Thursday, June 17, 2021

Barbarians of the Beyond by Matt Hughes

There's nothing wrong with pastiche. The Aeneid was pastiche; Ulysses was, too. Even officially-licensed pastiche only has one more hurdle to leap than any other book, that being the approval of the owner. One of the best books in the world, John Gardner's Grendel, is absolutely pastiche.

I just read another book of pastiche, of the officially-licensed sort. And I have to say it's deeply enjoyable and entirely delivers on its promise. That promise is a bit more sideways than we often see in officially-licensed pastiche - which tends to focus on yet more adventures of the same people in exactly the same mode - but that's just an indication of the skill and ability of the pasticher and the perspicacity of the licensor.

The book is Barbarians of the Beyond, by Matt Hughes. It's set in the universe of Jack Vance's Oikumene, during the Demon Princes era, and is largely set in a place once known as Mount Pleasant before those Demon Princes raided and sacked it. As far as I can tell, it's set in the middle of the timeline of those novels - it's pretty clear that Kirth Gersen has at least dealt with Attel Malagate the Woe, the first of the five, but the rest is obscure.

It's a short novel, closer to the model of the first three in Vance's series, and does not feature quite as much random fictional quotation as Vance did - though Hughes does cite Bodissey and Navarth. And it is entirely its own story: it's been a long time since I read the Demon Princes books, so I won't say definitively that no characters are shared, but that's not the point. This is a new, separate story in that universe, one that could not have happened except for events from those novels, but not "Kirth Gersen goes off to find & kill a previously unknown sixth Demon Prince!"

So: what does happen in Barbarians?

Morwen Sabine lands on the world Providence, for a purpose initially unclear, and travels to the town of New Dispensation. It's the place once known as Mount Pleasant, now inhabited by a religious sect following the Doctrine of the New Dispensation, who are called Dispers by everyone else.

Well, they started as a religious sect. And the religion is still important. But the core sacrament is chewing a drug called maunch, and, more recently, it has been discovered that maunch can be refined into a much more powerful drug, which is a valuable commodity back in the Oikumene, though not precisely legal everywhere. So the Dispers are also, in part, a criminal gang, run by the relatively new second head of the religion, Jerz Thanda.

Criminal gangs are not fond of outsiders. Frankly, hardly anyone in the Beyond - this mostly-lawless region of space outside the Pale, the borderlands of the Oikumene - likes outsiders, since outsiders are assumed to be agents of the Oikumene's police force, the IPCC. Those agents, called weasels, are assumed to be secretly everywhere, and are killed wherever found. And they are likely found much more often than they actually exist.

Morwen insists she is no weasel: she is returning to her parents' home. Her story is good enough to convince both Thanda's Protectors, the armed wing of the Dispers, and the local law, a force of Scruitneers led by one Eldo Kronik. At least at first. They're watching her, as she settles into a life cooking at the local inn and eventually moving back into her parents' old home.

But of course she does have a secret plan. Of course she did not come back to this place randomly. And the powers that currently run New Dispensation might be happy, or not, with that plan when she comes to execute it. And, again, simply having a secret plan will make Morwen look very much like a weasel.

And the one thing all of the "barbarians" of the beyond agree with is that weasels must be stopped: immediately, violently, directly.

So what is Morwen's plan, and can she both execute it and save her own neck?

I won't tell you: it looks like Barbarians of the Beyond is rolling towards actual publication, and it's a short book. You should just wait a few months, and then read it.

Hughes's first novels were Vancean, two amusing novels set in an Earth that was not quite Dying yet. He's circled Vance his entire career, creating his own Archonate universe that has nods to both ends of Vance, the fantastic Dying Earth and the SFnal Oikumene and Gaean Reach. And he captures a Vancean tone better than any other writer I've ever read: world-weary, word-besotted, clear-eyed to the verge of cruelty.

I called this novel pastiche before: it is. But most of Hughes' career has been in the wider, less-defined field that is near pastiche but not part of it. Hughes is clearly a follower of Vance - and of many other writers, especially crime writers who are not as noticeable in a book like this one - but not a slavish one. He's a follower in the sense that Virgil was a follower of Homer: you can't explore a territory until someone has opened it. This territory is now open; Hughes has been exploring it. And he's good at that.

Again, you can't buy this book yet. But you probably will be able to do so, soon. When you can, you should, especially if you wish the world had more novels like the ones Vance wrote in the '60s and '70s.

Update: Added a link above, on the author's name, to his books on Amazon. (And here it is again: Matt Hughes.) If you are looking for "somewhat Vancean, and deeply entertaining, books already available," you are greatly in luck.

Update 2: Barbarians of the Beyond will be published on September 1 in paperback (and presumably similar electronic formats) by Spatterlight Press. I'm not finding order links yet, but it's ISBN 978-1-61947-405-5 and should appear within a few days.


Andress 234 said...

I'd like to buy one - promulgate a heads up, when its available.

Slidebar said...

I do wish the world had more novels like Vance wrote in the 60s and 70s (and even later). I DO, I DO, I DO, I DO! Matthew Hughes is feeding a long untended addiction. Thank you, Matthew.

Matt Hughes said...


Check out my Amazon page. There's plenty there.

Unknown said...

how does one get accepted as a writer playing V's universes? I have a great idea for a 5th book of the Planet of Adventure when Reith returns to earth with Zap 210.I'd love to write it, but only if can be approved by the people of his estate or whomever does that kind of approval and greenlighting.

Matt Hughes said...

I don't think Spatterlight has a formal submissions process, but there is a contact form on the website:

Andrew Wheeler said...

Unknown: Matt was more helpful than I would have been. The usual way to get to write novels is by writing at least one novel that someone likes enough to pay you money to publish. Getting to write novels with other people's property is another level of difficulty or two above that.

Also: everyone has ideas. Being able to write a novel is vastly more important. I would recommend writing novels until you can get at least one published with someone else's money before pitching ideas to rights-holders.

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