The Commons by Matthew Hughes (book review)

December 3, 2016 | By | 1 Reply More

I first came across Matthew Hughes in ‘Interzone’ a few years back and was immediately struck by the story’s similarity to something that might have been written by Jack Vance. Of course, I’m not the only one to have spotted that and the cover of this and his other books makes that comparison. This book is probably less Vancian than some of Hughes’ other work, due to the fact that much of the action takes place in ‘The Commons’, the collective subconscious of the human race.


The hero of the book, Guth Bandar, finds himself in many settings and situation drawn from myth, legend and fairy tale where bizarre rules apply and there is far less formality and restraint than the real world that he inhabits. The novel is composed of several chapters that were initially published as short stories in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’. They tell the story if Guth Bandar’s abortive career in the venerable Institute for Historical Inquiry and his discovery that the Collective Unconscious has become conscious.

The first chapter, set when Guth Bandar is still an apprentice at the institute, spends time wandering the Commons and laying down the ground rules of how this phenomenon works. The risk of setting a story in a dream world is that you can allow anything to happen, which tends to make the story pointless and loses the involvement of the reader. Hughes has given much thought to his concept of the Commons, setting out the rules that govern this subconscious landscape and the interactions of explorers and denizens. Then, in subsequent chapters, he finds ways to subvert the rules, discover exceptions and challenge the millennia-old smug superiority of the Institute scholars who are convinced that they already know everything there is to be known about the Commons.

Each chapter is a new episode in Guth Bandar’s life, but each is linked by the underlying threat of something stirring in the Commons, of mankind’s subconscious gaining its own consciousness and of Guth Bandar’s life being steered against his volition.

Matthew Hughes’ writing is highly enjoyable, full of wonderfully-described characters who use rarefied vocabulary that had me turning to the dictionary on a regular basis. The dialogue between characters is always entertaining, as is the selection of facial expressions and extravagant gestures that they like to use.

The story really ramps up in the final two contiguous chapters, which also spend much more time in the real world rather than just in the dream world of the Commons. We get to experience some of Matthew Hughes’ marvellously inventive descriptions of the society of a far-future earth. The aftermath of a long-past alien invasion, a glimpse of other well-known animals that have been bred to intelligence and developed their own culture and a complex double-layer or triple-layer plot make this a rousing conclusion to the book.

There are several other books by Matthew Hughes set in the same universe, with some character crossover and this book cements my determination to get hold of the rest of them.

Gareth D Jones

December r 2016

(pub: Robert J. Sawyer Books/Red Deer Press, 2007. 313 page enlarged paperback. Price: $19.95 (CAN), $17.95 (US). ISBN: 978-0-88995-391-8)

check out websites: http://www.robertjsawyer.com/, http://www.reddeerpress.com/ and www.archonate.com

Category: Books, Scifi

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