Review: Template

I learned from his previous novels Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice that Matthew Hughes seems to have chosen crafting really high-quality tributes to Jack Vance as his artistic mission (at least when writing SF). As a long-time Vance fan myself I consider this a worthy goal, and in Template (self-published) he does not disappoint.

Conn Labro, an orphan, has lived his entire life as a contract player in one of the great gaming houses of the planet Thrais. His particular expertises center on strategy simulations and personal combat, at both of which he excels. But his life is overturned in a day when the house is destroyed and his only friend – an elderly man named Hallis Tharp with whom he has played games as long as he can remember – is murdered, followed by an attempt on Labro’s own life.

The old man, as it turns out, has left Labro an inheritance – enough money to buy out his indenture from the heirs of Horder’s Unparalleled Gaming Emporium, and an encrypted bearer deed to…something. Now Labro, never given to introspection or even much curiosity, is surrounded by questions. If Tharp wanted him free, why did he not buy Labro’s indenture before he died? What is the bearer deed a key to, and why are people trying to kill him for it? Jenore Morden, the woman from Old Earth who befriended Tharp when he lived in inexplicable poverty, urges him to track down Tharp’s murderers, and despite the rather cold-blooded customs of Thrais Conn feels moved to comply.

Conn has much to learn about himself and his origins. A journey to Old Earth, confrontations with villainy, and a lot of gorgeous Vancian scenery and satisfying hugger-mugger ensue. Hughes really is quite good at this; the effect is much like reading a fifth sixth Demon Princes novel that the master himself never happened to write. And intentionally so, I’m sure. Out of the small category of Vance pastiches (Hayford Pierce’s The Thirteenth Majestral and certain portions of M.A. Foster’s ler trilogy being the first to come to mind) Hughes’s are unequivocally the best I’ve encountered.

If I were the sort of precious snot who writes most lit-fic reviews, it would now be required that I either sniff at the inferiority of imitation and exhort you to go read some real Jack Vance, or adopt some strange contrarian position about Hughes’s writing demonstrating Vance’s inadequacy by improving on it. Because I’m not, I will both recommend Vance and thank Hughes for doing a really creditable job of adopting his style and techniques. Vance was unique and colorful and it is a good thing for SF that color has not been lost to us. I hope we’ll get to enjoy Matthew Hughes’s entertainments for many years to come.

11 thoughts on “Review: Template

  1. What does “hugger-mugger” mean (in this context)? Not a native speaker.

    BTW. shouldn’t this blog entry be in ‘Reviews’ category?

    • >What does “hugger-mugger” mean (in this context)?

      Disorderly conduct, confusion, busy doings. It’s somewhat archaic.

      >BTW. shouldn’t this blog entry be in ‘Reviews’ category?

      Yes, fixed.

  2. Would hurly-burly work? I’ve found it to be slightly less obscure, if equally archaic. I’ve only ever even seen ‘hugger-mugger’ used in one other context before.

  3. Eric,

    Thanks for these reviews! I have discovered a lot of quality SF/F in the last six months due mostly to the PC meltdown and subsequent backlash in and around the SFWA, and the many mentions of excellent work on blogs discussing these events. (It’s a much better spectator sport than watching the Phillies implode again this year – and getting good reading recommendations from the brouhaha is a huge bonus.) Now that there is an enormous amount of indie- and self-published work to read, rather than the traditionally-published stuff put out there by folks whose mission has grown somewhat… confused… in recent years, it’s enormously helpful to have some folks like you out there curating it a little.

  4. I think you mean a sixth Demon Princes novel, since Vance did write five.

    I might look at these. I’ve been a Vance fan for decades, Vance had unbounded creativity in devising human cultures on far worlds and the customs they followed. And he had prose that reminded me of intricately carved wooden bas reliefs, and went down like fine cognac.

    I rather doubt Matt Hughes can match Vance’s prose, but the rest sounds worthy.

    • >I rather doubt Matt Hughes can match Vance’s prose, but the rest sounds worthy.

      No, but then Vance sometimes didn’t match Vance’s prose. The ranges overlap.

  5. @ esr

    It seems worse than a smack habit.

    I found out about Christopher Moore. You suggested Terry Pratchett. Now Matthew Hughes and Jack Vance?

    I was running out of authors that I could stand to read. Now I am spending money hand over fist!

    In any case, I do really appreciate your suggestions and reviews.

  6. Since I’m a major Vance fan, I’ll give even imitation Vance a shot…

    I never cared much for his later fantasy stuff, but his early and mid-career SF is excellent.

    I’ve seen a number of negative reviews of Vance’s work, including a couple for the Demon Princes and Tschai books that basically boiled down to “WTF?” Though I admit Vance’s intricate style can take some getting used to, I expect the reviewers were expecting the novels to meet some formulaic pattern they were looking for, and they were upset when they didn’t fit.

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