OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
A God in Chains – by Matthew Hughes
Published: in October, 2019, by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, an imprint of Hades Publications.
Edited by: Shannon Parr
Cover Art: Karri Mark Steele
A man seeks to discover his hidden past in a world seemingly bent on ignoring his quest.
Good grief! Matthew is an amazingly ballsy author. The book begins with the main character walking along a dirt road in grasslands not knowing who he is, where he is from, where he is going, and what happened prior to the moment of suddenly being self aware. A total amnesiac, in other words. This is NOT how a novel is supposed to begin. It’s right up there with “And they turned out to be named Adam and Eve” as a cliché to avoid.
A science fiction novel I attempted to sell in the 1970s began roughly the same way, a man near frozen to death waking up in an icy cell not knowing anything about himself. My theory was that the reader would instantly be attracted to the mystery of it all and be eager to share his process of discovery. Trouble is, well, as Del Rey editor Shelly Shapiro put it in her rejection letter, “We don’t like your main character and we don’t think anyone else will either.”
Thing is, reading the opening chapters of Matthew’s novel, I feel my theory is vindicated. Mainly because his character ignores confusion and despair to concentrate on the logic of the world around him. For one thing, observing evidence of wagon tracks, hoof-prints and animal dung on the road, plus noting a cloud of dust in the distance, he concludes there is a caravan up ahead and he better catch up with it if he wants to be safe from nomads or robbers. This decision feels right, and he takes it as evidence of past experience of some kind which is, in itself, a small clue to what he may be. So, he picks up the pace. Thus begins his journey of self-discovery.
Now, in the first few chapters we learn he is a very capable warrior/fighter with a high level of education which presumably places him in the vicinity of the elite in this medieval society where magic is very real. Oddly, he accepts each revelation of capability in a matter-of-fact manner without questioning any of it. In fact he seems totally lacking in curiosity about himself. He is living in the moment and taking advantage of the moment as best he can. His own theory is that someone has cast a magic spell over him, but as someone else points out, his own lack of interest strongly suggests that he himself arranged to lose his memory as a means of safeguarding knowledge that might prove fatal to his interest were he to remember it. He tucks this away as just another possibility. His approach to everything is an inhuman lack of doubt combined with rational analysis as if he were used to being on top of every situation no matter how dire. That too, is a clue.
This got me rather excited, looking forward to reading further with keen anticipation. You see, my failed novel attempt was nothing if not ambitious. The core conundrum of my novel was whether or not the main character was in fact the promised messiah of a religion I based on that of the Aztecs. As you might guess, his messiah-like role would prove to be a bloody affair for those who had to be removed in order to achieve deliverance for others. Consequently, anyone and everybody he met up with had an automatic visceral reaction depending on whether they figured he was going to kill them or deliver them. And then there were those who assumed either he was or wasn’t what was promised but by the gods they intended to exploit him to their own advantage. Others just wanted to kill him so they wouldn’t have to worry about him no matter what he was. I thought endless plot possibilities here. Del Rey seemed to think too many, to the point of rendering the plot impossible to understand or comprehend.
Anyway, point is, what with the title of this novel being A God in Chains, could this character be the God in question? Is that what he would turn out to be? And we get to share his point of view as the revelations pour forth? An exciting prospect. My talent as a writer wasn’t up to the task. But Matthew is a solid professional with absolutely valid skills (by arrangement with the son of Jack Vance he is currently working on a sequel to a Jack Vance novel—how cool is that?) so, if he is, by sheer coincidence, tackling a somewhat similar theme, I am intensely interested.
I might as well reassure you at this point in my review that of course there is NO comparison between my feeble attempt at a novel 40 odd years ago and A God in Chains. The hero may or may not be what he fears to be and most of the other characters don’t care, though his true identity is not a wellspring of popularity. Nor is seeking his identity the sum of his quest or the plot of the novel. Things are more complicated than that.
Matthew’s writing style is here well represented. He typically sets up a strong sense of place for the setting and strong characterizations for all of his major characters and, just when you think you’ve got a handle on things and can start to predict what is going to happen, pulls the rug out from under you by initiating a series of revelations that all is not what it seems, particularly in regard to character motivations. Sort of like a mystery where one important clue leads to another but each one, though significant, turns out to deepen the mystery and render its solution even more difficult to figure out. The pace of revelations, and new questions, increases steadily the further in you read, to the point where the book becomes a highly addictive page-turner and you are reluctant to stop reading. Starts slow, but then you can’t put it down. There’s a great deal of magic in this book, not least in the skill of the author.
Now, the main character, who at one point decides to call himself Farouche (not his real name as it turns out) is handicapped in a number of ways by his curse, including a lack of curiosity and a reluctance to seek particular types of help that might actually do some good. He himself describes his motivation as “lukewarm.” Goaded by a bodyguard/private-eye assigned to him by a sympathetic merchant, he nevertheless claws his way toward self-identity, in the process falling in love and acquiring both friends and enemies, some of whom turn out to be different from what they appear to be. Progress of a sort. Makes Farouche rather an abstract character difficult to empathise with since he doesn’t even empathise with himself.
What keeps the reader interested is the fact that the mystery gets mysteriouser and mysteriouser with each new revelation. Plus the fun of assorted adventures like a fascinating river boat cruise (I kept expecting Mike Fink to appear—anybody remember that 1956 episode of the Disney Davey Crockett series?), dangerous caravan expeditions, and the always risky habit of sitting down for a drink in seemingly reputable taverns.
Then, halfway through the book, the point of view switches from Farouche to his bodyguard helper Goladry, who is definitely not what he appears. Or she. Hard to say. And there’s a reason for that. Farouche is under a spell? In more ways than one. But so too is Goladry. In this character there is a mountain of motivation, most of it having to do with spirituality and religion based on the hard physical fact of phenomenality. Goladry is faithful and loyal to Farouche, but not because of the latter’s lack of charisma, but rather because he is the key to freedom and other needful things. Farouche has more to offer than the usual boss, and doesn’t know it.
Ah, yes, religion. It becomes the dominant theme of the book. Or to be more precise, the system of phenomenality which the original Demiurge (Creator God) brought into being and then abandoned to run its course. A number of evil thaumaturges (wizards) have learned to exploit the possibilities inherent in the magical underpinnings of the universe (its hidden theme as it were) to enhance their own power. To be fair, it seems ALL wizards are evil. Even the best of them are hopeless narcissists with scant patience and zero self-restraint. Talking to one is like sticking your finger in an electric socket. It’s not a question of if you suffer harm, but how much.
As is customary throughout most of the history of the human race, politics and religion are combined, especially in the town of Exley where much of the action takes place. But this is not merely a matter of a belief system. For one thing, the various deities they worship actually exist. For another, the citizens’ collective spiritual power is very much a “thing” and something which Farouche needs to comprehend among many other clues offered by circumstance.
I was very much taken with the innumerable deities cast aside and forgotten over the course of time. It annoys them no end nobody worships them anymore. Their cult effigies and statues have become mere trinkets and curiosities to be sold at the less reputable end of local markets, they are the coffee-table knickknacks of this medieval world, something to laugh at and despise. Mere kitsch, albeit with latent powers eager to be stirred by them as knows how. And some wizards, it appears, have awakened to the possibilities.
And then there’s Efferion. It is a God, and much of the second half of the novel is told from its point of view. This is Matthew Hughes being ballsy again. Now, a Classical Greek God is easy to do. Most of the time they look human and much of the time they behave like a human on a binge. Not this one. Efferion is a lesser God brought into existence to help the Demiurge create all that exists. Human desires and motivations are not built-in and must be learned. The plot is such that that Efferion and Faraouche and Goladry and many others including the bad guys are all dependant on one another to a) continue to exist, and b) realise their goals. Having an actual God, especially one that is not all-powerful, in the mix makes things very interesting. And being rational in a non-human way, Efferion is a useful device to explore the intent and motivation of the Demiurge behind it all. I would say the belief system espoused makes as much sense as any other. Who knows? Could start a cult.
As an example of the level of thought and research that has gone into the writing of this novel, important to the plot are the concepts of the Ka, Ba and the Kra. I won’t explain how Matthew defines them differently for the purpose of his book, but in Ancient Egyptian mythology (you may be familiar with these concepts as employed in the 1999 film The Mummy) the Ka is that part of the immortal soul which remains with the body of the deceased, The Ba is the element of the soul flitting back and forth between the tomb and the underworld, a sort of divine lifeline, and the Akh, which the book calls Kra, is the immortal soul enjoying the bliss of the upperworld with the Gods. Details like this reveal how complex the religious views of the characters are. How complex the book is. It starts off as a straightforward fantasy adventure and evolves into a philosophical treatise on the nature of religion, or rather on the narrower topic of mankind’s insatiable appetite for exploiting religion for political and personal gain. Much to think about.
Not to worry. Matthew’s easygoing style effortlessly adds layers of complexity that is easy to digest and leaves you calling for more. And, as in all good mystery writing, all the loose ends get tied up, the relationships made crystal clear, and the ending satisfies.
A God in Chains is far and above the average adventure novel in sophistication, yet is as readable as the best of them. The further into it you get, the deeper you are drawn into the quest, the greater your desire to find out what happens next. Nothing about this book is disappointing. Heck of a good read. If you are looking for an immersive escape from the depressing news of late, this book is perfect. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Highly recommended.
Check it out at: < A God in Chains >