Reviewed by Robert Runté
Although the name might not be instantly recognizable outside of SF&F circles, Jack Vance (1916-2013) was one of the greatest and most prolific science fiction and fantasy writers of his age, a master of world-building, memorable characters, plot, and language.
Mathew Hughes, the Canadian SF&F writer—who is similarly a master of world-building, memorable characters, plotting and language—is frequently compared to Vance, with reviewers pointing out the obvious Vancian influences on Hughes own version of The Dying Earth or the similarities in their galactic civilizations and central characters…while still allowing that Hughes’ vision is completely original and often even more intriguing.
It should therefore come as no surprise that Jack Vance’s son, John, invited Hughes to continue some of Vance’s most popular series, an honour Hughes has gladly taken on. Barbarians of the Beyond is therefore the sixth and latest book in Jack Vance’s The Demon Princes series. It is also a thoughtful, page-turning novel quite capable of standing on its own for those not familiar with the original series.
As a fan of both Hughes and Vance, I found it an eerie read. It is not just that the novel is set in Vance’s universe, or that the action takes up where Vance’s series left off, it’s that Hughes is writing as Vance, channelling him as only a true disciple could. And yet…it was unmistakably a Matthew Hughes novel too. As collaborations go, I cannot imagine a more cohesive blending of two masters, Hughes building onto—but also staying true to—Vance’s original vision.
The title, Barbarians of the Beyond, accurately conveys—with perhaps a touch of self-deprecating humour—that the novel is pure space opera. It’s escapist fare, filled with spaceships, pirates, drug lords, spies, and so on, but the culture, the setting, and characters are so well realized, this isn’t your kid’s sci-fi media franchise. Best of all, both Vance and Hughes are known for their inventive neologisms, which instantly convey the function and significance of far-future technology but still manage to remind the reader that this isn’t 1960s America.
The series’ ‘Demon Princes’ refers to five master criminals who operate in the Beyond, the far reaches of space where the policing of more civilized planets cannot reach. There are no actual demons in the hell-spawn sense, merely criminal cartels in the tradition of Pablo Escobar or El Chapo. The ‘barbarians’ of the title refers to the attitudes of the civilized sectors towards the scattered settlements of farmers and villagers that make up the Beyond, assuming that such primitive conditions produce unsophisticated peoples.
Of course, Morwen Sabine, our heroine, is anything but primitive. Hughes has created a smart, driven woman who is both a product of her upbringing and yet foreshadows the future of the Beyond (as part of Vance’s Gaean Reach series, set in the same universe but a gentler future.)
One notable difference between Hughes and Vance is that Vance generally only darkly implied off-stage violence, whereas, in this instance, Hughes has one scene where Morwen is directly involved. The scene is needed to move character and story forward, and it is not particularly graphic, but I was a bit surprised after other scenes had stuck to Vance/Hughes’ style of an arched eyebrow paired with a seemingly innocuous, but therefore terrifying, comment. By the standard of Star Wars, and certainly of, say, the John Wicks movies, the violence remains pretty mild.
If you’d like a break from heavier reading, or from watching bad TV SF, then this might be exactly what you need. Space opera is often juxtaposed to ‘real literature’, but that was more true of the idea-driven 1930s pulp magazines than the character-driven cultural explorations from the pens of masters such as Vance and Hughes. I recommend Barbarians of the Beyond both for itself and as an introduction to two of SF’s Grand Masters.
Barbarians of the Beyond is published by Spatterlight.