Home > Books > Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews

Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews

Once more into the breach, dear readers. Yet again, I’m off into gaming territory without a map to explain where the walls are and whether any gaps have been filled with the dead of any of the combatants. I say this without a shred of embarrassment. I’ve been a fairly fanatical game player all my life, but not of fantasy role-playing games. Back in the 1970s, I did conquer one of the earliest D&D games distributed among bored mainframe operations staff — it was more exciting than the work I was supposed to be doing — but apart from accidentally reading a couple of novels based on Forgotten Realms in the 1990s because I was completist on two relevant authors, I’ve avoided further novelisations based on all games for some fifteen years or so. Now completism has produced two books so far this year. The first was Borderlands: The Fallen by John Shirley which is set in an electronic game universe, and now this book based on the Pathfinder RPG. Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews (a transparent pseudonym for Matthew Hughes) allows him to do one of the things he does best which is to write Cugel novels.

At this point, I grovel in apology to Hugh Matthews. I keep promising myself that I’ll stop mentioning Hugh Matthews in the same breath as Jack Vance but, this time, the comparison is unavoidable. Although we’re allowed a relatively diverse group to embark on this quest, the primary character is Krunzle the Quick (on one famous occasion becoming “the Incarcerated”, but he manages to avoid mentioning it to his more recent acquaintances). As befits anyone who’s typecast as a thief, he’s a liar, well-practised in the art of deception, somewhat cowardly, preferring retreat when threatened, and bombastically vain, always believing it important to show himself in the best possible light. In this instance, our antihero’s preference to naming himself “the Quick” is somewhat ironic because he proves incapable of running away when caught by Ippolite Eponion. This cunning merchant leader needs a resourceful agent to recover his daughter, Gyllana, who’s run off with the unsuitable Wolf Berbackian. To add insult to injury, the importunate man has also purloined a valuable artifact. Krunzle is to return both the daughter and the artifact, or die trying. Anticipating that loyalty may not be Krunzle’s strongest point, Eponion has his mage, Thang-Sha, fit a necklace that will enforce directions. In more positive spirit, the wizard also supplies boots that will cross the land at speed and a sword that can only be used in self-defence. Obviously, Krunzle needs to acquire allies to succeed. In this instance, the recruits are a wise older man, a promising young troll and a socialist dwarf.

Matthew Hughes showing how to disguise his name with the least effort

On the way, he confronts an escalating variety of threats starting with a somewhat disorganised ambush by thieves, a mining town run by a corrupt mayor with the support of a local mage, and a large body of orcs who, for once, seem to have overcome their usual lack of intelligence and are now able to produce textbook military manoeuvres in pursuit of apparently well-defined objectives. As you would expect, it all comes down to a major confrontation in the final chapters where all the key players assemble for the inevitable wheat from chaff processing. I don’t think it necessary to give a spoiler alert to announce the survival of Krunzle. He’s left to deliver the last line in the book which is a potentially profitable proposition. Taken overall, there’s a minor cavil. Although Krunzle is the usual strong lead during the first two-thirds of the book, he’s somewhat relegated to the rear during the battle sequence and the ultimate victory, such as it proves, is down to a team effort rather than Krunzle’s unaided efforts. Normally this would not matter too much but, in this instance, none of the other characters are seriously fleshed out. Obviously, the novelist’s usual focus on the antiheroic protagonist has been knocked slightly off course by the dictates of the game structure in which teamwork triumphs over individual skills.

That said, I can confirm this can be read as a free-standing novel. I don’t think my enjoyment was in anyway diminished by never having heard of Pathfinder before today. Although I think this slightly less amusing than some of the earlier Hugh Matthews ventures into Vancean territory, Song of the Serpent maintains a high level of inventiveness right up to the end and is recommended to anyone who enjoys fantasy with a slightly wry sense of humour.

For all the reviews of books by Matthew Hughes, see:
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
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  1. August 3, 2012 at 4:11 am

    Good to know there is a good RPG-novel out there; I tried the Forgotten Realms books years ago, Beautiful world, crappy writers.

    • August 3, 2012 at 4:32 am

      Well, for my sins, I was collecting the work of both Lynn Abbey and Chet Williamson which, if nothing else, shows the triumph of hope over expectation (or something) so, as I said, I read precisely two Forgotten Realms novels before giving up on Lynn Abbey — it turned out she was a good editor but not much good as an author.

  2. August 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    Thank you for a kind review. One cavil of my own: the dwarf is not a socialist, but a fascist, modeled on Mussolini.

    • August 3, 2012 at 5:40 pm

      Sincerest apologies. I suppose this dwarf was getting the trains to run on time. . .

    • August 4, 2012 at 12:07 am

      I always thought fascists were just socialists who believed in national glory.

      • August 4, 2012 at 12:10 am

        Mussolini is credited with the thought, “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”

  3. August 4, 2012 at 1:09 am

    Yes, Musso’s idea of fascism was called the corporate state. Government, big business, the Church, and the military, all in the same room. A long way from socialism.

    • August 4, 2012 at 1:28 am

      In the mandated form we might call State Socialism, the wants and needs of the individual are subordinated and all the affairs of men are managed by the government whether through the agency of big business, the Church or the military. Both systems are predicated on the positive control of the people through the apparatus of the state. Only the terminology of the justifications for that control differ.

  4. August 4, 2012 at 1:35 am

    David Marshall :
    … Both systems are predicated on the positive control of the people through the apparatus of the state. Only the terminology of the justifications for that control differ.

    Except that in socialist democracies, you get to elect the government. So the state is not “them,” but is “we the people.”

    • August 4, 2012 at 1:52 am

      Where the control is real, democracy is only an illusion used to give the people the appearance of a say. The state is run as an oligarchy. In the Western democracies where there’s a full range of political belief represented on the ballot sheet, the factionalism of the people often results in coalition governments which tend to be more centrist than extremist. Curiously, in the USA, I note what seems to be a concerted policy from GOP states to disenfranchise Democratic voters on the pretext of preventing voter fraud. Does this make the GOP anti-democtratic?

      • August 4, 2012 at 2:20 am

        “Seems to be” is the correct term; considering how easy voter-fraud is in many states, securing the integrity of the voter registration rolls and passing reasonable voter ID laws seems a logical move. Securing elections from fraud strengthens democracy; when electoral fraud compromises our faith in the system, radicals get more radical, less willing to take their case to the marketplace and work within the political system.

        BTW, I speak as a libertarian who thinks both parties are guilty of trying to game the system when it seems in their best interests. For example, in the last presidential election Senator Obama broke his pledge not to accept outside funding in his national campaign, and outspent Senator McCain nearly three-to-one to win the presidency. Now that it looks like Romney’s campaign might actually match or beat the size of President Obama’s campaign war-chest, the president’s supporters are screaming about the influence of the money of special interests on politics.

  5. August 4, 2012 at 2:31 am

    David Marshall :
    Curiously, in the USA, I note what seems to be a concerted policy from GOP states to disenfranchise Democratic voters on the pretext of preventing voter fraud. Does this make the GOP anti-democtratic?

    Of course, it does. But that’s the last comment I’ll make on your political system, except to say that viewed from the outside, it’s completely dysfunctional. The rest of the democratic world worries about you folks.

    • August 4, 2012 at 2:47 am

      I’ve sidetracked us away from the issue and may inadvertently have trampled on toes. Picture me offering sincere apologies.

      • August 4, 2012 at 3:14 am

        None needed–it’s an election year; any offhand comment is likely to open a political debate. (Some more appropriate than others. After the Batman shooting, reporters asked Olympic marksmen what they thought about gun control…)

      • August 4, 2012 at 3:22 am

        Talking of shootings, I’m currently watching a Japanese police procedural with SF/fantasy elements which has people aiming to shoot others but suddenly finding the bullets being returned to sender. This is the next review (without any references to Batman, of course).

  6. August 4, 2012 at 3:28 am

    “Return to shooter: address unknown.” I like that.

    • August 4, 2012 at 3:34 am

      I gave a bullet to the chamber,
      I pulled the trigger back.
      Bright the flashes at the mussel,
      as he brought my bullet back.

      He wrote upon it:
      Return to sender, victim unknown.
      No such person, no such zone.
      You had a quarrel, a lover’s spat
      He writes I’m sorry but your bullet’s coming right back.

      Apologies to Elvis.

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