Matthew Hughes: The Gist Hunter and Other Stories

The Gist Hunter is a fun book which collects a number of Matthew Hughes’ short fiction, including all of the stories leading up to his first Henghis Hapthorn novel, Majestrum. While the Hapthorn novels can be enjoyed on their own, these stories explain how Hapthorn learned of the impending ascendance of magic in the universe, how his intuition became its own fully-formed personality, and how he acquired some of the paraphernalia he owns. There’s even an arc in these stories involving Hapthorn’s friend from another universe which is alluded to in the novels, but which is all over by that time.

The Hapthorn stories are mostly mysteries, very much in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes: “Mastermindless” introduces Hapthorn and reads a little more like a fable (everything happens because of a really bad decision someone made), as if Hughes hadn’t quite decided whether to take the character in a more grounded or a more magical direction. “Relics of the Thim”, “Falberoth’s Ruin” and “Thwarting Jabbi Gloond” all have nifty science fictional twists to their resolution. “Finding Sajessarian” and “The Gist Hunter” are more in the style of adventure stories, and are at the core of the character’s development leading up to Majestrum. Other than “Falberoth’s Ruin”, which I found a little mundane, they’re all fine stories.

The other series of stories here features the character Guth Bandar, also a resident of the far-future Archonate in which Hapthorn lives, but the two inhabit completely different regions of society: Bandar is a “noönaut”, who travels into humanity’s collective unconscious as a researcher and scholar. The three stories here check in on different points in Bandar’s career, as a student and later as an experienced traveller. They’re entertaining and clever, but don’t feel quite as rewarding as the Hapthorn stories, perhaps because they are merely snapshots of his career, ones which don’t flow into each other very smoothly. There is also a little too much feeling of “anything goes” in the stories, as Bandar falls prey to the whims of fictional deities, has various convenient spells at his disposal, and undergoes some rather creepy changes, such as turning into a pig. It doesn’t eel grounded in well-understood rules, which is a characteristic of stories which bothers me. I’ll see if the Bandar novel, The Commons, is more satisfying.

The remainder of the volume consists of standalone stories. “Go Tell The Phoenicians” is a nifty H. Beam Piper-esque first contact story, but the others are plain by comparison. But since the Hapthorn and Bandar stories making up most of the book, that’s not a big problem.

The Gist Hunter is great reading for a Hapthorn fan, and the jury’s still out (for me) on the Bandar stories. Overall, it’s a lot of fun.