Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Hughes’

Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes

September 8, 2013 1 comment

hell-to-pay

Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes (Angry Robot Books, 2013) is the third and final episode in the To Hell and Back series. I guess that makes it a trilogy although, when it comes to writing the book, you can get different ideas about how many copies there are in each edition and, at the discretion of the characters, earlier books in the series can be rewritten or, if things are not going so well, more books can be added until the plot comes out to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s the big advantage when the whole point of the series is that God and the Devil are sitting down together in the Garden of Eden with a labour lawyer turned pastor acting as referee and editor-in-chief to get a draft of the “book” both can agree on. Once the book gets into the final draft, all this uncertainty can be swept away and the world will be a better place (or not if a compromise or two has to be made made to placate the Devil). From this, you should understand this is a trilogy that fails to take the Christian religion seriously. This makes it convenient to compare this to the Sandman Slim serial by Richard Kadrey.

Initially, you might think them thematically similar in that both play with the ideas that God might not be quite so decisive and all-powerful as the literalists would choose to believe with the Devil and his minions slightly less unpleasant than Pieter Brueghel the Younger and others have been painting them. But there’s a radical difference in tone. In the nicest possible way, I’d describe Kadrey as a thoughtful badass from LA whereas Hughes is an essential rather nice man with roots in Canada and Britain, a combination giving him a rather more mellow view of the world and its afterlife. Although they are both comedic in outlook, there’s a rather more relentless quality to Sandman Slim thanks to his mixed parentage, whereas Chesney Arnstruther is less competent. This is not Chesney’s fault. He was born with a form of autism so the usual socialisation fails to take and leaves him unable to relate to the world. Fortunately, he’s wonderful with numbers. Had his lack of empathy more profound, we might perhaps have classified him as an idiot savant. As it is, he’s an innocent Everyman with dreams that, one day, he can become a superhero. The result of a compromise deal when he turns down the usual offer of fringe benefits from the sale of a soul, are great fun — definitely not in the same ballpark as Sandman when he starts to kill.

Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes

On balance, Matthew wins. First he knows when to stop. He had a three book deal and does a terrific job in constructing a very elegant plot which plays through all the arguments about the nature of good and evil, and comes to a genuinely surprising conclusion. This is undoubtedly the right place to stop, but the Kadrey juggernaut rumbles on through the plot variations as if there’s no place he can’t take his characters. Second, the humour in Matthew’s books is a deft way of puncturing the bubble of hypocrisy that tends to envelope the religion “thing”. He sneaks up on some profound questions and has you into the debate before you realise the enormity of what he’s suggesting. Kadrey has the Sandman shoot and maim but, as a character, he’s not the greatest thinker. I suppose all this is doing is reveal a cultural preference for the style of humour closest to my own. Finally, there’s the question of the plot. Matthew’s primary concern is the nature of empathy and how it colours our relationship with the world. If selfishness prevailed, the general notion of fairness in interpersonal relationships would disappear. So the angels are on a need-to-know basis and the lower orders of Hell do what they are told. Their world is literally ordered. Only humans have free will but, even within the human race, we have variations like sociopaths and those suffering from autism. In other words, humans don’t always come out of the mould quite as they should.

In a way that’s why Chesney is good at relating to the junior devil allocated to him. They both end up interested in exploring the limits of what they can and cannot feel or do. In theory the devil is limited by the instruction rule book for Hellions, but it turns out there are nearly always loopholes. Chesney ought to be constrained by the laws of physics and human laws but, when you have a devil prepared to bend things around a little, the human can also get superhero things done. In the end it turns out every one in the plot is fallible. Even the Devil and God are forced to admit they haven’t got it right (whatever “it” is). That’s why they are in the Garden of Eden negotiating. Except, in a way, that means they have both taken their eyes off the ball. Chesney and other players are still loose in the world and can continue bending “things” even further out of shape. This final volume builds up to a pleasing metafictional climax in an alternate universe where God was trying out a different approach before our current reality. It’s great fun.

I note the coincidence of a mouse in this final volume who has a question — I was reminded of Douglas Adams in a good way. Overall, Hell to Pay is a very satisfying conclusion to an immensely pleasing trilogy. I suspect even Christians would enjoy it if they could only get past the idea of reading some irreverent.

I note another nice illustration of key plot elements in the excellent cover art by Tom Gauld.

For all the reviews of books by Matthew Hughes, see:
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent
Template.

Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews

August 3, 2012 17 comments

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
Template.

Costume Not Included by Matthew Hughes

July 31, 2012 1 comment

Once again, I’m pitching into a book on religious themes and need to remind people that I’m an atheist and so you may detect bias in this review. When you read a book that advertises itself as the first in a new series, there’s always that moment of doubt when you come to the second book. Will the author manage the difficult trick of maintaining the standard of the first while moving us forward? Being born decades ago, the world of entertainment was dominated by the cinema and recording studios. If a Western hit the box office for a big take, Hollywood would immediately churn out half-a-dozen, hoping to catch the wave. If a singer or group blasted to Number 1 in the Hit Parade with the first single, the second would, more often than not, be a clone of the first. Indeed, other singers and groups would be looking to copy the track without actually infringing copyright. Think “Do You Love Me” as recorded by The Contours suddenly featured in the repertoire of Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, the Dave Clark Five and The Hollies. This is not a hundred miles from “Twist and Shout” which started off its life as “Shake It Up, Baby” recorded by The Isley Brothers, but was more successful when The Beatles recorded it. Which just goes to show that if someone, somewhere has a good idea, there are hundreds willing to jump on the bandwagon and thrash it to death.

Anyway, The Damned Busters by Matthew Hughes, To Hell & Back Book I was a very good book published last year and, as I might have predicted, it failed to win any prizes. This just goes to show I’m an infallible judge. No matter how well an author manages to hit the target with a fantasy book dealing with the sometimes fraught relationship between Heaven, Hell and humans on Earth, it’s going to offend all the Christians who have no sense of humour (probably most of them), and not appeal to the secularists because they don’t read books with religious themes — they act like reformed alcoholics being invited to read reviews of the latest crop of new French wines. So here we go with Costume Not Included (Angry Robot, 2012), the continuing struggles of Chesney Arnstruther to avoid his mother’s baleful influence while living the unassuming life of an actuary during the day and a caped crime fighter at night. Now we’ve got beyond the basic set-up with his demonic sidekick Xaphan to stage-manage the detection and apprehension bits for the maximum impact, it’s on to the announcement that his potential father-in-law Billy Lee Hardacre wants to proclaim Chesney as the next prophet, if not the Messiah. This does not exactly sit well with our hero, if that’s what he is. He feels fighting crime is quite enough excitement in his life. Except circumstances seem to be conspiring against his desire to have a quiet life.

Matthew Hughes producing the Klingon look just by thinking

This is hugely (the almost pun is intended) enjoyable on so many different levels. As a character, Chesney has lived in the shadow of autism all his life, having to learn how to read people and, where appropriate, simulate the right social responses to situations. He’s really only felt comfortable in solving mathematical problems. Manipulating numbers gives him certainty even when he’s modelling probabilities, i.e. trying to measure uncertainty. This has made him outstanding as an actuary but held back his career because he’s never been able to make and keep acquaintances, let alone friends. In the first book, he was increasingly forced out of his comfort zone and now finds himself in even more confusing waters. Yet, this time, his confidence in his ability to think has been boosted by the arrival of his first girlfriend and, by a stroke of good fortune, he also meets someone else with a healing touch. It’s a delight to watch him slowly open out and join the human race.

The second feature is the wonderful metafiction. Billy Lee Hardacre’s entire religious ministry is based on the notion that everyone from the angels to the lowest demons (and all the humans in between) are just characters in the book God is writing. With this in mind, he sets off to bend reality in his direction by writing a new “book”. In this worthy task, he’s helped by an angel. It seems God might be delegating some of the basic creativity to Billy Lee. Now all the new puppet master has to do is get Chesney to play ball and the world will soon be headed in the “right” direction. Except, of course, Billy Lee remains a character in God’s book and Satan might also have literary ambitions. In this Matthew Hughes has managed to construct one of these delightful wheels-within-wheels plots where all the major characters may shift in status from hero to cardboard cutout depending on who happens to be doing the writing. In many ways, it doesn’t matter who’s pulling the strings at any one time. The entire exercise is simple, unalloyed fun from start to finish.

I’m now going to repeat myself from the first review. Costume Not Included may not be “the” Good Book, but, as the second in this series, it’s certainly “a” good book that not only continues the themes of the first, but enriches them and moves us to a point where, instead of being a Batman, Chesney needs to become a one-man FEMA, such is the scale of the potential disaster left as a cliffhanger. Roll on Book III, preferably sooner rather than later. In this, note another nice illustration of key plot elements in the excellent cover art by Tom Gauld.

For all the reviews of books by Matthew Hughes, see:
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent
Template.

The Other by Matthew Hughes

April 20, 2012 1 comment

In the dim and distant past when it was customary for a society to be divided rigidly into a class system, those in a subservient position were routinely called upon to demonstrate their loyalty and respect for those in a superior position through acts of homage. This could be a simple declaration acknowledging the others’ superiority, or it might be through some artistic endeavour. Poets would craft verses, playwrights would create dramas, and all who read or heard would understand who the heroes were intended to be. The artists were the most supine, always showing their betters with bulging muscles and wisdom shooting out of their heads like a halo. For the record, the word ‘homage’ derives from the French homme meaning man. Somehow patriarchal societies always had men at the top of the pecking order. When women were depicted, it was always in contexts showing them as one of the most prized possessions owned by the lord and master (although there were occasional subversive outbreaks like Lysistrata by Aristophanes). In more modern contexts, young artists show respect for well-established veterans by creating something to celebrate the latters’ greatness.

In such a role, Matthew Hughes wrote Fools Errant which is what we in the trade like to call Vancean, i.e. it’s written in the style associated with Jack Vance, one of the “old masters” and follows in the same universe as, but set slightly earlier than, Vance’s Dying Earth. By any standards, Fools Errant is a great book. Indeed, the two books that follow, Fool Me Twice and Black Brillion, maintain a good standard, the latter introducing us to Luff Imbry, a criminal of no mean ability who’s recruited into the Bureau of Scrutiny to help track down his former partner-in-crime, Horselyn Gebbling. But there comes a point when we have to stop dealing with these books as a homage or pastiche. We have to value Matthew Hughes as an author in his own right. Indeed, for the younger reader, this is essential. Although people of my generation grew up with Jack Vance and revere his memory, not so many people today read him. So, to label today’s books as Vancean is not so meaningful. The issue is whether this book is good enough to be considered Hughesean.

Matthew Hughes looking forward to his next mug of punge

The good news is that Matthew Hughes is an accomplished author and, in The Other (Underland Press, 2011), he manages to bring a very sophisticated idea to the page. With the need to avoid spoilers uppermost in my mind, I must approach this obliquely. Let’s assume a society in which there’s some fundamental disagreement. There are two standard ploys for the leadership to apply. The first is to redefine the ‘us’ and ‘them’ in a way that scapegoats them as responsible for all the ills of society. This motivates us to unite against them and positively assert the rightness of our position. Assuming we control the law-making and enforcement mechanisms, we can suppress them and rise to dominance. But if this is threatening a civil war we might lose, we could try to stir up a foreign aggressor. This appeals to the nationalism of us and them, and so produces a united front against the external threat. In other words, just as we need light to appreciate its opposite dark, society often needs the concept of “the other” to maintain unity or to persuade the majority of the legitimacy of a given course of action.

This book sees the return of Luff Imbry who’s kidnapped and dumped on a rather strange world. In the usual way, our hero must therefore wander round and see whatever is to be seen. This will trigger thought and, as time passes, there will be a need for action. But, as our hero is somewhat corpulent, the action should be as stately as possible. Unfortunately, although The Other starts very well, it goes into slow-motion for the first third. Several passages of ratiocination are rewritten without advancing understanding very far. However, once we are over the initial hump, we have some vintage Hughes. The point is not so much the unravelling of the puzzle — it’s fairly obvious what the major physical outcome is going to be — but to see how the underlying philosophical theme is allowed to play out. The final analysis by Luff is a joy and presents a distinctly unexpected hypothesis for the motives of all those who contributed to the outcome. The only uncertainty remaining is the motivation of the original kidnapper. I suppose this will be explored in the next exciting instalment.

So, taking the longer view, The Other is a very good book, marred only by excessive padding in the first third. This is definitely worth reading by everyone who enjoys thoughtful science fiction with a wry sense of humour about the people who may have shared life together in a distant future.

The Other by Matthew Hughes was shortlisted for the P K Dick Award 2012.

For reviews of other books by Matthew Hughes, see:
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent
Template

The Damned Busters by Matthew Hughes

August 15, 2011 1 comment

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
Template.

Template by Matthew Hughes

Never one to be shy, my Grandmother’s lexicon of bon mots occasionally brought shades of dark violence into the home. As indicated in an earlier post, one of my favourites was, “The things you see when you haven’t got your gun.” She had been brought up in the houses of the well-to-do in Victorian Yorkshire. The Dales were dotted with old colonels who retreated into their smoking rooms or studies to bask under the baleful eyes of all the animals they had shot while serving abroad. No self-respecting officer could ever come home from an overseas posting without a wall full of heads. Yet, in the tradition of fishermen who always tell stories of the one that got away, so officers would tell of the fierce creatures they would have shot had they had the chance. All this came to mind the other day as my wife and I were sitting in the shade outside a local coffeeshop. A young lady walked by. She attracted attention because, in the mid-afternoon sun, her dress was almost completely transparent. She seemed not to care that every eye, male and female alike, followed her confident stride. This was a woman at peace with who she was. With no British colonels around, she was safe.

In fictional worlds, it is a somewhat tired trope that heroes, uncertain of their ancestry, should set out on a quest to determine their identity. A recent example of this is Template by Matthew Hughes who is ploughing the same furrow as Jack Vance with some success. I confess to being a major Vance fan, and a mild fan of the Hughes/Vancean style. The problem with overtly maintaining a style is that, over time, it pales by comparison with the original. Jack is always Jack even when he is past his best, which he was in the last published effort. You forgive an old man these parting gestures because of the oeuvre he leaves behind. He is original to the end. Hughes, however, grows somewhat repetitive. The early works, Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice, are the best because he was so obviously having fun. Now that he is stuck in the groove, I have the sense that he is going through the motions.

So it is with this book. It adopts the peregrination or picaresque model as our somewhat roguish hero travels from one world to the next, observing the local cultures and gleaning information that may lead him to his identity. It would have been better at two-thirds the length. The idea underpinning the narrative is reasonable and the execution competent, but he doth protest too much. The message is tired by the time it is delivered and, despite some pallid satire, there is just not quite enough wit and invention to maintain the suspension of disbelief. I wanted it to be good but I was somewhat disappointed.

For reviews of other books by Matthew Hughes, see:
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent
Template