Black Brillion contains perhaps my favorite line of dialogue I've read in years: "You have only just begun to gauge the depth of your ignorance yet you use it as the foundation for a towering confidence." I'm considering making that my e-mail sig, and can't wait to whip it out the next time I'm debating some ultra-right-wing fundamentalist.
Truth to tell, Black Brillion is a trifle, but it's a tasty trifle, a beguiling little adventure you can polish off in a few short hours' reading. I wish it had been a bit more than the sum of its delightful parts, of which the preceding is an exemplar. But the parts get the job done. Humorist Matthew Hughes has concocted a spiffy little mystery set against the fashionably steampunk Old Earth backdrop of his first two novels, Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice. With a couple of appealing mismatched protagonists leading the chase, readers who manage to discover this book will likely find themselves fidgeting in anticipation of any sequels.
Baro Harkless is a wet-behind-the-ears agent for the Archonate Bureau of Scrutiny, keen to live up to the reputation of his late father, who wrote much of the intricate book of "scroot" rules and regulations that Baro has assiduously committed to memory. He finally makes his mark by collaring flamboyant con artist Luff Imbry. But imagine his surprise when his quarry becomes his partner; the Archonate himself has ordered Baro to work with Imbry to apprehend Imbry's erstwhile cohort, Horselan Gebbling. Gebbling seems to be running an elaborate scam claiming he has found a cure for the Lassitude, an inexplicable illness that is creeping across the Archonate's populace irrespective of class or wealth. Gebbling's cure involves black brillion, a substance mined from the earth which has never actually been proved to exist.
Baro and Imbry travel incognito (though they aren't very good at it) aboard a "landship" — sort of a cruise ship travelling the plains on massive wheels — chartered by Gebbling, on which he has invited a number of disease-stricken possible marks. Soon enough, a bizarre series of events begins to unfold pointing towards criminal activity much more involved and far-reaching than originally suspected. Throughout, we are treated to the expected character arc between the two leads: barely disguised contempt building into grudging respect and eventual tentative friendship. While Imbry is the more ostentatious of the two, he remains rather one-note in his aristocratic snootiness while Baro gets more actual development from Hughes. Baro suffers pangs of doubt about his choice of career, especially as it pans out that Imbry is better at detecting than he is. This doubt is intensified when they meet a historian named Guth Bandar, who teaches Baro about the noösphere (also called the Commons), a metaphysical realm of archetypal race memory into which Baro seems only too skilled at traveling. What begins as a subplot is allowed to dovetail nicely into the main narrative.
For most of Black Brillion — which clocks in at an efficient 272 pages — Hughes moves the football down the field like a champ. But he fumbles in sight of the end zone. So many crime stories make the mistake of resolving their labyrinthine plot complexities by having one or two characters at the climax turn into Captain Exposition and give us a big "explaino" to tie up loose ends. Hughes does this. And while I enjoyed the way Hughes used the Commons as a vehicle for a knowing, indeed, postmodern exploitation of genre archetypes, I kind of wish he had maintained the mismatched-partners premise that serves the book so well for most of its length instead of (white spoiler text follows) resorting to a climax that turns Baro into basically a superhero (a climax which the appealing Imbry sits out).
Hughes displays much much more imagination at his worldcraft than in his conventional plotting. The future history he has created for his Archonate is rich and believable without being ridiculously detailed to the point it can't be followed without an index. It has a lot of potential to be mined for any number of excellent stories. In fact, Hughes has done so, mostly in the pages of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine.
But Hughes' real trump card is his wit, which carries the novel across its peaks as well as its valleys. Hughes has always worn his influences — mainly Jack Vance — on his sleeve, but with this book, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he has a shrine to P. G. Wodehouse in his living room that he places lit candles in front of every day. If you're the Anglophilic sort who delights in the rapier dialogue of drawing room comedies populated by upper class twits of the year, then Hughes' nonstop barrage of quips and bon mots, delivered at maximum legal levels of droll (there's way more where the above quote came from), will leave you panting. And the thing is, it never sounds fake or stilted. Hughes does such a sleek job of realizing his future and its cultures, and is so consistent in its execution, that you completely believe this is how his people talk.
Black Brillion has me seeking out Hughes' other stories, as well as eagerly awaiting his next. While this story may have its ups and downs, in the end, it'll still make a fan of you.