BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 13 short stories, 9 of which are set in Hughes’s Archonate universe (comprised of 6 Henghis Hapthorn stories and 3 Guth Bandar stories).
PROS: 11 stories good or better, 5 of them outstanding; the Hapthorn stories make me want more.
CONS: 2 stories in the mediocre range.
BOTTOM LINE: A very good collection of science-fantasy stories that offers an enjoyable introduction to the Archonate universe and its creator.
The Gist Hunter and Other Stories by Matthew Hughes is a collection of thirteen stories; there are 9 Archonate stories (comprised of 6 Henghis Hapthorn stories and 3 Guth Bandar stories) and 4 other stories to round out the book.
The stories of Henghis Hapthorn, the “world’s foremost discriminator”, are easily the most entertaining because they are essentially “Sherlock Holmes in space” stories. I discovered the Holmes stories a little over a decade and have really enjoyed the ones I read. Reading the Hapthorn stories, which perfectly capture the flavor of Holmes and adds an intriguing science-fantasy setting as well, was just a hoot. The characters are fun, too, especially witnessing there clever dialogue as they try to figure out how their logical world is increasingly being overrun by magic. (There’s a running bit where Hapthorn, at a loss for how to respond, replies with either “Indeed” of “It would be premature for me to answer.” Those responses subsequently appear in all the remaining stories and are used to usually hilarious effect.) Any Holmes fan who also reads science fiction should read these stories. I’m eager to turn my attention now to the novel-length Hapthorn Stories (Majestrum and The Spiral Labyrinth).
The Guth Bandar stories (In which Bandar, a scholar of The Institute for Historical Inquiry, explores the human collective unconscious) were also enjoyable, though to tell the truth, I skipped them because they were the source of a fix-up novel called The Commons which I read two weeks ago. In fact, it was that book which pushed The Gist Hunter and Other Stories on my list; the Archonate is simply an intriguing place. Given my leanings towards science fiction rather than fantasy, I was happy to find that science-fantasy offers a palatable setting.
Four more stories round out a fine collection that rivals most anthologies in quality.
Standout entries in The Gist Hunter and Other Stories include “Mastermindless”, “Relics of the Thim”, “Finding Sajessarian”, “A Little Learning” and “Shadow Man”. As noted below, I suspect that, had I re-read “The Gist Hunter”, it would be added to this list.
Individual Story reviews follow…
“Mastermindless” introduces us to the Sherlockian character of Henghis Hapthorn, the self-described “freelance discriminator in the city of Olkney in the penultimate age of Old Earth.” His research assistant is an entity known as the Integrator, an all-knowing AI that sometimes, to humorous effect, takes words at their literal meaning. Hapthorn’s quandary is that the men of Olkney have been robbed of their wealth, looks and intelligence, possibly because of the presence of magic. Hapthorn is also afflicted, so instead of a flawless Sherlock Holmes we get a sort of half-witted (and likable) genius who’s feeling his way around in the dark, looking for something just out of reach. It’s successfully played for laughs on occasion – no small feat considering that the Hughes’s well-worded prose also delivers up a cool science-fantasy environment and a compelling plot to boot. The tone of the story, mimicking Hapthorn’s attitude, never drops into despair and what starts as a quandary eventually passes through tantalizing challenge to a bring-it-on bravado that left me wanting more. Well done.
In “Relics of the Thim”, Henghis Hapthorn confronts a con man who has seemingly created a device that allows him to retrieve artifacts from the past. The con man, Mitric Galvadon, challenges Hapthorn to debunk him using the Sherlock Holmes axiom that once the impossible has been eliminated, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. Hapthorn takes the challenge and is stumped until the explanation, suitably science-fictional, is revealed. Again, the author perfectly recreates Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s style and atmosphere, making this story as enjoyable as any Sherlock Holmes story.
“Falberoths Ruin” – a locked-room mystery in which a maleficent magnate gets his comeuppance – is probably less notable for its clichéd plot than for the hint that Henghis Hapthorn’s integrator (and all integrators) may be undergoing an unexpected change. Hughes’s writing is as sharp as ever, though, again capturing the Holmesian flavor.
There are multiple puzzles to be found in “Finding Sajessarian”, another Henghis Hapthorn outing that not only presents a very good story in its own right, but also advances the overall story arc laid out in all the stories. Hapthorn is hired by Sigbart Sajessarian to locate Sajessarian after he intentionally goes into hiding, so that Sajessarian can see how well he is able to hide from people who might be after him. But there are layers to this situation that make it a bit more complex and entirely enjoyable, like a puzzle with a puzzle. Additionally, we get to see a bit into the world of Hapthorn’s nameless “demon” friend, a being from another dimension whose machinations seem to us like magic. The resolution of the story – bringing even more magic into the world which has already been sliding towards the mystical side of reality – winds up dramatically altering Hapthorn’s integrator assistant. Dynamic world-building, intriguing mystery and the consistently entertaining use of witty dialogue are a great combination. Well done.
[Note: “The Gist Hunter” was originally reviewed in Best Short Novels: 2006 edited by Jonathan Strahan. I did not read it again, but if I did, I suspect it may be rated even higher still since the previous stories in The Gist Hunter and Other Stories collection shed light on some of the events told therein.]
In “The Gist Hunter”, a detective of the supernatural encounters a plan to control the universe by manipulating the component “gist” of which everything is made. It took me about a third of this story to get into the flow (curse you, late-night reading!), but once I did, man, was it fun. The story is written with a nineteenth-century Sherlockian flavor, although the “discriminator” hero Henghis Hapthorn lacks Holmes’ deduction skills. Nor is his partner, the cat-like ape “interrogator”, a direct parallel to Watson as the creature was heretofore a mechanical creation until an unfortunate, pre-story journey into the dimension of demons. This is one of those stories that openly skirts the line between science fiction (gist is described as “the underlying substance of the universe” that “bounds together all time energy, matter and the other, less obvious components into an elegant whole.”) and fantasy (black magic, spells and incantations). The language of the story is wonderfully fitting to the setting and really lends to the story’s enjoyment. And it’s funny too, in a Niles Crane sort of way. The crass barbs between characters are thrown in the Queen’s upper-crust English.
“Thwarting Jabbi Gloond” is not so much a progression of Henghis Hapthorn’s story as it is a back story that reveals his origins. In it we learn how he became a discriminator as he attempts to help fellow student Torsten Olabian rid his father’s home of an unwanted houseguest named Jabbi Gloond. Gloond holds some secret on Torsten’s father, a jewel miner who once worked with a disreputable alien crew. As a mystery, this is a good story, but it does lack some of the attractive flair and witty dialogue of the other Hapthorn tales.
I just recently read the Guth Bandar stories as they were collected in the fix-up novel, The Commons. Although they are sure to be slightly different in their original form, I did not venture to re-read them. For completeness, I include here only the brief story notes; read the previous review for more details.
“A Little Learning” – As a struggling graduate, Bandar takes a test traversing a course through the Commons where he is forced to prove his mettle. When rival Didrick Gabbris blocks his proscribed path, a detour takes Bandar to an icy mountain where he meets some very amorous cavewomen in a situation that deftly avoids silliness thanks to the author’s sly wit. Then it’s on to a more serious setting: a war between Heaven and Hell with Bandar is caught in the middle. This is the strongest chapter of The Commons.
“Inner Huff” – Graduation sees Bandar in just as much trouble, this time in the unfortunate role of pig in the noösphere’s all-too-real version of The Three Little Pigs. Here is where the multi-episode story arc begins to emerge as we see that the noösphere, heretofore believed to be a collection of unconscious memes, is beginning to show signs of being aware.
“Help Wonted” – After suffering disgrace with the Institute, Bandar finds himself yet again in the noösphere, this time being tested by the noösphere itself. Although this outing was the weakest, it does become clear that the noösphere is indeed self-aware.
In “Shadow Man”, Damien is a disturbed youth who looks to serial killers as heroes. Instead of voices in his head, Damien sees “shadow men” just outside his vision. His exploration of the shadows yields a remarkable discovery that solidified and rewards his creepy predilections. Chillingly effective considering its short length, it shows that Hughes can master the short form.
“The Devil You Don’t” is ultimately a slight tale about a man from the future who visits Winston Churchill before WWII. A bold and firm decision by the narrator seals the fate of the world, but beside that this story reads more like a scene than a story.
Earth is involved in some unfair planetary trade agreements in “Go Tell the Phoenicians”. Thanks to exclusive technological know-how – specifically the light speed Dhaliwal Drive – the Bureau of Offworld Trade (BOOT) is able to cheat most alien societies out of their unique resources. Enter Kandler, a maverick exo-sociologist contracted by BOOT (though not entirely in league with them) to help understand what the planet K’Fond has to offer. What the greedy Earth traders soon learn is that he who holds all the cards may not hold them for long. The story harkens back to the days of classic science fiction (or at least an episode of the original Star Trek) in that it briefly explores cultural differences between species. Indeed, it is a false human assumption that keeps BOOT from finding the missing piece to the puzzle of why the technologically advanced K’Fond behave like they’re at a frat party. Kandler, at odds with the local commander, is put into a situation where it behooves him to find out. The result is a fun story with a classic feel.
In the ultimately run-of-the-mill story “Bearing Up”, a teenager named Mike has nightmares about bears, which may be related to his father’s dangerous line of work as a rescuer. There’s no science fiction content here; maybe that’s why this story, while decent general fiction, lacked any significant content to make it overly memorable for this sf fan.