OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
What the Wind Brings – by Matthew Hughes
Published in 2019 by Pulp Literature Press, Langley, British Columbia, Canada.
Editor: Not indicated in my unproofed advance review copy.
Cover art: Not indicated in my unproofed advance review copy.
The 16th century Spanish Galleon La Virgen is shipwrecked on the northwest coast of what is now Ecuador. A “cargo” of African slaves liberate themselves, then seek the help of a local tribe to prepare for the inevitable retribution by Spanish authorities.
I’ll not leave you in suspense. I inform you up front I had great fun reading this novel. I quite like it. Now I’ll tell you why.
But first I’ll give three reasons why I am reviewing what is apparently “just” a straightforward historical novel in a column devoted to reviewing Canadian SF&F/horror genre fiction.
1) It is a sort of alternative history, being very much a summation of a slave revolt that actually took place, but expanding on it, in effect describing a fictional event solidly based on historical reality.
2) Matthew Hughes is a Canadian author.
3) Matthew Hughes is a Canadian author noted for writing fantasy, and fantasy is such a strong component of this slipstream novel it makes the situation and consequent events very real and very credible. Don’t worry. I’ll explain what this means as I go along.
Like any good historical novel, there are myriad characters. However, there are only three point-of-view characters.
The first point-of-view character we meet is a hermaphrodite shaman whose name translates as “Expectation.” They are a member of the Nigua nation whose towns along the coast had previously been sacked by the Spanish, most of their tribe killed, and the majority of the remainder taken away as slaves to be worked to death in mines in the distant highlands. The surviving Nigua, hiding deep in the coastal jungle, are not fond of the Spanish. The role of a hermaphrodite shaman carries with it great responsibility and a certain amount of honour, as well as limitations and restrictions according to custom. Useful but despised would be one way of describing Expectation’s position in the tribe.
The second point-of-view character is Alonso Illescas, functioning as agent for the illustrious grandee Don Alvaro of the House of Illescas. Ordinarily this would be a prestigious position, but the Captain and crew of La Virgen barely tolerate his presence for he is merely an African slave brought up in the household of Don Alvaro as a kind of pet, albeit one granted certain legal powers as his master’s representative. Alonso has no memory of his childhood in Africa. He views himself as a really good imitation of an upper class Spanish dignitary, complete with Castilian accent and superb skill with a rapier. Unfortunately, this merely confirms his role as an amusing clown in the eyes of his “peers.” His only means of maintaining his self-respect is to serve his master with utmost devotion. It’s a way of ignoring what he actually is, another person useful but despised.
Before I get to the third point-of-view character I’ll mention Anton. He is the leader of the slave “cargo” owned by Don Alvaro and under the charge of Alonso. Definitely a main character, perhaps the main character, being a former officer in the standing army of a West African kingdom who, upon being captured by a rival kingdom’s army, was sold into slavery, then led a nearly successful slave revolt in New Spain, only to be defeated and reduced to slavery once again. He carries a lot of anger and hatred in his heart. A man filled with grudges. He, too, is useful (as a slave) but despised, and feared. He’s the sort of man you automatically fear as soon as you meet him.
We don’t get to experience Anton’s thoughts, but because his decisions count more than anyone else’s he is an overwhelming presence uppermost in the thoughts of Expectation and Alonso as they struggle to cope with his power over them and at the same time seek to manipulate him to their advantage. Did I mention Anton hates being manipulated? He’s a little like Stalin. Proven loyalty on the part of his subordinates makes him suspicious. He’s a brilliant leader, even charismatic, but habitually paranoid. He fears his friends more than his enemies. It is fascinating following Expectation’s and Alonso’s thinking as they twist and turn with the dictates of Anton, not to mention their evolving relationship with each other. Introspection is one of the strongpoints of the novel, one of its most intriguing turn-the-page attractions. Well done, Matthew.
The third point-of-view character comes in about a third of the way through the book. This is Fray Alejandro de Espinosa, a monk of the Trinitarian Order, the first such to travel to the New World. The Inquisition holds him under deep suspicion. First of all, he is the grandchild of Conversos, Spanish Jews forcibly converted to Christianity. Secondly, and more damning, his Order believes the natives of the newly conquered lands possess human souls which are capable of being salvaged for God. Consequently, the Trinitarians seek to improve the lives of the natives both spiritually AND materially, for they believe all Christians deserve a good life. This is anathema to the established orders who see conversion as a means to an end, namely creating large numbers of docile and profitable slaves or, to put it another way, a means of husbanding a useful resource. Political and religious authorities view Alejandro as subversive, an enemy of the existing order. Only the richer merchants see interesting possibilities in his mission. Suffice to say he is considered ever-so-slightly potentially useful but also absolutely someone to be despised.
Alejandro is a bit like Alonso, concentrating on devotion to his purpose to avoid the world of hurt he faces if the authorities decide to move against him. On the other hand, he is more naive than Alonso, for his faith is so simple and pure the Machiavellian manipulations of his superiors pass right over his head. Inevitably, at some point they give up, so awed are they at meeting someone guileless and honest beyond normal human behaviour. Rather refreshing really. Amusing. At times this aspect of his nature is a life saver. Not exactly well-equipped to meet Anton, though.
Now we come to what is probably the main strength of the novel, it’s powerful sense of “you are there” in terms of the reality of the societies portrayed, undoubtedly due to extensive research which is seamlessly integrated into the flow of the plot without in any way knocking the reader out of the story. Matthew portrays “what is” in a very convincing, almost cinematic manner, so vivid is his description. The reader has no problem believing what they are reading.
The description of the jungle, for instance. It’s not a generic jungle by any means. It’s a lush and precise landscape that puts me in mind of two books I greatly enjoyed as a child, SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON by Johann David Wyss and MARTIN RATTLER by R. M. Ballantyne. Both envelop you in a grand tour of the environment which WHAT THE WIND BRINGS more than matches.
The Nigua and neighbouring native societies are well detailed: their habits, their clothing, their agriculture, their military tactics, and so forth. But more importantly, their social situational-awareness and politics. Years ago I saw a documentary on a particular Amazonian tribe, probably done by National Geographic since I think they are the only ones who could get away with full frontal nudity on TV (the tribe not much for clothing). I was struck by the air of the Headman of the tribe. He appeared arrogant, and his eyes seemed to sparkle with malicious glee whenever he issued instructions. He was obviously a man who revelled in his power over others, who enjoyed his power. Did he ever abuse his power? I don’t know. I just remember thinking thank god he’s stuck in the Amazon and has no chance of becoming a Canadian politician. Customs vary, but typical human types are found everywhere.
This kind of realism Matthew makes use of. There are no card-board villains among the Nigua, or any other indication of reliance on standard fiction clichés regarding “primitive” tribes. Instead, Matthew does an excellent job portraying the ambiguity and complexity of numerous ordinary individuals competing for prestige in a society where affront to reputation is taken very seriously indeed. As a result the political and social mores of the Nigua are every bit as convincing and real as the portrayal of the Spanish. No mean feat.
The stand-out aspect of the description of the Nigua is very specific, the shamanistic practices of Expectation. Most authors might simply describe what the shaman believes, and leave it at that. Not Matthew. When Expectation goes on a spirit journey they GO on a spirit journey, seeing and learning things otherwise unobtainable, and sharing this information to boldly effect events. Furthermore, when drawing out spirits or reuniting an individual’s animal spirit with their body this is not visualized as an act of sympathetic magic, the healing result being a mere coincidence, but as an ACTUAL occurrence as real and genuine as the time Alonso tripped on the beach. This is where the element of fantasy comes in. Anton may be Islamic and distrustful of non-Moslems, Alonso and Alejandro may be pious Christians, but Expectation’s paganism is the only religion portrayed as something more than just belief, the only religion shown to be an active, physical phenomenon capable of altering both people and events. I’d go so far as to say Shamanism is the one genuine religion to be found in the novel, the other two religions merely being examples of belief systems. Only Shamanism actually works. This unusual emphasis alone makes this a remarkable book, quite amazing even for a slipstream novel, and yet, perhaps, to many readers just an exercise in fantasy, not to be taken seriously. Maybe so, but a darn interesting approach, to put it mildly.
The “reality” of the slave society depends very much on Anton. His task is made easier by the fact the slaves come from a variety of African cultures, so imposing just one particular system is not necessary. He can be flexible. Further, his people cannot survive unless they intermingle and intermarry within the existing Nigua society which is rooted in centuries of tradition. This reinforces his need to be flexible, albeit totally inflexible when it comes to the exertion of his authority. The fascination for the reader is not so much “what is” as opposed to “what can be” if the right decisions are made. Watching Anton struggle to unite and grow his “kingdom” without making any mistakes that would risk ripping it apart is one of the pleasures of this book.
The “reality” of Spanish society is very real indeed. If anything, competition for prestige among the Spanish is greater than among the Nigua. Avarice, pride, cruelty, and corruption are the basis of relationships between assorted vested interest groups just as in today’s modern society. Hardly any difference really, apart from the prevalence of happy happy joy joy propaganda in today’s social media. But the Spanish society described within this book is given an extra “kick” by the revelation of how miserable life frequently was, even for the Spanish overlords. Traveling by mule along decaying Inca highways in the mountains could, at best, be described as uncomfortable. Travelling by Galleon was filthy, frightening, and often downright disgusting. Poling rafts up jungle rivers the same only more dangerous. Everyone, even the rulers, were but one step away from death. Most, because they were scrambling hard just to earn enough to eat; many, because they were being worked to death and a whip or a stave utilized on a whim could mean their end; and for the privileged few, lack of sanitation and badly prepared food could kill you in a heartbeat. If you were going to be greedy, better accumulate wealth as fast as you can, because you probably won’t live long to enjoy it. Cruelty to others was the best way to be kind to yourself. I think the Nigua have a better lifestyle.
Actually, the description of Spanish life in the newly conquered colonies brings to mind a famous question the Peruvian historian Garcilaso de la Vega, son of an Inca princess and a Spanish conquistador, once asked an elderly Inca nobleman, namely: Did the Spanish introduce anything new to Peru that was worthwhile? Anything at all?
The ex-nobleman, once a member of the Inca’s court, thought long and hard. Finally he lifted his head and stated “Scissors. That’s it. Scissors. Nothing else.”
In short, the new world forming is just what it was and nothing more. Good or bad, everyone within it needs to cope with continuing changes in order to survive. The fascination of this book is that the main characters are struggling to be proactive, fighting to not only survive but come out on top, and it isn’t easy, particularly as they tend to get in each other’s way. Nevertheless we witness them growing and changing, maturing you might say, as they earn more and more respect from others around them and, more significantly, respect themselves beyond their initial doubts as experience proves them to be better than they had assumed. No stereotypical characters here, but living, breathing human beings embedded in an exciting social context. Most of them wind up very useful indeed and not-at-all despised.
What about the plot? Basically, Anton is trying to set up his own nation, and the Spanish are determined to crush it and him in a decisive and profitable manner. There are numerous obstacles in the path of everyone’s intentions. Consequently, the plot is neither straightforward or predictable. Matthew springs quite a few surprises, albeit quite credible ones given the situation.
The buildup to the ending might be a bit controversial to some. I’ll just say it reflects the reality behind politics and diplomacy as opposed to wishful thinking on those topics.
And the ending itself is satisfying, if you see the point of it. I found it quite appropriate.
I should add that this is not a YA historical romance, but rather a very adult novel dealing with adult themes. Oh, not sex particularly, there is nothing graphic here, but rather adult musings on the darker side of human competition, politics, and the cruelty inherent in so much human activity. Not a contest with an evil villain, so much as resistance to the evil which temptation can bring out in all of us at the most inconvenient times. Second-guessing every decision by every character is also part of the fun of reading this novel. Makes one think, it does.
To sum up, I found WHAT THE WIND BRINGS to be highly entertaining and most enjoyable. What really blew me away is the matter-of-fact take-it-for-granted exposition which brings each and every scene vividly to life. I was totally immersed in the book from beginning to end. A bit sad to lift my head out of the pages and return to my own mundane life. I recommend this book. It’s a treat.
You can pre-order it here: < http://pulpliterature.com/the-bookstore/what-the-wind-brings/ >