by Matthew Hughes
Review by John Berlyne
PS Publishing Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781905834617
Date: Mid 2008 /
Uncorrected proof Copy: A short novel by Matthew Hughes and a worthy addition to his ongoing series of Vancian tales set in the Archonate.
Published by Tor and Warner and the excellent Nightshade Books, Matthew Hughes's Archonate novels have so far only been available to UK readers as imports and only those most intrepid and voracious of readers, those "in the know" will have taken pains to seek these excellent stories out. It's clear to me, having read Hughes's fine short novel Template, brought to us by the ever-forward looking PS Publishing and the first of Hughes's novel length works to be published in these shores, that we've been missing out – big time!
Hughes's Archonate works have been likened to the kind of far future stories typical of Jack Vance, both in their landscape and thematic concerns and Template fits neatly into this comparison –- it is a piece of science fiction that riffs of Vance's own template, old style but by no means old-fashioned.
The central character is Conn Labro, an expert games player, duellist and tactician and indentured from a young age to a gaming house on the transactional world of Thrais. Conn is at the height of his profession, an acknowledged Master, challenged by folks from all over "The Spray" (of inhabited planets) who wish to test their skills against him. Invariably they lose. Having known nothing but a regimented life of servitude, Conn one day discovers his only true friend has been murdered. Shortly after this, his boss and owner is assassinated and Conn finds himself suddenly the master of his own destiny, and to his surprise his late friend has not only left him enough money to buy himself out of his contract, but also the deeds to a mystery off world property.
All this provides excellent thrust for this short and neatly constructed novel. Hughes sets up a solid and believable protagonist, assigns him a strong but flawed sense of self, hands him a mystery to solve and packs him off on an adventure. In addition there is a constant antagonist threat to his safety and he is accompanied by a young woman, Jenore, who ably acts as his guide. Her presence is vital to the story, as Conn for all his physical prowess is an innocent abroad, socially inept and with no knowledge or understanding of the universe at large. The story then, aside from being a mystery, is also a comment on our attitudes to societal viewpoints and customs that differ from our own. Not everyone sees the world as we do and how we perceive and treat others is, Hughes posits, one of the defining things about ourselves.
Hughes deftly weaves some worthy and intelligent substance into to the fabric of his story. This is much more than a tale of mere action and reaction –- there is thought at work here too. Template moves forward with precision and consistency and one feels that the characters learn something in consequence of their actions, or, significantly, their inactions. The balance between the theme and event is finely tuned by Hughes throughout and his setting, so well defined already in his published works, provides an endlessly fascinating backdrop.
Template is released in two states – a trade hardcover, limited to 500 copies signed by Hughes, and 200 slip cased copies signed by both the author and Jay Lake who provided the introduction.