Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Damned Busters by Matthew Hughes

I have to admit up front that I have unabashedly been in the tank for Matthew Hughes ever since I read Fools Errant over a decade ago. I loved his far-future Archonate universe -- from that first book, its direct sequel Fool Me Twice, the standalones Black Brillion and Template, and the trilogy about the Holmes-esque "freelance discriminator" Hengis Hapthorn starting with Majestrum, and others -- and especially the world-weary tone that Hughes used to tell those stories, made up of an amalgam of James Branch Cabell, P.G. Wodehouse, Jack Vance, and Arthur Conan Doyle that was nevertheless utterly Matt Hughes.

So I'm happy to see any new Hughes book, even ones not set in the Archonate, and I'm going to tell you right here that I want you to buy and love The Damned Busters because Hughes is that good. And, if you avoided the Archonate books because you're not fond of that tone or manner, you're in luck, because Damned Busters is entirely a different kind of book.

(I didn't find it as precisely calibrated to my tastes as Hughes' far-future books, but I've learned through long experience that my precise tastes are shared by vanishingly few people -- so I expect that Damned Busters will be more popular with more people than his previous stuff.)

Damned Busters, in fact, is the first of a contemporary fantasy series called "To Hell and Back," and it tells two stories in quick succession: first, the origin of our particular hero and his unusual powers (which is also told, in condensed, schematic form, in the excellent Tom Gauld cover art), and then his first adventure using his new abilities. Those two stories aren't as tightly integrated as I might have hoped, but Hughes turns Damned Busters into something like the first trade paperback reprinting the comics adventures of a new superhero: it starts off with his uncanny creation and then dives right into the action.

Our hero, though, does not at first look like someone made for any kind of action. Chesney Arnstruther is an actuary -- and, worse yet, enjoys it. He's quiet, methodical, good with numbers and bad with people...until the day he accidentally summons a demon, by yelling out what he thought was a random sequence of syllables after hitting his thumb (and drawing blood) while building a pentagram-shaped table. A simple mistake, he thinks -- and he's certainly not going to give over his soul to the demon who appears.

But that demon can't close out this job without a soul, and his compatriots in Hell -- already frustrated by their increasing workload, due to the growing (and ever-more-temptable) human population -- decide that this is the final straw. So they walk out -- all of the tempters of Hell lay down their tools and stop working.

(This portion of Damned Busters could have made an interesting novel of its own, if Hughes had wanted it to -- in his conception, humans won't do much of anything without a demon goading them into it. But this is still prologue to his real story.)

Eventually, Chesney, as the source of the problem, has to fix it. Hughes rushes this a bit -- he skips around noticeably throughout the entire origin section of Damned Busters, as if he was rushing it to get to his real plot -- but, in the end, Chesney brokers a new collective bargaining agreement between, on the one hand, the rank and file of Hell, and, on the other, their heavenly overseers.

Because of that role -- and due to some negotiations Hughes skips over quickly -- Chesney is granted Xaphan, a demon of his own, to provide him with superhuman abilities for a period of two hours a day. He, of course, uses this to become The Actionary, and sets out to fight crime. It's not that simple, of course, and Chesney quickly becomes embroiled in the schemes of the owner of the insurance company he works for, as well as caught up in the wiles of his inevitable beautiful, spoiled daughter. His day-job as an actuary gets mixed in with his night-work as The Actionary, and he soon learns, as we all do, that it's much easier to want to do good than it is to actually do the right thing. And, since this is only the first book in a series, there will be many more lessons for Chesley to learn, and many more aspects of evil to battle.

Hughes's dialogue is wonderful, and his characters are enjoyable -- though the contemporary setting does tamp down some of his more rococo tendencies there. But the plot putters along through very well-worn paths, which I would never have expected from Hughes. Damned Busters definitely has its quirks -- it's a modern superhero novel in which the hero is an actuary powered by demons, after all -- but its hero's motivations and actions are strongly generic, familiar from dozens of comics, movies, and novels about would-be superheroes. For me, that makes Damned Busters less uniquely Hughesian -- though Chesley Anstruther is still a character no one else could have created, and the demons are all wonderfully single-minded -- but it also makes it a book that, I sincerely hope, fans of superheroes, and of fantasy novels set in the modern world will find and enjoy and recommend to all of their friends. If any of that describes you, please do give Damned Busters a look.

1 comment:

Matt Hughes said...

Thank you, Andy. As always, you cheer me up immensely.

There'll be another Archonate tale -- The Other -- a Luff Imbry space opera, from Underland Press in November.

Post a Comment