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The Damned Busters by Matthew Hughes

Back in the 1990s, I read a very good book in the style of Jack Vance. Fools Errant and its author Matthew Hughes stuck in my memory and once he began appearing in print more regularly, I ended up with all his Vancean books in my collection. It’s therefore interesting to read him in a style that I take to be closer to his natural voice.

The question with which to start this review is the deceptively simple, “what makes a good book?” For me, the rather complicated answer begins with the quality of the story. It has to have an interesting premise and then explore the implications of that premise in a logical way — or, if not a logical way, then a way that’s credible given the characters and the situation in which they find themselves. As you will understand, this is not necessarily a feature that will guarantee the book bestseller status. Too often books hyped to the top of lists like that run by the New York Times are populist drivel that somehow manage to appeal to a mass market lowest common denominator. When such books are read by their fans, they feel an emotional intensity to keep turning the pages. They feel a minor tragedy has occurred when the final page has turned. They look around in desperation for the next in the series — think Rowling and the schoolboy magic books, Dan Brown and the Robert Langdon books, and so on. The test is being wise after the event. How many books from the nineteen-fifties or earlier are still read today? It takes an outstanding book to transcend the limitations of its own time and appeal to readers who inhabit a new culture. Fad books rarely last more than a year or so.

Matthew Hughes — a man not afraid to show his age

So the book has to be a good plot with universal implications, and it must be well written. This is all highly subjective because the prose styles I may like may be the ones you hate the most. For me, the test is somewhat like sticking litmus paper into the book. If it’s good, a light comes on when I start to read and it illuminates the experience of devouring each page. As someone who writes, I declare a very good book when I smile and wish I could write that well.

With all this hype fresh in our minds, we come to The Damned Busters (Angry Robot, 2011) by the aforesaid Matthew Hughes. This is the first in a new series, appropriately titled To Hell & Back — pleasing we can hope for redemption. Now I’m not going to tell you this is a new classic of literature that awed people will be reading in a hundred years. It’s not going to be ranked as Earth-shattering (more’s the pity). Nevertheless this is very good of its type. Indeed, it almost does everything right. There are only two real problems. The first is that I’m less than convinced by some of the cause and effect, and some of the characterisation is a little on the superficial side. Now you could say that fantasy is never intended to have literary pretensions. Indeed, the fact Matthew Hughes actually serves up characters you can distinguish one from the other is a big improvement over the usual stuff where generic cardboard cut-outs are moved around the plot to suit the convenience of the author.

Anyway, let’s start with the technical stuff. This is a tale with metafiction overtones as various characters debate with themselves (and us) whether they are characters in a story. The point of the discussion is the possibility that, once they recognise their status, they might be able to influence the author into changing the outcomes in their favour. Indeed, they even talk about the possibility of hijacking the story and writing their own endings. This gives us a pleasing vehicle for the discussion of free will and predestination. Some characters start with no real understanding of who they are nor what they think. They are simply the author’s pawns who do his bidding without having to think. Yet, as the story progresses, some of these cyphers accumulate more heft. By the time the book finishes those few have actually begun to think for themselves, albeit only in a rudimentary way. This is not to say they have achieved free will, but their ability to take some control over and responsibility for their actions has improved.

As to the plot: the excellent cover art by Tom Gauld depicts our hero who, through no obvious fault on his part, summons a demon. In the traditional way, Hell’s representative offers the usual terms: your heart’s desires in return for your soul. Except our hero is not tempted and just wants the demon to go away. After some contortions of logic to get the plot underway, a grand compromise is reached. Our hero will get some powers sufficient to enable him to act as a caped crusader of the crime-busting ilk without having to give up his soul. But, as soon as he starts with the rescue of a damsel in distress, he discovers there’s more to this vigilante game than he had imagined. Worse, he soon begins to suspect he’s being manipulated. Perhaps Hell is being less than honest — a not entirely surprising possibility — or is Heaven trying to push him in a direction to suit its agenda? Once you get into the paranoia, it’s easy to see how his altruism might be seduced into prideful excess, how his innocence might be lost to lust, and so on.

Taken as a whole, I found The Damned Busters one of the best fantasy books of the year so far. Matthew Hughes has fun in chasing down all the wrinkles in the plot and then ironing them into creases we can all appreciate for their neatness. I admit to being excessively hard by saying some of the characterisation is a little superficial. Once you accept the metafictional conceit, this is a necessary device. The characters without free will cannot be anything other than two-dimensional. As to the slightly dodgy cause and effect, this is again justified by the metafiction. No matter how perfect the author may hope to be, there’s no guarantee the results will be perfect every time. That’s why we write a draft and then revise it until we are not completely unhappy with the text. In the process, the actions of the characters may have completely changed — a phenomenon that would be completely disorienting to those characters if they were conscious.

The Damned Busters is definitely recommended to all (even those committed Evangelicals who don’t like the name of their God taken in vain — this may not be “the” Good Book but it’s certainly “a” good book).

For reviews of all the book by Matthew Hughes, see
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent
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  1. July 19, 2012 at 1:50 am

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