Reviewed by Robert Runte
As an SF critic, I am well acquainted with Matt Hughes' canon of SF&F. He has published over eighty short stories and is regularly featured in the prestigious Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; he has nearly thirty traditionally-published novels and collections; is frequently described as the literary heir of the great American SF writer, Jack Vance; and comes recommended by the likes of George R. R. Martin. His writing is characterized by inventive world-building and engaging narratives of unusual protagonists: autistic superheroes, professional duelists, master criminals, Sherlockian detectives, and wizards of varying competency and duplicity. Underlying everything is a sly humour and the mastery of drole dialogue seldom matched within the genre. I have unfailingly recommended Hughes and have frequently referred to him as a national treasure.
What the Wind Brings is nothing like any of that.
Had I not already known, I might never have recognized this historical novel (based on an actual incident in 16th century Ecuador) as something by Matt Hughes. A serious literary work set in a real time and place, What the Wind Brings is almost the opposite of Hughes' style of darkly comic SF.
I am not suggesting that this is some ponderously written literary tome that only an English professor could love. Far from it! This is just as much a page-turner as any of Hughes' previous works, the action even more gripping because it was real. Indeed, I have never had so much trouble tearing myself away from a Hughes' novel.
No, the contrast is simply that while Matt Hughes usually writes delightful escapist fare, Matthew Hughes’ writing is compelling, multi-layered, and profoundly satisfying.
The story follows the survivors of a shipwreck as they try rebuild their lives as part of a multi-racial community in the midst of the Spanish conquests. There are three viewpoint characters: a local shaman whose journey through the spirit world makes What the Wind Brings a work of magic realism; the adopted son of a Spanish nobleman who cannot escape his black heritage; and a monk who has come to the Spanish colonies to elude the Inquisition. The differing worldviews of the three viewpoint characters are as alien to each other as any first-contact SF novel, but more fully developed because the characters are based on real individuals from actual cultures.
Opposing our protagonists are a ruthless conquistador—backed by the entire oppressive apparatus of the Spanish crown—on the one side, and the paranoid leader of escaped black slaves on the other. The clash of cultures and personalities is freighted with the accumulated weight of history but is simultaneously a deeply insightful analysis of the psychology of leadership. The interactions between conflicting personalities are as crucial as their conflicting ideologies, and trying to guess which ideas and which individuals will triumph is edge-of-seat reading.
Whereas Hughes’ SF has always been wildly creative, What the Wind Brings has clearly been researched down to the smallest historical detail. You can reach out and touch the jungle undergrowth, the planks of the sailing ships, or the plaster walls of the monastery. Unlike many of the other historical novels I have encountered, none of this description intrudes on the narrative but is instead fully integrated within the action. You see the ship or the jungle or monastery because the viewpoint character happens to be looking at it, not because Hughes has stopped the narrative for an extended essay on 16th century ship-building or Spanish politics.
What makes this an outstanding Canadian novel is that Hughes brings a multicultural sensibility to his research that paints each of the competing cultures in its own terms so that the reader gets a sense of what it means to be of that people. For example, most Americans hold the stereotype that the slave trade kidnapped ignorant hunter-gathers from their jungle huts and dragged them over the ocean to civilization, but what we have here is a nobleman and his officers, every bit as sophisticated as the Spanish, but sold into slavery because they lost the battle to hold their city. Similarly, Hughes understands that not everyone within a culture fits comfortably there. The monk is a fully developed individual, with his own beliefs, motivations and character, not a mere stereotypical representative of a hierarchical, monolithic church. The scenes with the shaman (the only character written in the first person) make it clear that although the elders value the shaman’s vision and healing, they do not acknowledge their gender. Each of the characters is a fully realized individual, just as each of their worldviews is faithfully depicted as complex and internally consistent. The interplay between all these elements creates wheels within wheels that makes for compelling reading.
Matthew Hughes regards this novel as his magnum opus, and he’s not wrong. The twenty-five years spent writing it were clearly worth it. I refuse to say his other twenty-plus novels were mere practice for this one—because I love those as I love, say, the novels of P. G. Wodehouse—but you need to understand that as Matthew Hughes bursts on the literary scene as an overnight sensation, Matt Hughes paid those dues in full.
What the Wind Brings is published by Pulp Literature Press.