Matthew Hughes: Fools Errant, and Fool Me Twice

It took me a while, but I finally finished up Matthew Hughes’ novels with these, his first two, which tell the story of Filidor Vesh, nephew of the Archon of Old Earth, and his adventures in the far future. At the beginning of Fools Errant, Filidor is a playboy and ne’er-do-well in the capital city of Olkney, when he’s charged with a mission by his uncle. He’s directed and accompanied on this mission by a dwarf named Gaskarth, who leads him on a tour of some of the eccentric backwaters of Old Earth.

Fools Errant is told in an episodic fashion: In each section Filidor and Gaskarth arrive in a region, Gaskarth disappears to try to make contact with the Archon, whom they’re trying to catch up to, and while waiting for the dwarf to come back Filidor learns about the quirks of the region, gets into trouble, gets out of it, and learns something about himself and the world. Meanwhile there’s an ongoing story in which the two are being pursued by a sorcerer who wants something the pair is carrying with them. The story is somewhat repetitive, though Filidor’s gradual self-realization is deftly handled. The story takes a rather abrupt turn at the end as we learn exactly what the Archon has set the pair to do, and while it’s entertaining, it feels apart from the rest of the book. Moreover, as a whole Fools Errant feels more like a collection of loosely-linked stories rather than a cohesive novel. (Maybe it was published as a series of short stories originally?) It’s fun, and it displays Hughes’ skill with wit and dialogue well enough, but not his ability to weave a compelling story like his later novels do.

Fool Me Twice revisits Filidor a few years later, when he has become the Archon’s official heir, but has fallen back into his former ways. In the course of his normal duties – which not only bore him to tears, but which he finds nearly incomprehensible – Filidor meets a woman with whom he falls instantly in love, but also finds that he’s accidentally ruled against her cause due to his laziness. When they confront each other, she steals his symbol of office, and his uncle charges him to follow her to her remote home to retrieve them. But his quest is derailed when he is thrown overboard from a ship and ends up as a prisoner performing slave labor on an even-more-remote island. From here Filidor must escape, retrieve his belongings, expose the man who tried to kill him, and unravel a plot against the Archon.

I’ve been reading Hughes’ books more-or-less backwards from Majestrum, so I wonder what reading his books in the order published would have been like. These first two novels were published seven years apart, which perhaps explains why there a fair amount of repetition between them: They’re both structured as coming-of-age stories as well as travelogues of Old Earth, but Fool Me Twice shows considerable development in Hughes’ plotting and writing skills. Fools Errant gets rather repetitive before it takes a left turn into its climactic segment. Fool Me Twice is also episodic, but the segments are longer, the settings less contrived, and the pieces build on each other as Filidor gains friends, allies and resources during his travels. Perhaps most cleverly, Filidor recalls that the Archon played games with him in the first book, and wonders whether he’s doing so again here, which serves as part of the puzzle he has to deal with in the last third of Twice.

Hughes re-uses some elements of these books in his later novels (in particular, the scenario in the last third of Errant shows up in Majestrum), but again you can see him becoming a more capable writer along the way, which perhaps makes reading the books in the order written more rewarding than going backwards as I did. But there are plenty of new bits even if you’ve already read the later stories.

Although not his best, both books are still quite entertaining and showcase Hughes’ witticisms. The books are out of print, but worth seeking out in used bookstores.