There are many refreshing things about Matthew Hughes’ novels: The old-style galactic empire feel of the setting, and quirky sense of humor he puts into his writing, and even the brevity of his novels, which pack a lot of ideas and plot into stories typically under 300 pages. Template weighs in at under 200 pages, yet it’s not only one of his best, but it’s an excellent introduction to his Archonate universe.
Conn Labro is a professional duelist on the world of Thrais, and also an indentured servant on a world where everything is for sale. But when his owner and patron is killed, Conn is bought by an off-world consortium – or nearly so, as a man he’s gamed with weekly for his entire life has also been murdered, and willed Conn enough money to pay off his debt. More significantly, he’s given Conn a bearer chip which seems to be what the assassins are after. Accompanied by a woman from Old Earth, Jenore Mordene, Conn leaves Thrais to learn what his friend really left him, but he also finds the galaxy to be a much more diverse place than he’d ever expected.
Template wanders all over the place, and yet it’s a pretty terrific book. Initially I’d summarize Conn Labro as being “a Libertarian Mr. Spock”: His upbringing on Thrais makes him believe that all aspects of human endeavor of transactional, things being bought, sold and exchanged, and that anything else is irrational. Yet every other world is considerably different from Thrais, not least the archipelago on Old Earth where Jenore grew up, which is based around art and lacks monetary currency. Hughes comes up with a nifty way to consider different cultures in the Archonate via a brother and sister who have come up with the idea that every human society is based on one of the seven deadly sins. It’s a fun mental exercise.
Conn’s story is his personal odyssey to learn where he comes from (and why that matters), and where he belongs. So he has to grow emotionally to understand how to relate to other people, and a lot of the suspense comes from him making some poor choices along the way. For much of the book he has Jenore to help guide him and inform him, but eventually he has to control his own destiny. Fortunately he’s not without skills of his own (professional duelist, remember?).
While the book drags a bit in the middle when Conn and Jenore are on Old Earth and the plot doesn’t move forward very much (what does it mean when a book under 200 pages “drags a bit in the middle”?), and one could argue that the cultures Hughes portrays are too simplistic to be plausible, it’s still a really fun story. And besides, Hughes at his best – and this is him at his best – portrays both the people and the cultures of the Archonate as a little absurd, having a bit of the feel of a fable even in an otherwise serious story. (It’s not so different from, say, the races in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, actually.)
Overall Template is one of Hughes’ best books, and should appeal to anyone who likes space opera, adventure, or just good old galactic empire science fiction.