Review: “Template,” Matthew Hughes

Pros: The last quarter of the book
Cons: Dry, tedious; wooden main character; monolithic societies…
Rating: 3 out of 5

Matthew Hughes’s Template: A Novel of the Archonate introduces us to Conn Labro, a famed duelist who’s indentured to a gaming emporium. He was sold to them when he was too young to remember, and he has little curiosity about where he came from. One day an old client who would play a particular game with him once a week fails to show up, and Conn finds out that he was killed. Shortly thereafter, the owner of the gaming emporium and his heir both die in an attack. A man buys Conn’s contract, only for Conn to find out that his dead client left him with enough money to buy out his contract and be wealthy afterward. Conn leaves the planet with another friend of his client, Jenore Mordene, and the two of them look for answers about a bearer deed his client left behind, as well as Conn’s mysterious origins.

Genre clarification: this is philosophical SF. Seriously, in-depth, philosophical SF, largely about the economic basis of various societies. Here’s a good example of the kind of narrative you can expect:

Transactualism was a utilitarian system that held that existence conducted under rules of zero-sum accounting offered a high degree of orderliness, a characteristic that the system’s adherents prized above all. They rejected abstract concepts in favor of quantifiable realities….

In a general sense I don’t mind philosophical SF, but I don’t like the way in which this book carried it out. Conn isn’t just low-emotion; he’s wooden. Jenore is clearly there to help him become a Real Boy. Each world or region the characters encounter has a monolithic economic system based in a single societal value (one character opines that each is governed by one of the seven deadly sins). Each person they encounter, no matter how highly (or not) educated, is capable of debating their society’s culture and economy. (This also makes many of the characters sound the same.) Everyone speaks in high-falutin’ language, and the author enjoys using hundred-dollar words. It’s very self-consciously pretentious. Also, despite the fact that Conn is a famed duelist and gamer, we only see him engage in one card game and one duel (which comes at the end). For such a physical character he almost never gets to engage physically.

That last quarter of the book helped to redeem it. By that time the staccato rhythm of the character interactions had smoothed out. The pretentious language had eased off a bit. Some things became physical, the characters discussed things other than economic philosophy, Conn started developing emotions, and we got to find out about Conn’s origins. Obviously I won’t give those away; I’ll just say the whole thing was fascinating and made up for much of the preceding chapters of the book.

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