Matthew Hughes,
Black Brillion
(Tor, 2004)

I've been a big fan of Matthew Hughes since reading his Henghis Hapthorn stories in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. When I got the chance to review a copy of his new novel, Black Brillion, I jumped at the chance. Black Brillion shows off more of Hughes' characteristic wit and wonderful ideas in a package that, while at times a little off the beaten path, is still well worth reading.

Black Brillion takes place on "Old Earth," which is what our current planet is called in a universe where space travel and colonization has been going on for centuries. Baro Harkless is an Archonate Bureau of Security trainee, on a mission to capture the elusive swindler Luff Imbrey. Doing so is not the end of the line for Harkless, however. He is quickly elevated out of the training program and given his first mission: to go undercover amongst a group of people sick with "the lassitude," a sickness that eventually leads to catatonia and death. A man who calls himself Father Olwyn claims to have a miracle cure, the mystical "black brillion," but he is in truth the swindler Horselan Gebbling. Unfortunately, Harkless finds out that his partner in this mission is the man he has just incarcerated, Luff Imbrey, former partner of Mr. Gebbling. What results is a journey across a barren wasteland, but also a journey of the mind. One of the persons in the group of hopeful patients and loved ones is a historian (Guth Bandar) who is also a noonaut, one who travels to the dream realm known as the Commons. Baro's exploration of the Commons will have a great effect on his investigation. It will have an even greater effect on his life.

Black Brillion begins as a typical police procedural with a little bit of a twist (though it's been done before). The cop is assigned a criminal to be his partner because the criminal is familiar with who they are hunting. With this rather pedestrian premise as a start, Hughes blows everything up. The book becomes more about the noosphere and Baro's journey inside himself than it is about the actual swindle. Of course, all of it is tied together (it would be a very disjointed book if it wasn't), which does mitigate that fact somewhat. Baro's journeys throughout the Commons, with the Bandar as his somewhat reluctant (and sometimes actively hostile) guide, are usually very interesting, though there are occasions where the journey tends to drag on a bit too long. Hughes uses the Commons to explore common archetypes in fantasy and science fiction: the Hero, Wise Man and others.

Unfortunately, this has the side effect of sidelining Luff throughout much of the latter half of the book, which is a shame as he was my favourite character. When these two characters are together, their points of view clashing like a debate between Bush and Kerry supporters, their dialogue is crackling and the book shows a lot of humour. In fact, most of the humour is between these two characters, making the rest of the book a little dry. Luff continually points out the short cuts that bureau agents have to take in order to get things done (arresting somebody they know is guilty and then finding the evidence, for example) and Baro takes offense at each one of these statements. He's an idealist and he believes that the bureau can do no wrong. It's refreshing in a genre where the "cop" character is usually cynical and the only good person on the force. Luff continually outthinks Baro, which does call into question the seeming ease with which Baro caught him in the first place.

Hughes has created a bunch of other interesting (and somewhat bizarre) characters as possible suspects and/or dupes of Gebbling. All of them have their brief moments in the sun, and the conversations between them make for some nice comedy as well. A couple of them are determined to believe "Father Olwyn's" treatment of chanting different mantras and increasing their "chuffs" will cure them of their lassitude. They contribute to some of the philosophical discussions that Hughes gives us, provide some lighter moments and then disappear as what's really going on begins to manifest itself.

What really makes this novel interesting, though, are the ideas behind it. Hughes turns philosophical a bit, but his most interesting creation is the Commons, a sort of group-mind where people who have the talent can go and access a lot of history. This is where we first learn of the Dree, the aliens who invaded Old Earth many years ago. This is also where Baro explores what has been and finds a way to interact with others who are sleeping and accessing it. This is also where the story drags in places, as some of Baro's journeys aren't as interesting as others and they go on a bit too long. There were times I wished Baro would wake up so we could see Luff again.

Overall, though, Hughes' exploration of his ideas is fascinating stuff. Baro keeps finding himself taking on "The Hero" persona, which continually drives him to do things Bandar insists are too dangerous. The Wise Man works through Baro's mind as well, and many other fictional archetypes are represented as well. Bandar's fear of and reluctance to help Baro as his journeys get more and more dangerous is amusing at times, especially when Bandar insists on sleeping at different times than Baro so that they will not interact in the Commons and Baro will not be able to hijack his dreams.

Black Brillion is a short book that's packed with good stuff. The cover blurbs liken it to Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe. Having not read any of their stories that this book reflects, I can't say whether that's accurate. I do know that it was an enjoyable read in a universe that I would like to visit again.

- Rambles
written by David Roy
published 4 December 2004

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