Russell Letson Reviews What the Wind Brings by Matthew Hughes

What the Wind Brings, Matthew Hughes (Pulp Literature 978-1988865157, $39.95, 407pp, hc) December 2019. Cover by Willem van de Velde the Younger.

Matthew Hughes is known for his science fiction and fantasy, particularly of the Jack Vance-inspired variety, but he has had a long career in other neighborhoods, notably crime fiction and political speechwriting. His new novel is something quite different from all that – a vivid and carefully researched evocation of a time and place unfamiliar to most of us in the Anglophone world. What the Wind Brings is set in mid-sixteenth-century Ecuador, a generation after the defeat of the Incas and the establishment of a Spanish colonial regime. Nearly all of it takes place far from the centers of power, in the coastal lowland forest where European diseases have left remnants of the indigenous Nigua people in much-reduced circumstances, hiding from aggressive neighbors and Spanish incursions.

To one such Nigua village comes a group of shipwrecked-and-escaped African slaves who, with their salvaged weapons and goods, quickly set themselves up as the new village leaders. We see this from two viewpoints: Expectation (first-person), the village healer and shaman, who in a vision saw “what the wind was bringing”; and Alonso Illescas (third-person), a former slave somewhat elevated to servant status by the merchant family that bought him and put him in charge of a cargo of slaves. Expectation and Alonso are marginal figures even in their nominal home contexts – in Expectation’s phrase, “neither one thing nor the other.” The healer is a hermaphrodite and cannot take part in most of the tribe’s gendered social and work life, but she (to use the pronoun the Nigua use) functions as seer and tribal advisor as well as physician and spiritual counselor, and thus has a stable role in village society. Alonso, though black and shipwrecked along with the Africans, is not accepted as one of them because he was their keeper. He is multiply displaced: first enslaved, then semi-adopted by the Illescas family, then an anomalous member of the newly mixed Afro-Nigua village society. Where is his place, his identity? Again, Expectation understands: “One who stands between two worlds does not enjoy the soundest footing.”

In fact, most of the cast is dislodged, displaced, decentered, or distant from their familiar worlds: the Niguas, reduced by disease and squeezed between old and new opponents, hiding out in the forest; the Africans who will, despite having escaped slavery, never go home again. Even the Spaniards who come a-pillaging have a hard time understanding what they’re up against in this hazardous New World (fevers, ambushes, poisoned arrows). A third viewpoint character who enters later, the Trinitarian friar Alejandro Espinosa, is both running away from and toward something. As part of a well-to-do converso family, he is a target for the Inquisition; and, as a genuinely good-hearted cleric, he is looking toward something transformative and clarifying. That turns out to be doing God’s work among the Indios, who don’t know quite what to make of him.

This is a story of survival and renewals and transformations, as the Nigua and Africans merge their quite different cultural patterns into something new and viable and capable of dealing with Spanish expansionism. It is the flexible, pragmatic Niguas who at first do much of the adapting, which takes some of the authoritarian, violent edge off the Africans and moderates the danger represented by their leader, Anton. This is a story of community-building and rebuilding, of adapting old ways to suit new circumstances, and of how those processes can also rebuild personalities – or break those too brittle to bend. It is also the story of individual adaptations, as the three viewpoint characters, all vulnerable, find ways to fit into the new orders forming all around them.

Nor are the Spaniards the only threats to survival and stability. The Africans’ success is largely thanks to the energy, intelligence, and aggressiveness of Anton, who had already led one slave revolt. But Anton will not brook any serious challenge to his authority and will only bend so far in adapting to local ways. He automatically distrusts both Expectation (whom he sees as an unnatural creature and a witch) and Alonso, in whom he sees a possible rival. Expectation also sees something in Alonso: that he lost his “guiding spirit” long ago, and she determines to help him find it. As Alonso gains confidence and comfort, his leadership qualities assure that he heads for an inevitable crisis with Anton.

The cast is filled out with vivid figures whose connections to the protagonists shape the story. Anton’s wife, Miriam, is a shrewd counselor and moderating influence. The Portuguese soldier Gonzola de Avila takes a liking to Frey Alejandro and makes sure that the friar survives the hazards of city and jungle; and the pragmatic, just-doing-business facade of muleteer Juan Hernandez does not prevent him from doing crucial good turns at critical junctures.

All this cross-cultural conflict and negotiation involves a good bit of movement across a physical and social landscape: ships and port towns and tribal territories, populated by indigenes and invaders, missionaries and colonial opportunists, and the stomped-flat remains of the original societies. A major set-piece involves a diplomatic mission by the Nigua to Quito, once an Incan capital and now razed and rebuilt as a Spanish colonial city and populated by conquerors and conquered and passers-through. Expectation, always observant and thoughtful (and in many ways the novel’s raissoneur), notes “I was seeing more people here and now than the sum total of all the people I had ever seen in my life.” On passing through the compound of an influential merchant, she reflects,

It was all most interesting, and I understood that what we used to consider riches were nothing compared to the wealth a Spaniard could command. I wondered what that might do to the way they saw themselves and the world. And, of course, us.

That observation might well be the point of this book, to tell the story of how ways of seeing collide and merge and adapt and rub the sharp edges off each other – or break or erase each other.

Why, one might reasonably ask, is this historical novel getting a review here? A technical qualification might be that in this world, the supernatural is apparently real: when Expectation has a vision or works a spiritual cure, it is not only real-to-her but validated by events as experienced by others. Thus (says this materialist) we have a fantasy. But more compelling for me is how the whole book feels. This is not quite the place to map out the N-dimensional Venn diagram of the overlapping features of SF/F with the mystery and historical genres, but I will say that Hughes offers more than a couple of the pleasures that I assume are pursued by readers of the fantastic genres: a tour of a world that is whole and convincing, but nothing like anything in the reader’s experience; a chance to live inside the minds of those who live in that world, to see things at once from inside and outside. It also has a surprising, moving, and satisfying coda that echoes the novel’s visionary opening and confirms Hughes’s considerable gift as a writer.

Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.

This review and more like it in the March 2020 issue of Locus.

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