Mr. Threadneedle, Tim Christmas. The characters and writing speak strongly of a Dickensian influence, but are definitely also just plain Jeffrey Barlough's.

There are three, distinct storylines that share some characters and the same setting and time period.

The woes of Ms. Jane Wastefield is what I would call one storyline, wherein a beautiful young woman receives a birthday present that terrifies her father to death and then haunts her every waking moment. How can she be rid of the fiendish thing?! Who can help her? Everyone wants to, but no one seems to know how. Will she succumb? Would defeat be as terrible as she fears? And what about her pet monkey?

The wizarding notions would be a good title for the story-line about Mr. Threadneedle, his apprentice Tim Christmas and whatever they are tinkering with out in the coach house. Can they make it work? Will everyone be shocked? Will anyone believe them, without seeing the finished product? Will Threadneedle find some peace and enjoyment if he succeeds?

The secret of the will is what bothers another set of characters. When rich old Joseph Cargo died, he left most of his estate to his favorite nephew, but who is Jerry Squailes, and why does he get one-fourth of the money? No one knows, and young Frederick Cargo, spurred on by his shrewish wife and aided by their elderly attorney, Mr. Liffey, goes on a mission to uncover the truth. Will they like the truth, when and if they find it? Will that thing kill any of them before they do solve the mystery of Jerry Squailes, the unknown heir?

This book is some of the best escapist reading I have ever found. The world described is so different (but not) and so replete with interesting characters, that it becomes a great place to retreat to. The writing is very detailed, with tremendous development of setting, characters and the interweaving stories. It is truly a fascinating journey to take, and the ending(s) is not how Hollywood or fairy tales would do it, with a panoply of happily-ever-after. However, it is also not depressing. This tale is just plain well done.

This is a very memorable experience that takes you to a different place and tells you an interesting tale about amusing characters.

by Chris McCallister
28 April 2007

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