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Black Brillion
Matthew Hughes
Tor, 272 pages

Black Brillion
Matthew Hughes
Matthew Hughes was born in 1949 Liverpool, England, but moved to Canada when he was five. A life-long writer, he has worked as a journalist, a staff speechwriter in the federal government and, since 1979, a freelance corporate and political speechwriter in British Columbia. He lives in a small town on Vancouver Island with his wife and 3 sons.

Matthew Hughes Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Fool Me Twice

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

Discerning readers, desirous of a literary indulgence suitable for savouring in an armchair over a steaming post-prandial cup of punge, will welcome a new installment in the annals of far future Earth, as recounted by Vancouver Island author Matthew Hughes.

"I am often struck by how widely a day can escape from one's expectations," says Luff Imbry, and thus begin the escapades of an ill-matched pair, juxtaposed by fate in the form of the Archonate's Bureau of Scrutiny. Baro Harkless, newly minted Agent of the Bureau is partnered with Luff Imbry, the very same portly confidence trickster he apprehended in commission of an extortion mere hours earlier, and whom he reasonably expects to be in transit to the nearest contemplarium.

Young Harkless is appalled to discover that Imbry has been made an Agent, equal in rank to himself. Imbry, on the other hand, is philosophical.

"I take it that you have long desired to be an agent of the Bureau of Scrutiny."

"It is all I ever wanted to be. It is a calling."

"Some are called, some are driven," the fat man said. "I have never accepted either a whip across the buttocks or a ring through the nose. I prefer to amble through the days, adapting my goals to circumstances as they present themselves, or preferably, adapting circumstances to my comfort."

"Your philosophy is vapid," Baro said.

"Perhaps," said Imbry. "But see how your grim zeal and my carefree insouciance have brought us to the identical point. We are both scroots. It is a distinction I admit I never sought, yet when the question was put the alternatives were even less appealing."

"It is all some sort of horrible mistake."

"Now there is a truly vapid philosophy," said the fat man, "lacking even that leavening of optimism that urges one to rise in the morning and go forth to accomplish. This cup of punge, on the other hand, is not affected by speculation. It is here and now, and very good."

Imbry and Harkless are assigned to pose as passengers on a private landship cruise across the vast Swept, organized by one Father Olwyn, Sacerdotal Eminence of the Society of Tangible Unity (better known to the Bureau as Horslan Gebbling, fraud artist). Although they concur on little, the reluctantly partnered scroots do agree that Gebbling is despicable to prey upon victims of the Lassitude by claiming that he has a cure for this mysterious and invariably fatal ailment.

Yet much about this mission is inexplicable. Given their orders in secrecy, and allowed no Bureau support or back-up, it looks, even to the naïve Harkless, as if they are intended to fail.

Black Brillion is a novel which is very much a matter of taste. Bibliophiles, eccentrics, Scrabble players, and readers such as myself who were warped in childhood by over-exposure to Dickens, Dumas, and Gilbert & Sullivan seem most likely relish Hughes' eccentrically embellished scenery and sardonic persiflage.

My only caveat in an overall accolade is a sense of disappointment that a story which begins with a tone of light whimsy turns so much darker, evolving into an eldritch alien monster invasion yarn, and losing its focus on the comedic conjunction of our two squabbling scroots.

Still, that again is a matter of taste, and Jungians will especially enjoy Baro Harkless's pursuit of alien villains through the landscape of the human Collective Unconscious.

Copyright © 2004 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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