In The Other, Matthew Hughes returns to his character of Luff Imbry from one of his early novels, Black Brillion. Imbry is a confidence man and handler of stolen goods, and the novel opens with one of his rivals getting the drop on him and shipping him off to the planet Fulda. This is a hardship for Imbry in several ways: Fulda is not very advanced, so he’s forced to put in real labor to support himself, and there’s something strange about the Fuldans which prevents Imbry from ever fitting in with them. Fulda is also very isolated from the rest of the galaxy so there’s no clear way for him to get off the planet.
He’s dropped on Fulda with a man named Tuchol, who is not very nice, but it’s unclear if he’s willingly in the employ of whomever nabbed Imbry. Tuchol turns out to be associated with what seems to be a small circus – at least, people who are able to perform various feats which they do for show – and Imbry falls in with them. Unfortunately Imbry soon comes to the attention of the police, one of whom takes a very strong disliking to him. So the story involves Imbry trying to stay alive, trying to avoid the police, trying to find a way off the planet, and trying to figure out the secrets of Fulda, four tasks which are all intertwined.
The challenge with writing a character like Imbry is to make the reader get behind him. Imbry has a jolly facade, but the reader is always aware that this guy is a criminal, albeit of the thieving rather than murdering variety. One of the reasons Black Brillion worked so well was that it played a more straightforward heroic protagonist off against Imbry, allowing Imbry’s amusing personality to shine without having to carry the book. Hughes mostly makes it work here, because what’s been done to Imbry is clearly so wrong that you can’t help but root for him to get out and exact his revenge. But I found it difficult to embrace him entirely. In a way, Imbry is the opposite number of Hughes’ Sherlock Holmesian character Henghis Hapthorn: Imbry is a criminal but is amusing and amiable, while Hapthorn is a good guy but also basically a jerk.
Imbry gets wrapped up in two different mysteries: First, what’s so queer about the Fuldans, and what makes some of them so irrationally hostile towards Imbry (if you’re familiar with Phil Foglio’s graphic novel Psmith then you might find some echoes of that here). Second, he gets dragged into a prophecy the Fuldans have circulated among themselves (with varying belief levels), leading to an even larger revelation which turns out to be rather clever.
Much of the enjoyment of the book comes from seeing how Imbry deals with the burdens placed upon him. He faces a variety of people who won’t listen to him, view him with suspicion, and to whom he cannot ingratiate himself. But his cleverness and personality often allow him to find a way to get by even among such people. The wit which works its way through all of Hughes’ work is in full flower here.
While I enjoyed The Other, I don’t think it measures up to some of Hughes’ other work, and I think Imbry’s status falling between hero and antihero is a big part of that. Though given how the book ends, I would be willing to read a sequel in which we see Imbry working a little more in his natural element. But I’m doubtful that Imbry is a strong enough character (without a significant development in his character beyond where he started) to carry a series of novels.
It took me a while, but I finally finished up Matthew Hughes’ novels with these, his first two, which tell the story of Filidor Vesh, nephew of the Archon of Old Earth, and his adventures in the far future. At the beginning of Fools Errant, Filidor is a playboy and ne’er-do-well in the capital city of Olkney, when he’s charged with a mission by his uncle. He’s directed and accompanied on this mission by a dwarf named Gaskarth, who leads him on a tour of some of the eccentric backwaters of Old Earth.
Fools Errant is told in an episodic fashion: In each section Filidor and Gaskarth arrive in a region, Gaskarth disappears to try to make contact with the Archon, whom they’re trying to catch up to, and while waiting for the dwarf to come back Filidor learns about the quirks of the region, gets into trouble, gets out of it, and learns something about himself and the world. Meanwhile there’s an ongoing story in which the two are being pursued by a sorcerer who wants something the pair is carrying with them. The story is somewhat repetitive, though Filidor’s gradual self-realization is deftly handled. The story takes a rather abrupt turn at the end as we learn exactly what the Archon has set the pair to do, and while it’s entertaining, it feels apart from the rest of the book. Moreover, as a whole Fools Errant feels more like a collection of loosely-linked stories rather than a cohesive novel. (Maybe it was published as a series of short stories originally?) It’s fun, and it displays Hughes’ skill with wit and dialogue well enough, but not his ability to weave a compelling story like his later novels do.
Fool Me Twice revisits Filidor a few years later, when he has become the Archon’s official heir, but has fallen back into his former ways. In the course of his normal duties – which not only bore him to tears, but which he finds nearly incomprehensible – Filidor meets a woman with whom he falls instantly in love, but also finds that he’s accidentally ruled against her cause due to his laziness. When they confront each other, she steals his symbol of office, and his uncle charges him to follow her to her remote home to retrieve them. But his quest is derailed when he is thrown overboard from a ship and ends up as a prisoner performing slave labor on an even-more-remote island. From here Filidor must escape, retrieve his belongings, expose the man who tried to kill him, and unravel a plot against the Archon.
I’ve been reading Hughes’ books more-or-less backwards from Majestrum, so I wonder what reading his books in the order published would have been like. These first two novels were published seven years apart, which perhaps explains why there a fair amount of repetition between them: They’re both structured as coming-of-age stories as well as travelogues of Old Earth, but Fool Me Twice shows considerable development in Hughes’ plotting and writing skills. Fools Errant gets rather repetitive before it takes a left turn into its climactic segment. Fool Me Twice is also episodic, but the segments are longer, the settings less contrived, and the pieces build on each other as Filidor gains friends, allies and resources during his travels. Perhaps most cleverly, Filidor recalls that the Archon played games with him in the first book, and wonders whether he’s doing so again here, which serves as part of the puzzle he has to deal with in the last third of Twice.
Hughes re-uses some elements of these books in his later novels (in particular, the scenario in the last third of Errant shows up in Majestrum), but again you can see him becoming a more capable writer along the way, which perhaps makes reading the books in the order written more rewarding than going backwards as I did. But there are plenty of new bits even if you’ve already read the later stories.
Although not his best, both books are still quite entertaining and showcase Hughes’ witticisms. The books are out of print, but worth seeking out in used bookstores.
There are many refreshing things about Matthew Hughes’ novels: The old-style galactic empire feel of the setting, and quirky sense of humor he puts into his writing, and even the brevity of his novels, which pack a lot of ideas and plot into stories typically under 300 pages. Template weighs in at under 200 pages, yet it’s not only one of his best, but it’s an excellent introduction to his Archonate universe.
Conn Labro is a professional duelist on the world of Thrais, and also an indentured servant on a world where everything is for sale. But when his owner and patron is killed, Conn is bought by an off-world consortium – or nearly so, as a man he’s gamed with weekly for his entire life has also been murdered, and willed Conn enough money to pay off his debt. More significantly, he’s given Conn a bearer chip which seems to be what the assassins are after. Accompanied by a woman from Old Earth, Jenore Mordene, Conn leaves Thrais to learn what his friend really left him, but he also finds the galaxy to be a much more diverse place than he’d ever expected.
Template wanders all over the place, and yet it’s a pretty terrific book. Initially I’d summarize Conn Labro as being “a Libertarian Mr. Spock”: His upbringing on Thrais makes him believe that all aspects of human endeavor of transactional, things being bought, sold and exchanged, and that anything else is irrational. Yet every other world is considerably different from Thrais, not least the archipelago on Old Earth where Jenore grew up, which is based around art and lacks monetary currency. Hughes comes up with a nifty way to consider different cultures in the Archonate via a brother and sister who have come up with the idea that every human society is based on one of the seven deadly sins. It’s a fun mental exercise.
Conn’s story is his personal odyssey to learn where he comes from (and why that matters), and where he belongs. So he has to grow emotionally to understand how to relate to other people, and a lot of the suspense comes from him making some poor choices along the way. For much of the book he has Jenore to help guide him and inform him, but eventually he has to control his own destiny. Fortunately he’s not without skills of his own (professional duelist, remember?).
While the book drags a bit in the middle when Conn and Jenore are on Old Earth and the plot doesn’t move forward very much (what does it mean when a book under 200 pages “drags a bit in the middle”?), and one could argue that the cultures Hughes portrays are too simplistic to be plausible, it’s still a really fun story. And besides, Hughes at his best – and this is him at his best – portrays both the people and the cultures of the Archonate as a little absurd, having a bit of the feel of a fable even in an otherwise serious story. (It’s not so different from, say, the races in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, actually.)
Overall Template is one of Hughes’ best books, and should appeal to anyone who likes space opera, adventure, or just good old galactic empire science fiction.
If you haven’t read Hughes’ earlier novel Black Brillion, I suggest reading it before reading The Commons, as this novel’s second half replays the events of the earlier novel, but from the point of view of Guth Bandar, a supporting character in Brillion, but the protagonist here. The Commons is a “fix-up” novel, reworked from a series of short stories featuring Bandar, plus the Brillion material. So it doesn’t entirely hang together as a novel, but it’s pretty entertaining anyway. (For what it’s worth, I read The Commons first, not realizing the connection between the two.)
Guth Bandar is a “noönaut”, a man who can enter into humanity’s collective unconscious and explore representations of our racial memories. This domain is known as The Commons, and while it’s a rich source of information, it’s also a dangerous place, as explorers can get trapped in a story or legend, or get wrapped up in the doings of archetypal figures which represent undiluted facets of human experience. The book opens with Bandar as a student at the Institute for Historical Inquiry, and its first half consists of short stories in which he attempts to become a full scholar, encountering repeated setbacks in his competition with another student, Didrick Gabbris, for favor with the capricious and insular faculty. These stories show how the Commons works, and the exotic techniques the educated traveler uses to try to insulate himself from the influences of the scenes he visits. Bandar’s adventures include:
- A visit to a planet where the native life forms are exploited into adopting human archetypes to perform in plays for the human colonists.
- Being waylaid in a contest with Gabbris and having to take the long way around to reach the finish line. (This is the most absurd story, as Bandar alters parts of his body in comical fashion in each episode, but has the best payoff when he gets stuck in a representation of the eternal war between Heaven and Hell.) You can read this story on Hughes’ web site.
- Getting caught up in the collapse of an Event in the Commons – which he inadvertently causes himself – and which reveals something hitherto unknown about the Commons.
- Getting stranded – for reasons I won’t reveal here – as the Helper to a Hero in an ancient scenario of a slaves’ revolt, which leads to a pivotal development in Bandar’s life.
As I said, the second half of the book revisits the events from Black Brillion, in which Bandar meets the policemen Baro Harkless and Luff Imbry, and learns that Harkless has an unusual and disturbing talent for entering the Commons himself. Bandar helps tutor Harkless for a while, and then gets caught up in the case the pair are investigating on the wasteland on Old Earth known as the Swept. Here he becomes the Helper to Baro Harkless’ Hero, a key component but ultimately largely a watcher in the younger man’s story.
Taken as a whole, some key elements of the novel are not very satisfying: Bandar’s life is disrupted by powers beyond his ken in order to accomplish a goal of great importance to all of humanity, but I don’t think Hughes really sells the manipulation of Bandar very well, and the ultimate goal that he and Baro Harkless manage to achieve just doesn’t feel like the sort of thing that the powers that be would have known about years ahead of time, much less manipulated Bandar to be the right man in the right place at the right time. And as a character arc the payoff for his troubles hardly seems adequate: While he finally achieves something like his life’s goals, he’s lost a big chunk of his lifetime because of his career getting derailed, and he ended up being a supporting character in someone else’s story. I really just felt sorry for the guy. Also, it felt like most of Bandar’s maturation occurs off-stage between the first and second halves, when he’s growing from a young man to an experienced one through the natural day-to-day progression of life; he definitely feels more mature in the second half, but we don’t see it happen, which makes it feel like a big part of his character arc is missing.
I think Hughes’ sense of whimsy – particularly the ludicrousness of the situations Bandar ends up in – isn’t as effective here as in other books. Indeed, a problem with both Bandar and Harkless in their respective novels is that they’re both too serious, too humorless, to feel like characters that fit into these situations. While Henghis Hapthorn is himself a pretty serious character, he has both the style and the verbal wit to be an effective actor in ridiculous or belittling situations, in ways that Bandar isn’t.
The book is at its best in portraying the narrative potential of the Commons, especially in the first half, which runs through a number of inventive situations, with clever puzzles for Bandar to figure out within the confines of this strange environment. The story involving the war between heaven and hell is my favorite precisely because Bandar takes advantage of the peculiar nature of a scenario within the Commons, and the fact that it’s not a real event, to be able to get out of his predicament.
So overall I was disappointed with The Commons; I don’t think it measures up to Hughes’ other novels. I hope he revisits the environment again sometime, but with a story that holds together better.
I’m working my way more-or-less backwards through Matthew Hughes’ tales of the Archonate, his far-future galactic society which is marked more by his own wry and whimsical turn of phrase than anything in the setting itself. Black Brillion is the tale of Baro Harkless, rookies member of the Scrutinizers (or “Scroots”) who follows the con man Luff Imbry as Imbry tries to pull a job in an unusual city on Old Earth. As is Hughes’ tendency, the opening sequence is merely a lead-in to the main story (not unlike the pattern in the James Bond movies): Baro’s success in arresting Imbry and others leads to his being instated as a full officer, but his boss, Ardmander Arboghast, quickly sends Baro off on a new assignment with a new partner – Luff Imbry, himself now a fully-deputised Scroot. Their mission is to capture another con man, Horslan Gebbling, whom Imbry once worked with, who’s apparently working a scheme to separate sufferers of an affliction known as the lassitude from their money, claiming to be able to cure them while on a voyage across a wasteland known as the Swept.
One of their fellow passengers is a an named Guth Bander, a Nöonaut, able to enter the Commons, the manifestation of the collective unconscious of mankind. Baro finds himself intrigued by the notion, and even finds that he has an unusual talent for entering the Commons, drawn by the archetypal entities that dwell there into accomplishing some task. All of this greatly alarms Bandar, who is keenly aware of the dangers in the Commons and in interacting with the archetypes. Baro finds himself torn between his mission – and following in his father’s footsteps – and his sudden new calling in the Commons.
While the story is largely that of Baro Harkless, a coming-of-age and a journey of personal discovery, Luff Imbry often overshadows the young man. Hughes does a masterful job of contrasting the inexperienced and rule-bound Baro with the worldly and clever Imbry. Indeed, while Baro comes into his own by the end of the novel, if Hughes were to write more novels about one of these characters, I’d rather see how Imbry develops as a man of the law who’s spent most of his life on the other side of it. (Of course, the character Hughes actually wrote a novel about is Guth Bandar, which I’ll cover shortly in another review.)
The plot itself is both interesting and peculiar: The pursuit of Gebbling develops into a much more serious scenario which threatens all of Old Earth itself, and that Hughes makes this transition naturally is impressive stuff. On the other hand, the introduction of the Commons and the degree to which it dominates the second half of the story is a very strange departure from the straightforward police investigation the book starts out as. It feels like a big distraction until it ends up playing a key role in the resolution of the case. It makes the book feel like a bit of a patchwork, though, but the focus on Baro’s feelings about his father and his efforts to find where he belongs in life makes it work in the end.
While not as ambitious as Hughes’ later novels starring the detective Henghis Hapthorn, Black Brillion is still a fun romp. (Although the title bears only a passing resemblance to the story; perhaps not the best choice for the book.) Overall this is actually a fine introduction to Hughes’ Archonate universe, and his writing style overall.
Hespira is the third in Matthew Hughes’ novels of his Sherlock Holmes-like protagonist Henghis Hapthorn, the greatest discriminator of his age, but an age of science which is drawing to a close, to be replaced by an age of magic. The book opens with Hapthorn getting involved in a dispute between a rich collector and a criminal overlord, at which point the chief of police (the Scrutinizers or “Scroots”) suggests that Hapthorn take a vacation until it all blows over. Conveniently, Hapthorn has recently run into a young woman, Hespira, who has lost her memory. Hapthorn seizes this opportunity to get off-planet while also pursuing a case that seems likely to challenge his mental abilities (even if it might not pay very much; then again, he’s rather taken with the woman). Hapthorn and Hespira journey far down the Spray of human civilization to a remote world in search of her origin.
Although not short on ideas content, a lot of the fun of the Hapthorn novels is Hughes’ witty writing. Hapthorn himself is always conscious of protocol and propriety, given the rich and powerful people who employ him, yet his chosen profession frequently takes him outside of his comfort zone where has must improvise in dealing with other people. Early on in Hespira there’s a paragraph which I’ve been reading to friends as representative of the narrative style. In it, Hapthorn is visiting a new restaurant while waiting for someone on his current engagement:
When she had brought me the platter of pastes, the server had pointed out to me the different strengths of the eighteen sauces, advising me to save for last the meat puree doused in Sheeshah’s Nine Dragons Sauce, predicting that one it struck my palate, the dish’s other, subtler flavors would be unable to register. I now scooped up a good pinch of the stuff, made sure my tumbler of improved water was full and to hand, and popped the laden bread into my mouth. There was a pause – my taste buds may well have gone into shock for a moment – then the full weight of Master Jho-su’s genius crashed upon my senses. My eyes widened, simultaneously flinging a gush of tears down my cheeks, my tongue desperately sought an exit from my mouth, and my nose and sinuses reported that they had been suddenly and inexplicably connected to a volcanic flume.
I groped for the tumbler and took a healthy gulp, but the water seemed to evaporate before it even reached my throat. I drank more, my free hand finding the carafe even as I dained the glass. I could scarcely see to pour a refill and ended up drinking directly from the larger container. Gradually, the inferno in my mouth subsided to a banked fire. I wiped my streaing eyes and sucked in a great breath and would not have been surprised, when I exhaled to have emitted clouds of steam.
(If this piques your interest, you can read the entire first chapter at Hughes’ web site.)
Throughout Hapthorn’s adventures, Hughes has changed the status quo of his hero’s life several times. Hespira opens with Hapthorn in a period of relative calm, without the disruptive presence of his doppelganger, Osk Rievor, who is Hapthorn’s intuition given form and who now lives separately. The adventure in the meat of the book is clever and entertaining, with Hespira an unusual foil for Hapthorn since he’s attracted to her, and she’s amnesiac but strong-willed. Untangling the threads of her life is what Hapthorn does best, even without his intuition, and seeing him at his best once more makes for fine reading.
But the impending end of his age of science and reason worries at Hapthorn’s soul, and while the adventure here is a distraction from his problems (and, amusingly enough, a distraction in other ways as we find out in the novel’s climax), eventually he returns to the problem of what to do about, well, the transition he can’t do anything about.
The book ends in a somber note, which is a bit disappointing if this really is the last Hapthorn novel. On the other hand, Hapthorn has never been a very heroic figure; while he’s not simply a mercenary, he’s always been timid and even a little craven, so the decision he faces at the end of the book and the fact that he can’t actually decide is (unfortunately) in keeping with his character. But it’s always been a little ambiguous as to when the turn of the wheel is going to descend, so it’s sad to leave him at this point, not sure if he’s going to give up, or give in, but in any event ending his career with a personal whimper rather than a bang. But, I guess there are people who do that.
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.
At the end of Matthew Hughes’ Majestrum, Henghis Hapthorn, Old Earth’s foremost discriminator, found that his intuitive other half, his own fully-formed personality inside his head, had taken a new name, Osk Rievor. This new story begins with Rievor researching the history of magic from the previous age in anticipation of the next age when magic will again reign supreme. But Hapthorn has clients to work for in order to get paid, and to Rievor’s frustration Hapthorn and his integrator – a digital assistant turned into a wizard’s familiar – head off in search of a missing person, getting captured themselves before managing to free the object of their quest, and coming away with a small spaceship under their ownership in the bargain.
From there, Hapthorn acquiesces to Riever’s desire to visit some points of mystical power in the world, a task which seems tedious at first, but turns dangerous when their pair – plus integrator – are again captured, this time by a mysterious being controlling a red-and-black spiral labyrinth down which they walk. When Hapthorn emerges at the other end, Rievor is no longer in his head, and he’s no longer in his own world, having been thrown into a medieval period hundreds of years in the future, in the coming age of magic. Armed with only his superhuman reasoning ability, in a world where reason is at best scoffed at, Hapthorn must find and rescue his other half and find a way to return to his own time – not to mention figure out who captured them in the first place, and how to stop him from doing it again!
Labyrinth is similar structurally to Majestrum in that it starts with a short mystery to show off Hapthorn’s skills, and then launches into the main story. But this one is more of a fish-out-of-water story, and features more interplay among the characters, especially as Rievor and the integrator both become better realized.
Hughes has plenty of fun playing with Clarke’s third law, as Hapthorn uses his skills to perform feats of reasoning that seem like magic – and of course can be duplicated by magic in the future era. This leads to the philosophical conundrum in which he’s unable to convince people that he’s not a magician, even though they can tell he’s not using magic – there’s clearly something odd about him. The way Hughes sets up these ideas and pulls them together is quite clever, and is a big part of the enjoyment of the book.
Another part, of course, is the light touch which Hughes applies to his writing style. Hughes spreads his humor around among all the characters, and Hapthorn more than anyone else is the target of the jibes of other characters. It results in a fine line that Hughes has to walk, since constantly making fun of the main character in a largely serious story can undermine the whole narrative, but the fact that Hapthorn is both very competent and also a bit full of himself means that seeing him cut down to size from time to time seems justified.
The book has a more satisfying climax than Majestrum did, as Hapthorn cuts a more heroic figure than he did at the end of the first book, and the confrontation with the antagonist feels not quite so metaphysical. Hughes also proves willing to make some radical changes to the status quo of Hapthorn’s world, as two major characters undergo significant transformations at the end of the book. Not many authors seem willing to do this in serial fiction, which makes it exciting since now we can anticipate what Hughes will do with the new configuration even though we know we won’t be getting exactly more of the same.
As a result, The Spiral Labyrinth isn’t so much better or worse than Majestrum as simply different, and equally entertaining on its own terms. But you can’t ask for much for than an exotic milieu, engaging characters, and amusing writing, which is what this series delivers. There’s at least one more volume in the series, and I’m looking forward to it.
The back cover touts this novel as “Sherlock Holmes meets The Dying Earth“, and it’s not far wrong: The protagonist, Henghis Hapthorn, the foremost “discriminator” of his time, is an ultra-rationalist detective in the Holmes mode (right down to the brusque attitude), and he lives in an era in which an age of science is coming to an end, to be replaced by an age of magic. The book diverges from its high concept there, however: This age is merely the latest to be ruled by science, and the pendulum has swung many times in the past (our own era has been lost to antiquity), and science still rules the day, although thaumaturges are popping up here and there, heralding the coming change. Moreover, Hapthorn himself has had several encounters with forerunners of the new age, and his most recent one turned his integrator (basically, his personal digital assistant) into a mammalian familiar, and also brought his intuitive side out into its own fully-realized personality which now shares Hapthorn’s mind. Although he tries to, Hapthorn doesn’t suffer this upsetting of his status quo with a lot of dignity.
That’s just the background for the book, which starts with Hapthorn being hired to investigate the new boyfriend of the daughter of an Old Earth noble, before coming back to be asked to look into a situation which could threaten the Archonate, the ruler of all of Old Earth. Hapthorn’s investigation explores some tangible clues involving a string of murders, as well as delving into murky details of the history of Old Earth.
Majestrum gets off to a slow start, trying to both introduce the many layers of Hapthorn and his world and get the story off the ground, but it ends up being a fun read. Hughes has a light touch to his writing that’s rare, especially among space opera type fiction like this; Hapthorn’s own dialogue is often overly ornate and self-important, but after a while Hughes starts poking fun at him for this, especially his signature phrase, “It would be premature to say.”
Hughes often seems to be evoking other stories or styles – Asimov or Piper style imperial space opera, Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently – but the novel stands on its own without feeling like a mash-up, and I assume the evocative moments are deliberate. Ultimately the story revolves around Hapthorn and his other self learning to live with each other, Hapthorn with the knowledge that the new age will cause him to fade away, while his sharer is not yet fully formed, yet they’re two sides of the same coin, a fact neither of them fully embraces. Hapthorn himself is especially resistant, since he requires evidence and logic and is unable to take his sharer’s intuitive leaps on faith or trust. This impedance drives the story’s climax, which was a little disappointing since it seemed to undercut Hapthorn as the hero. Although it had a nifty denouement and final line.
With some fine world building, intellectual sleuthing, and a witty narrative, Majestrum is a neatly constructed book which could appeal to a wide variety of SF readers. It takes a little while to get into, but the ride was well worth some persistence.