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Black Brillion, Matthew Hughes, Tor, 2004, 272 pp.

Black Brillion is a novel that's short and satisfying, a well-told tale that feels a bit retro in its use of the apparatus of science fiction. Indeed, it's a deliberate piece of homage to the work of Jack Vance, and for once a book has a back cover blurb that resembles the contents between the covers: "A witty new adventure in the gorgeous, ironic style of Jack Vance." I'm not sure if I've read enough Jack Vance to get all of the references but Hughes applies all of the Vance techniques in a very smooth and readable way. Reassuringly, fans of Vance have generally given high marks to Hughes's Archonate series (of which this is the third book). Hughes's book pays attention to both its apparent source material and the needs of the narrative at hand; my point of comparison for the book's achievement would be Kingsbury's excellent love letter to Asimov's Foundation, Psychohistorical Crisis. Both books do two things at once -- tell a tale and pay homage -- while most books have trouble even with the first.

Baro Harkless is a young agent of the Archonate Bureau of Security or the scroots. Baro's father was a famous scroot and now Baro feels like he has to prove himself. That means he takes some chances during one of his first missions, even though he is still in training. The con man Luff Imbry has arrived in the town of Sherit and Baro suspects that Imbry is up to no good. This first sequence is a model of how to introduce your characters, as the tension builds and Hughes writes from the point of view of both Baro and Imbry. Baro makes his bust, and it's a far bigger one than he could have hoped for. Will the plaudits roll in for Baro?

Not if Baro's boss Arboghast has anything to do with it. In a handy twist that also economizes on character development, Arboghast frees Imbry and decrees that Baro will take the con man along as a partner on the next mission. The next segment is devoted to an extensive conversation between Baro and Imbry as they try to decide if they can trust each other. The sparring between the two drags on a bit too long, in one of the book's few missteps.

The mission is simple: a criminal named Horselan Gebbling is setting up what looks like a scam and the two men have to find enough evidence to stop him. People in the area have been succumbing to a strange new disease called the lassitude, and Gebbling is launching a cruise for rich people with the not-so-veiled hint that he knows how to cure the disease. The next section of the book introduces us to the other people on the cruise -- such as a woman named Raina Haj who might be another security officer -- as well as a bit more about the background of the Archonate. This is an ancient Earth, and the physical detritus of civilizations past (such as our own) have been transmogrified by geological processes and the passage of time into a substance called brillion. Brillion has strange properties and comes in different colours; the black brillion of the title is the rarest, if it exists at all, and Baro suspects that Gebbling's scam will centre around it in some way.

So far so good. The plot is set for a kind of locked-room mystery, or at least the action is circumscribed in a way that focuses on the characters. There's inbuilt tension between Baro and Imbry, but also a sense of accomplishment as they apply their wide-ranging talents to the task at hand. The other major development of the book takes the story in a somewhat different direction, and the mileage for any particular reader will vary. Early in the cruise, Baro and Imbry meet a scholar named Guth Bandar. Bandar has studied many things, among them the Commons, a kind of mental space also known as the noosphere. It's the result of millennia of sentient life accumulated on one planet, and it's a mixture of dreams, archetypes, and consciously-controlled events. As seems to happen in these kinds of stories, Baro turns out to be a natural in the Commons, exhibiting control that would otherwise take decades of study. I liked how the Commons was used in the story -- it's crucial to the plot and we learn a great deal about this Earth in the course of Baro's adventures in this Jungian metascape -- but it did feel a little convenient that Baro was such an instant adept.

Interestingly, Hughes uses these two main concepts -- brillion and the Commons -- to make the far-future Earth setting less of a gimmick. What might an ancient civilization be like? It's anyone's guess, of course, but this is a pretty good answer to an intriguing what-if. The Earth has accumulated changes and detritus both physically, as in the creation of this new substance called brillion, and non-physically, with the way that the Commons has filled up with archetypes and mental representations of past events. It gives the book a solid basis to build on.

One brief note about the ending. I won't give away any of the twists and turns, most of which are earned and logical, but the book did end with a decision by Baro that could be described alternately as stark, thought-provoking or vicious. I had to remind myself that he's young and prone to lapses in judgement.

I enjoyed Black Brillion. It was a pleasant surprise and it's motivated me to take a look again at works by Jack Vance. I'm also curious to see what Hughes will do next.

Last modified: September 16, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (

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