Barbarians of the Beyond by Matthew Hughes, Spatterlight Press, 2021 – available through Amazon
Matthew Hughes has had forty-two stories published in science fiction’s premier platform, the ‘Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction’. In addition he’s published over thirty books, he’s won or been nominated for every fantasy and science fiction award you can think of and been inducted into Canada’s Science Fiction Hall of Fame. With all this to his credit it’s surprising that he isn’t more of a household name in the pantheon of science fiction writers. He writes engaging stories with a bit a wry humor and it’s rare that I don’t derive great satisfaction from one of his books/stories.
He’s got the kind of style that’s often compared to the late S&F legend, Jack Vance, a writer greatly admired by Hughes even though Hughes writes in his own inimitable style. It’s a style that will preclude you ever finding a wizard casting a spell. In Hughes’ oeuvre it’s going to be a thaumaturge muttering a cantrip while flexing his rune inscribed fingernail. The sesquipedalian vocabulary is part of the fun… all of which brings me to his latest offering – ‘Barbarians of the Beyond’.
‘Barbarians’ is the first in what is projected to be a series of stories officially endorsed by the Vance family that allows authors to utilize aspects of the cosmos and characters created by Vance in their own new creations. The idea might possibly have had its germination in the Dozoi/Martin anthology ‘Songs of the Dying Earth’. This was a collection in which the editors invited a number of authors to write short stories inspired by, or in homage to, Vance’s ‘Tales of the Dying Earth’. In a like way, ‘Barbarians’ is a ‘companion’ novel, inspired by the series of five Vance novels grouped under the title ‘The Demon Princes’.
Aside from using the Vance type universe and a reference to a depredation carried out by the Demon Princes, ‘Barbarians’ is stand-alone story. It does not require the reader to have read any of the books in the ‘Demon Princes’ series. Hughes spins his own tale and creates his own characters. With less of his usual multisyllabic vocabulary to chew on, the novel has an engaging flow that gets the reader to the end feeling well satisfied.
The protagonist, Morwen Sabine, arrives in Mount Pleasant, a world in the lawless ‘Beyond’. It’s the world in which she was conceived and only knows through the tales told to her by her parents. Her mother and father were abducted from Mount Pleasant by one of the Demon Princes and sold as slaves to the evil Hacheem Belloch, a space pirate whose wealth and cruelty are legendary. Morwen escapes from Belloch’s clutches with the hopes of retrieving a treasure hidden by her parents in Mount Pleasant. If she can retrieve the treasure she can purchase the freedom of her family from Belloch.
But things have changed in Mount Pleasant. The town has a new name and is now run by a secretive cult that deals in a hallucinogenic substance. The inhabitants, led by a calculating criminal named Thanda, make a lot of money selling the drug illegally to other worlds and they’re extremely suspicious of strangers coming to town. Morwen finds that getting into town is hard enough but finding the treasure and getting out of town proves even harder. Hughes has a fast-paced plot with lots of pitfalls and surprises in store for his heroine. It’s a short and clever novel that will appeal to fans of classic science fiction and is a worthy beginning to the envisioned series entitled ‘Paladins of Vance’.
Never tried Matthew Hughes? ‘Barbarians of the Beyond’ might be just the jet pack you’ve been looking for.