Backcover: Young security officer Baro Harkless, an idealist driven by the memory of his heroic father, and jaded Luff Imbry, a mounteback, swindler, and forger of the first water, form an uneasy truce when they discover a common goal: capturing the grandest con-man of them all, Horselan Gebbling. Gebbling has chosen as his prey the victims of the first new disease in millenia, the invariably fatal ailment known as the lassitude.
He dangles in front of the victims the fabled gemstone called black brillion. About black brillion, learned men agree on only two things: it can do anything, and it doesn’t exists. But Gebbling boasts of having it, and its effects on the lassitude are nothing short of magical. Boro and Luff get caught up in an ever-growing tangle of mysteries.
The Archonate, the Old Earth, the whole setting is inspired by Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books, something that Hughes openly acknowledges. But Hughes didn’t do just a bland copy. While his future obviously copies the theme of an Earth so old that our present is buried under layers upon layers of history, he added his own unique touches. There’s the Commons, a dream realm that contains the emotions and memories of all humans that have lived before. Space travel is still something humans and a multitude of aliens do.
But the biggest difference to Vance is the style, which is a lot more accessible and at least to me, much more fun to read. Hughes approach to writing dialog and characters reminded me of Pratchett, with none of the philosophical bent and a slightly different sense of humor that delights in making entirely different types of personalities clash.