Friday 11 January 2013

The Yellow Cabochon, by Matthew Hughes – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The Yellow Cabochon (PS Publishing, hb, 93pp) is a novella in the far-future Archonate setting frequented by one of my favourite writers of the moment, Matthew Hughes (see issue TQF39 for an interview and reviews of three excellent novels). It follows on from the marvellous Quartet & Triptych (reviewed in TQF34), being a new adventure in the life of Luff Imbry, the master thief with the extra large waist – “the fat man”, as the narrator very frequently (and slightly upsettingly, for those of us on the wrong side of the scales!) chooses to call him.

Imbry has a nice thing going with Nazur Filiatrot, the favourite mortician of the nobility. Imbry supplies the forged jewellery, Filiatrot swaps them with those of the noble about to be encased in amber for eternity. This time, a mysterious off-world customer desires the yellow cabochon of the title, an inscribed jewel the size of a child’s face which befuddles all who gaze upon it – a relic of a lost undersea civilisation. Unfortunately, the owner of the cabochon has not yet seen fit to die, and Imbry is persuaded to attempt a correction of fate’s oversight.

The target is Lord Frons, of the House of Elphrate, minder of the Archon’s formal dining spoon, a descendant of Old Earth nobles who underwent genetic modification to better suit life on a watery new world: imagine Bertie Wooster with webbed toes and access to a mind-control symbiote. Events do not run according to plan – or not, at least, according to Luff Imbry’s plan – and the fat man (now I’m doing it!) finds himself in an increasingly tight spot, nobles and the Archon on one side, the Green Circle mafia on the other, and somewhere, out there, the stranger who set all of this in motion.

Though this is all rather a trial for Luff Imbry, it is a treat for the reader, the book sharing the several strengths of earlier stories in this setting. The plot is clever, surprising with each twist, and the dialogue is sharp, witty, and infused with unusual ideas – as an example of all three, see Imbry’s warning upon encountering Wrython Herrither, a captain of the Green Circle: “If you offend this man, his code of conduct requires him to kill you without a pause for thought. Then he will surely kill me for having had the bad manners to witness the event.”

The integrators appear once again: intelligent, self-aware and often eccentric computers, some so ancient that they remember not only previous geological eras, but even a “period when another universal order of phenomality obtained”. Imbry’s incredulity at this idea receives the delicious response: “I have not the leisure to dismantle your understanding of reality and recast it in an alternate mode. If I did, you might not appreciate the result.” Another pleasure of the novella is its interest in food: one envies Imbry his visits to the finest of Old Earth’s restaurants.

In the run-up to our previous issue I ran out of time to write this review, and when I finally found the time to write it I was a bit fuzzy on the details (understandable when you consider that I’d read three long novels by the same author only a short time previously). How much I enjoyed The Yellow Cabochon is demonstrated by how happily I re-read the whole thing, a very rare experience for me, putting this book in motley company: The Enchanted Wood, Doctor Who and the Planet of the Daleks, Lyonesse, The Final Programme

Like some of those, this was a book to whose flaws, if it had any, I might well have been blinded by an overwhelming affection, but never mind objectivity: most of my favourite writers are either retired or long dead, and I appreciate and cherish those times when I get the chance to be a fan of a writer who is still publishing. The ending leaves Imbry in a position to develop his understanding of “sympathetic association” and “axial volition” – in short, magic. Whatever happens next is sure to be amusing.


  1. Thanks for the nice review, Stephen. Anyone interested can read the first few thousand words here:

  2. No problem - I'm just sorry it wasn't more timely. I got very behind on my reviews last year.