Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005
Tor / Tom Doherty Associates
US Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 11-01-2004
272 Pages; $23.95
Date Reviewed: 01-21-05
Millions of years from now, the inhabitants of Old Earth mine for a substance they call brillion. Formed from the refuse humans buried in the distant past, it comes in a rainbow of colors, but the most valuable is black brillion, which can perform miracles -- if it exists. Horselan Gebbling, an infamous con man, is posing as Father Olwyn, and peddling black brillion as the cure for the first new disease to appear in millennia, a wasting illness known as the lassitude. Young Baro Harkless has just managed to capture Gebbling's one-time associate Luff Imbry. Since it takes a con to catch a con, Imbry if offered immunity for his crimes if he'll help young Harkless catch Gebbling. Matthew Hughes' 'Black Brillion' starts as a pleasantly unassuming far-future police procedural. It doesn't take long, however, for Hughes skills as a writer to turn his clever premise into a profoundly enjoyable and thought-provoking adventure. 'Black Brillion' indeed performs miracles.
From the beginning it's apparent that Hughes is a superior prose stylist. His droll, understated style is easy to read yet rich and rewarding. There's an undercurrent of humor in every sentence, but Hughes writes with a literary sensibility that brings a feeling of depth and quality. As the novel begins, it appears that readers are to be treated to a high-quality crime caper, with wonderfully humorous characters in a future that's easy to imagine due to the clarity of the prose. Every scene is detailed and laid out cleanly enough so that readers will have no trouble envisioning Hughes' well thought-out future. Though this is the third book he's set in "The Archonate", there's no obvious scaffolding to recap what came before. The world unfurls easily and enjoyably as we follow Harkless and Imbry on their adventure.
As a police procedural, 'Black Brillion' offers a wonderful reading experience, due largely to Hughes' ability to create complex and entertaining characters. Harkless, as one might surmise from his name, is rather green, and tends to be unaware of just how much or how little he knows about the world around him. Imbry, on the other hand, is a seasoned con man who has seen it all and told very little. Hughes' prose is perfectly pitched to suit both of these characters, and he provides the reader with many fine moments of recognizing the significance of events described by Harkless, who himself is unaware of their import. Each of the large cast of secondary characters is effortlessly established and identified. All this happens with so little apparent work on the author's part that it's really a treat for the reader. Here's a writer who does not have to show off.
As enjoyable as the criminal investigation is, Hughes manages to take the novel further than the reader might suspect in directions that are totally unexpected. In their effort to ensnare Gebbling, Harkless and Imbry embark on a journey into a mysterious prairie known as the Swept. One of their fellow travelers is a noönaut, an explorer in what is called the Commons, the collective unconscious of the now-ancient human race. Harkless proves to have a talent for exploring the Commons. In fact, something seems to be calling to him from this mutable world.
As Hughes ups the ante in 'Black Brillion', he manages to turn an exciting, well-written science fiction mystery into an evocative and often profound exploration of the collective human psyche. Hughes' descriptions are vivid and colorful, and his methodology for getting there is impeccable. Readers who enjoy the work of Philip K. Dick, H. P. Lovecraft and even Carl Jung will be amazed by Hughes' work in this realm. And readers who were only looking for a good mystery will be rewarded with reading riches beyond avarice.
But Hughes doesn't venture anywhere in this novel without reason and he never wastes a single word. Every part of this novel is there for a good reason and it all ties together in a very satisfying manner. The police procedural aspects weave seamlessly into the psychological explorations, which lead back to events in Hughes' very real-seeming world. For all the complexity of thought, characterization and prose that Hughes puts in this novel, it's also very accessible. Readers who enjoy a cerebral mystery will find this as delightful as those who are looking for a spine-tingling science fiction novel. It's all this and a comedy of manners, obviously not an easy feat.
'Black Brillion' may not a novel that jumps off the shelves and shouts at you. The cover by Tom Kidd captures the zeitgeist of the novel. It's subtle and strange. But in short order, the 'Black Brillion' manages to be engaging, engrossing and exciting. Then it gets better. In the distant future, black brillion may or may not exist, and may or may not work miracles. On this old Earth, 'Black Brillion' is nothing less than a miraculous novel.