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.