I’m working my way more-or-less backwards through Matthew Hughes’ tales of the Archonate, his far-future galactic society which is marked more by his own wry and whimsical turn of phrase than anything in the setting itself. Black Brillion is the tale of Baro Harkless, rookies member of the Scrutinizers (or “Scroots”) who follows the con man Luff Imbry as Imbry tries to pull a job in an unusual city on Old Earth. As is Hughes’ tendency, the opening sequence is merely a lead-in to the main story (not unlike the pattern in the James Bond movies): Baro’s success in arresting Imbry and others leads to his being instated as a full officer, but his boss, Ardmander Arboghast, quickly sends Baro off on a new assignment with a new partner – Luff Imbry, himself now a fully-deputised Scroot. Their mission is to capture another con man, Horslan Gebbling, whom Imbry once worked with, who’s apparently working a scheme to separate sufferers of an affliction known as the lassitude from their money, claiming to be able to cure them while on a voyage across a wasteland known as the Swept.
One of their fellow passengers is a an named Guth Bander, a Nöonaut, able to enter the Commons, the manifestation of the collective unconscious of mankind. Baro finds himself intrigued by the notion, and even finds that he has an unusual talent for entering the Commons, drawn by the archetypal entities that dwell there into accomplishing some task. All of this greatly alarms Bandar, who is keenly aware of the dangers in the Commons and in interacting with the archetypes. Baro finds himself torn between his mission – and following in his father’s footsteps – and his sudden new calling in the Commons.
While the story is largely that of Baro Harkless, a coming-of-age and a journey of personal discovery, Luff Imbry often overshadows the young man. Hughes does a masterful job of contrasting the inexperienced and rule-bound Baro with the worldly and clever Imbry. Indeed, while Baro comes into his own by the end of the novel, if Hughes were to write more novels about one of these characters, I’d rather see how Imbry develops as a man of the law who’s spent most of his life on the other side of it. (Of course, the character Hughes actually wrote a novel about is Guth Bandar, which I’ll cover shortly in another review.)
The plot itself is both interesting and peculiar: The pursuit of Gebbling develops into a much more serious scenario which threatens all of Old Earth itself, and that Hughes makes this transition naturally is impressive stuff. On the other hand, the introduction of the Commons and the degree to which it dominates the second half of the story is a very strange departure from the straightforward police investigation the book starts out as. It feels like a big distraction until it ends up playing a key role in the resolution of the case. It makes the book feel like a bit of a patchwork, though, but the focus on Baro’s feelings about his father and his efforts to find where he belongs in life makes it work in the end.
While not as ambitious as Hughes’ later novels starring the detective Henghis Hapthorn, Black Brillion is still a fun romp. (Although the title bears only a passing resemblance to the story; perhaps not the best choice for the book.) Overall this is actually a fine introduction to Hughes’ Archonate universe, and his writing style overall.