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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
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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
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