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Cascor by Matthew Hughes

Reviewed by Robert Runté

Matthew Hughes is one of Canada’s top five SF&F writers, a master of both novels and short stories. He has had over 40 stories published in the venerable Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine alone, for example, and I dare say the Hughes name on the cover has helped sell many copies of the magazine. The past few years, Hughes has been making an effort to collect all his various series into omnibus volumes featuring this or that character or universe.

The new Cascor collection features ten stories, mostly reprinted from F&SF Magazine, but the three longest are original to this volume and well worth the price of admission on their own. Nine of the stories feature Cascor, a hard-boiled detective in a future so distant that the Earth has reverted to magic; the tenth entry provides the childhood backstory of one of Cascor’s elderly associates.

Cascor’s world of cantankerous sorcerers, corrupt officials, and devious criminals combines the best elements of a Dying Earth fantasy with Hughes’ ability to come up with intriguing mysteries. (Hughes has also written award-winning mystery as Matt Hughes.) Think of your favourite detective, but having to work around invisibility and forgetting spells, or using magic to track the bad guys, or being hired by a magic mirror. The internal logic of Hughes universe is completely consistent and the more you read, the more of the intricacies of that world are revealed. No Tolkienesque elves, orcs, or Hobbits here, just grimoires, guilds, and narcissists.

What elevates Hughes’ stories beyond other fantasy writers--besides his dark humour, convincing world-building, and clever mysteries--is his riotous word play. Hughes is the master of neologisms, instantly conveying the nature of a person, place, or object in this other universe by grouping phonemes together that are fun to say and that somehow carry the correct emotional connotations. It is a kind of genius that we haven’t seen since Dr. Seuss. Or Hughes will twist an English word to a new meaning in his universe: ‘discriminator’ for private detective, for example. Or he will play with diction by using perfectly good English words, except that the reader is unlikely to have ever encountered them before: nuncupative, arrondisement, sutler, and postprandial (to choose four random examples). Together, these elements contribute mightily to the sense that one is immersed in another culture, another time, that the language has evolved to the same degree as we have diverged from Shakespearian English. This does not mean, I hasten to add, that Cascor is tough slogging—on the contrary, Hughes’ style is light and breezy, if sometimes wryly sinister. Every story is a delight to read, a refreshing romp through the Earth’s last eon, a nice escape from watching our current world burn to the ground.

This latest collection of short stories is likely to be Hughes’ last, as his focus shifts to his more serious historical novels. Although I am an even greater fan of his literary fiction—such as the outstanding What the Wind Brings (reviewed in ORB Mar, 2021)—I do hope the occasional fantasy story still intrudes on these more serious projects from time to time, because there’s nothing else quite like them.

Cascor is independently published.


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