A Tangle in Slops - Jeffrey E. Barlough There’s no better way to introduce a novice to the setting of Jeffrey Barlough’s Western Lights series than to quote liberally from the “About the Series” section at the end of the book:

Imagine a world in which the last Ice Age never ended.

With much of her territory locked up with ice, medieval England was forced to seek a more habitable clime for her growing population. From every port, merchant-adventurers in their tall ships set sail to scour the earth for a new home. Amongst the places they came to was the land we know as North America. There they found a vast continent untouched by man – a wild, mysterious realm….
Then in the year 1839, everything changed. It was the year of the “sundering”, a cataclysmic event which some attributed to a comet or meteor strike, or a volcanic eruption of unprecedented violence – or was it perhaps something else? Irrespective of the cause, most life on earth was obliterated, and the world plunged into an even deeper Ice Age….

It has been some century and a half now since the sundering, and up and down the long coast life goes on. Victorian society, little changed since 1839, abides in her sundered realm with its array of fearsome monsters, marooned and alone, and a prey to powers even mightier than those of the wilderness that surrounds her – the powers of magic and the supernatural.
(pp. 349-50)

A Tangle in Slops is the sixth book in the series and a credible addition (though by far the best installment remains the viscerally horrifying second volume, The House in the High Wood). Like its siblings, this book is a standalone; you don’t have to have read any previous to get into the fascinating world of post-sundering North America. The story revolves around the mysterious disappearance (and presumed death) of Magnus Trefoil of Orkney Farm, the head of one of Slopshire’s more prominent families. While ensconced within his study one evening, a great ground sloth (the, in our world, extinct Mylodon) burst into the room and carried him off. In the eyes of the common folk, most volubly presented in the form of Orkney Farm’s housekeeper Noola, it’s a result of Magnus’ research into the treasures of the long dead witch Tronda Quickensbog, which he had discovered recently. The witch’s spirit is angered and has placed the Trefoil family under a curse. The family – Igneus Trefoil and the cousins Ada and Guy Henslowe – and others, including the learned Rector Crowstep of Plumley St. Olave, aren’t so sure but are dumbfounded as to what the source of the family’s troubles could be. And Magnus’ young daughter Mary is certain he’s soon to return (for reasons that will be revealed).

As usual, Barlough creates a distinctive cast of characters. Among them the aforementioned Rector Crowstep; his wife Dolly; the Trefoils and their cousins; the sexton Grub Crawley; Orkney Farm’s domestic help (see “Noola” above but also Phaestus Gaggle and Mr. Ginger, among others); the spaniel Tramper: the farm’s horses Sunbeam & Pistachio, and Mary’s pony Jack Nag; the squirrels Odilon, Ponder & MacNut; and the mysterious tramp Jingling Jock. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, I haven’t mentioned (and won’t) the denizens of the local pub or the hermitage.

The narrator of all this is Watty Pippins, an orphan taken in by Magnus who’s Mary’s age but has his own secrets.

As with the last few entries in the series, Barlough emphasizes the humor of the situation and the “bad guys” turn out to be not so bad in the end. It’s an enjoyable, if rambling, romp but I do wish he would return to the harder edges of the Sundered Realm found in the first three books.

I did like the ending, however (and I won’t be spoiling anything to quote it here):

There are strange chords in the human heart, I have found, that have no counterparts there. For there is no suffering without feeling, but also no bliss. It is no easy road, and we all must pay the kain, as the saying goes….

But I am reconciled to my lot. For I’ve discovered, over the course of years, that one hardly ever knows what it is one wants in this life. Nearer objects never appear as attractive as those more distant. What we seek seems always to be over the next hill, or round the next corner, and never in front of us. Too soon, then, this life is done – over – reduced to nothing but pages in the past, no line erasable, no line addible forever. The old ways have no place in such a world as this.

For the old ways, you know, were better.
(p. 325)

NB: Included in this book is a children’s story called “Ebenezer Crackernut,” the tale of a miserly squirrel who discovers the value of friends and generosity.