Friday 9 February 2024

Barbarians of the Beyond by Matthew Hughes (Spatterlight) | review by Stephen Theaker

About twenty-five years ago, in the year 1499 (New Reckoning) five of the galaxy's worst criminals, known collectively as the Demon Princes, led their henchmen in an attack on a farming colony, Mount Pleasant, on the world of Providence, leaving many dead and taking the rest as slaves. Such is the nature of life in the Beyond, beyond the civilised safety of the Oikumene worlds.

The parents of Morwen Sabine were among those taken, and sold into slavery, ending up in the possession of Hacheem Belloch, on Blatcher's World. And it was into slavery that Morwen was born. We join her subsequent to her escape, as she arrives on Providence, and makes her way back to the former home of her parents. They left something of value there, hidden in her tree, that might help bring them home.

But the town is no longer empty. It is now occupied by new colonists, who meet weekly in a temple to watch each other take mind-expanding drugs, as well as the criminals who export those drugs to the stars, led by one Jerz Thanda. All are on constant watch for the agents of the Oikumene authorities, known as weasels, and their natural suspicion of her is just one of the obstacles Morwen will have to surmount.

Despite its pleasantly old-fashioned title, Barbarians of the Beyond is a brand new novel which takes place concurrently with the first couple of novels in Jack Vance's brilliant Demon Princes saga. The best compliment I can pay the book is that I frequently forgot that it was not written by Jack Vance. After this novel was initially announced, I realised that I had never actually read the fifth and final Demon Princes book, The Book of Dreams, and spent a marvellous day putting that right. This could be a pea from the same pod. There is perhaps a bit less of the surprising vocabulary for which Vance was famous, but there's all the toughness, cleverness, food and fashion one could want. It's interesting to see how a female protagonist would navigate Vance's universe.

If I had an issue with it, it would be that at no point does Morwen even consider the fate of the other slaves taken during the Demon Princes' raid, which felt a bit off. The book does stress repeatedly how single-minded she is about rescuing her parents, but perhaps a sequel would see her expand her goals. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would happily read many more in a similar vein. Stephen Theaker ****

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