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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
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