REVIEW SUMMARY: Science-Fantasy that even a fantasy-hater (like me) could love.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: While dealing with the world’s ever-impending slide from rationality to magic, futuristic detective Henghis Hapthorn is hired to investigate a conspiracy to overthrow the Archon.
PROS: Great worldbuilding; well-planned mysteries; perfectly captures the flavor of Sherlock Holmes; the pitch-perfect level of dry humor.
CONS: Deductions sometimes come too easily for Hapthorn.
BOTTOM LINE: Hughes’ writing will have me coming back for more.
Matthew Hughes has rightly met with some success with his entertaining detective character Henghis Hapthorn. Several Hapthorn stories have been published over the years and they were later collected in The Gist Hunter and Other Stories. Majestrum, published in 2007, is the first novel-length Hapthorn story and it’s every bit as fun as the shorter works.
Henghis Hapthorn is a far-future version of Sherlock Holmes. (He describes himself as “the world’s foremost discriminator”.) Although much of humanity has migrated across The Spray of Ten Thousand Worlds, Henghis Hapthorn makes his home in Olkney on Old Earth, which is under the rule of the Archon. The locale intentionally feels like 19th century England, except there are a few technological advances thrown in. In other words, this is the perfect setting for a futuristic Sherlock Holmes story. In Majestrum, Hapthorn is hired twice: first to investigate the shady character that has become the object of affection of one Lord’s daughter; second to investigate a conspiracy to overthrow the Archon himself.
Majestrum was a particularly interesting book for me, not only because the Henghis Hapthorn stories are entertaining in their own right, but also because Hughes’ larger story arc – that of the rational world of science slowly giving way to a world of magic – seems to mesh quite nicely with my casual taste for fantasy. Perhaps it’s that Hapthorn is so based in our own rational, science-based reality that I can connect with it. He meets every instance of magic with the same disbelief and doubt that I have when I read fantasy that carelessly throws magic about.
But the impression of magic on his rational world forces Hapthorn (and me) to ultimately accept what he would otherwise disbelieve; particularly since his Integrator (a constructed artificial intelligence designed by Hapthorn himself) has been transformed into a talking cat-monkey kind of creature (as depicted in past stories). And he’s a sassy one, too. Additionally, the part of Hapthorn’s mind that can only be described as Intuition has assumed its own separate persona, causing Hapthorn to have many internal dialogs as he discusses investigative matters with himself. These occurrences do not come off as mere plot devices; instead they are part of the larger world that Hughes has meticulously built up. It is the turning of “The Great Wheel” that’s driving the world towards magic. Somehow, being gently eased from a world of logic into a world of magic does not press my fantasy-hate button. It works because it directly addresses the very thing that annoys me with magic-related fantasy.
There are lots of nice touches woven into the story that add to its enjoyment. For example: Hapthorn’s realization of the inevitability that his intuitive self will one day assume full control; the almost-slapstick initial meeting between Hapthorn and the Archon; watching Hapthorn deduce the truth from meager (sometimes too meager) facts; and the ultimate villain that’s revealed. But the most appealing part of Majestrum (and all of the Hapthorn stories I’ve eaten up thus far) is definitely the way Hughes writes them. Not only does he perfectly capture the flavor of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation but he also adds a pitch-perfect level of dry humor that will cause a few laughs and many more smiles. Whether it’s his smack-talking Integrator or Hapthorn’s smug other self, Hughes crafts many moments that wonderfully convey a character’s attitude and position. It’s for these reasons that I look forward to reading the next book in the Hapthorn sequence, The Spiral Labyrinth.