Dan Blum (tool_of_satan) wrote,
Dan Blum

In which I sell out

I had been thinking, in a vague sort of way, that I might post about the fiction of Matthew Hughes, since I had been reading a fair amount of it. Would I have overcome my natural indolence to actually do so? Possibly, but it was not the way the smart money would have bet. However, when I saw that Hughes was giving away books to people who blogged about his work, I leapt into action. (Or more accurately, I waited three weeks and then leapt into action. It does not do to be too hasty.)

So now we have established that I can be bought. On the other hand, my rates are quite reasonable (even more reasonable when you consider I will probably get a book I already own).

Hughes has been writing since at least 1994, but I don't recall noticing him until his novel Black Brillion was published in 2004. It got a decent review in Locus and I made a mental note of it, but I have mental notes of lots of things.

Last year I came across a game (you knew games would come into this at some point, right?) called King Coal, and I was trying to determine who designed it. It looked as if it might be Hughes, so I e-mailed him to ask, and it was. This spurred me to actually get around to reading his books. (I am bound to say that, while the game has some good ideas, such as global economic changes reminiscent of those in Crude/McMulti, it doesn't look to be too successful as a whole.)

It's difficult to discuss Hughes' work without referring to the work of Jack Vance, specifically his Dying Earth books. Vance is a science fiction and fantasy writer of considerable importance (he has also written in other genres), particularly to those who like works with a distinctive prose style. In the 1950s he started writing stories set in the Dying Earth - a baroque, fantastical Earth in its last age (well-defined "ages" are a feature of the setting), circling a dim red Sun, and ruled more by magic than logic. Even the magic is dying - wizards struggle to learn spells invented in prior ages, and can hold just a few in mind at once due to their relatively poor abilities.

(If you've ever played D&D, now you know where Gygax and/or Arneson got their magic system. The spell names they use are frequently Vancean as well. This is why the D&D magic system matches the Tolkienesque remainder of the setting so poorly.)

Vance published four Dying Earth books - two collections of stories (some linked), one fix-up novel, and one straight novel (at least, I don't believe Cugel's Saga was originally published as separate stories). They, or at least the earlier books and stories, are considered classics. There's a lot to that, but I only really liked the first two books, The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld (yes, this is where NetHack got the name). The problem is that Vance's world has a decided nasty streak. Some of the stories in The Dying Earth get very nasty indeed (I'm thinking of "Liane the Wayfarer" here), but they're short stories - evil can be interesting at such a length, particularly when presented in Vance's trademark dry and very correct style (with few exceptions, everyone is very polite to one another, which can be very amusing in a dark way). The Eyes of the Overworld is longer, but the protagonist (Cugel, a decided antihero) has some redeeming qualities and generally has some justification for acting badly. So, I am able to enjoy it.

However, in Cugel's Saga, Cugel matches his antagonists to such a degree that the second time I read it (the first was many years ago) I began wishing Vance would kill everyone off and fill the rest of the book with some other story. The stories in Rhialto the Marvellous, while not as bad, produce something of the same effect on me - all the characters are either such snobs or so vile, or both, that I find it hard to care what happens to them.

This brings us (finally!) to Matt Hughes. Most of Hughes' work so far has been set in the Archonate, which is a sort of Dying Earth homage. Specifically, the Archonate world is the Dying Earth, but in its penultimate age, where logic rules over magic. While it's at the end of this age, so that magic is important in many of the Archonate stories, it's still supposed to be thousands if not millions of years before Vance's stories take place, so there are no characters, places, or objects in common between them. Instead they share concepts and atmosphere, although the Archonate is much less decayed than Vance's setting.

Hughes also writes in a style sometimes reminiscent of Vance's (it's more so in some books than others), but it's not close enough to be called an imitation. Now, one could certainly consider that the similarity of both setting and style does make the books too imitative of Vance to be worth serious consideration, but I would argue against this view. For one thing, they have interesting things to say in their own right. For another, Hughes has put enough originality into the books to satisfy any reasonable reader. He therefore avoids being filed with the Tolkien imitators of yore who had nothing interesting to say except what Tolkien had already said (I'm looking straight at Terry Brooks here).

A key difference between Hughes and Vance is that Hughes' world is not quite so cynical. His protagonists are flawed, but reasonably sympathetic. For example, Filidor Vesh is the nephew of the Archon (the ruler of the world, in a low-key sort of way), and is dissolute and relatively useless at the start of Fools Errant, the first novel about him. However, he improves with experience in both that book and Fool Me Twice. The books are picaresques and we consequently get to see a fair amount of Hughes' world, and a goodly number of droll inventions (such as the troupes of actors who put on "plays" which are actually well-worn jokes from our time).

Hughes' next book was Black Brillion, in which the protagonist is Baro Harkless, an agent of the Bureau of Scrutiny, the Archonate's equivalent of the FBI. Harkless is a young agent who is rather naive and not as good at his job as he thinks he is, but like Filidor he does learn from experience. The book is enlivened by the other main character, Luff Imbrey, a confidence trickster who ends up working with Harkless. The story here has a typical mystery structure, with the events being investigated naturally turning out to have more import than first suspected.

After that Hughes published The Gist Hunter and Other Stories. This book contains some non-Archonate stories, which are fine, but I find it more interesting for the sets about two recurring characters. One is Hengis Hapthorn, the Archonate's best freelance discriminator - essentially a private detective. The other is Guth Bandar, a merchant who dabbles extensively in the Commons, which is Jung's collective unconsciousness made nearly concrete - people trained in the proper techniques can mentally explore landscapes filled with archetypes from all Earth's legends and history, and see the archetypal stories played out.

The Hapthorn stories are decent, but they are mysteries and I think that Hughes does better with mysteries at novel length. Fortunately he has written two Hapthorn novels - Majestrum and The Spiral Labyrinth. I haven't read the latter yet, but I have read the former and it's quite good. Hapthorn has a rather large ego, but he is actually nearly as smart as he thinks he is, and so is only occasionally made a buffoon of - just enough for the proper humorous effect. It's not critical to read the Hapthorn stories before reading Majestrum - I didn't - but I'd recommend it as certain unusual aspects of Hapthorn's life at the start of the novel will be made clearer.

Hughes has a Guth Bandar novel, The Commons, coming out right about now. I obviously haven't read this yet, but am looking forward to it, as both the Guth Bandar stories in The Gist Hunter and his appearance in Black Brillion are interesting and probably the most original of Hughes' work so far.

The most negative thing I can think of to say about Hughes' writing is that because it has a fairly consistent tone, if that tone doesn't work for you, you probably won't like any of it. While I like the tone I can certainly see it not working for some people, but that's a concomitant of having a distinctive style. A bland style may not bother anyone but it won't attract anyone either.

My only other criticism of what I've read so far is that the Guth Bandar stories appear inconsistent in what they say about when and why he joins his uncle's merchant business. I would consider this a minor issue except that it is strongly implied that it is a major plot point. I am hoping that The Commons will resolve the seeming inconsistencies, or at least give a definitive account of the matter.

(I do have one other criticism, but it's of the way Night Shade Press has packaged the books, rather than of the writing - it annoys me when expensive limited editions of books have written material not in the trade editions, as opposed to just signatures, artwork, etc. The limited edition of Majestrum just has the first chapter of the next novel as a bonus, which is fine [I did buy the thing anyway, but that's my own fault, as I could have checked], but the other Night Shade books have material otherwise unavailable. Oh well.)

If Hughes' work sounds appealing at all, I'd recommend reading either Black Brillion or Fools Errant to start. Fool Me Twice should be read after Fools Errant, and Majestrum should be read after Fool Me Twice (and the new Hapthorn book still later, of course). Fools Errant is the obvious place to start, but the book is not quite as polished as the later works, so Black Brillion (which is fairly independent) is also a good first choice. The Commons might be a good choice as well, although I can't yet say for sure.

The actual best thing to do if you are interested is to read the samples available on Hughes' site. He has posted the first chapters of all the novels mentioned except The Commons, plus "A Little Learning," which is a complete Guth Bandar story. If you don't like any of that, there's no point reading the books.
Tags: books
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