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REVIEW: The Spiral Labyrinth by Matthew Hughes

REVIEW SUMMARY: An excellent science-fantasy story in a fine setting even for fantasy-reluctant readers like myself.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Henghis Hapthorn, the world’s foremost discriminator, finds the world’s transition towards magic even more pronounced when he somehow travels centuries into the future and in the middle of a power struggle between five wizards.

PROS: Hughes writing style is atmospheric and witty; the story keeps moving in interesting places; surprise plot twists; it’s just plain fun.
CONS: One plot twist took a bit of time to grasp… a clarifying sentence would have gone a long way toward straightening out the story timeline.
BOTTOM LINE: A splendid story that wonderfully advances the series’ story arc while providing an entertaining, self-contained adventure-mystery in its own right.

There’s really no better way to describe the atmosphere created by Matthew Hughes’ Henghis Hapthorn stories than the cover blurb pitch of “Sherlock Holmes meets Jack Vance’s Dying Earth”. The stories are set in a far future that feels more science fantasy than science fiction and they recount the cases of Henghis Hapthorn, the world’s foremost discriminator. (My introduction to whom began with the Hapthorn stories in The Gist Hunter and Other Stories and continued into the novel Majestrum.)

Hapthorn, a man of logic and reason, is still dealing with the ever-encroaching onset of “sympathetic association” or, as we call it, magic, thanks to the Great Wheel which, across Eons, swings like a cosmological pendulum between science and magic. Hapthorn thus witnesses his beloved logic and reason slowly giving way to the unexplained. The events of The Spiral Labyrinth allow us to see that transition move further along as Hapthorn, researching this shift towards magic, is propelled centuries into the future where science is long-since forgotten. The land of that even-further future is dominated by a precarious balance of five powerful wizards who are just waiting for the chance to seize absolute power. That chance arrives sooner than expected when each of the wizards encounter a demon’s plea for Hapthorn, who unceremoniously (and under pretense of being someone else) falls into their laps.

To be sure, despite the jump to the future, as Hughes’ Hapthorn stories progress they read more and more like fantasy. The Spiral Labyrinth trumps previous books by jumping centuries ahead and landing in a world where wizards and dragons are just part of the scenery. Hapthorn’s disbelief is met with confusion on the part of the locals. The beauty of this migrating story arc is that it acts as a buttress for readers who have mixed experiences reading fantasy. (Looks at self.) That is, Hapthorn, by resisting the existence of magic even as he must come to accept it, acts as a stand-in for the fantasy-reluctant reader. As such, the idea of magic is suddenly easily swallowed and the story can be enjoyed for the mystery and adventure it is.

At this point in the series, a Henghis Hapthorn story wouldn’t be complete without a few main ingredients. Two of them are major characters that complement Hapthorn’s reasoning skills: his Integrator, which started as an all-knowing computer but has since been decanted into an ape/cat-like creature called a grinnet; and his intuitive other-self which occupies the recesses of his mind – a personality known as Osk Rievor. Like previous stories, these characters continue to transmogrify in new and imaginative ways while providing a platform for witty dialogue and characterizations.

The other expected ingredients come through the author’s skillful writing. Enjoyment is derived as much from the writing itself as it is from the carefully laid-out plot. Hughes is a stylist in that his prose is crafted to mimic 19th century fiction. It reads like a Sherlock Holmes story, though perhaps to a lesser extent than previous adventures. (Maybe that association is also affected by the turning of the Great Wheel?) The dialogue, as mentioned, is clever, exhibiting a dry humor that elicits more than a few smiles. Sprinkle in a couple of plot turns (one of which took a slight backtrack to verify facts) and the result is an excellent story that wonderfully advances the series’ story arc while providing an entertaining self-contained adventure-mystery in its own right. I can’t wait to see what happens in the newest book, Hespira.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

5 Comments on REVIEW: The Spiral Labyrinth by Matthew Hughes

  1. John – You and I have talked about Matt Hughes and his wonderful work so I am pleased to see it featured here.  I hope others pick up on him because of it, because his novels are that good.  When will we see your thoughts on HESPIRA?

  2. Soon!  I read The Spiral Labyrinth to catch up on the Hapthorn stories and read Hespira without missing any part of the cosmological transition to magic.  I’m looking forward to it.

  3. Matte Lozenge // February 16, 2010 at 3:00 pm //

    Agreed, Spiral Labyrinth is excellent. And while we’re waiting for Hespira, Template and The Other, check out Hughes’ back catalog.

    Majestrum, The Commons, and his short story collections are as good or nearly as good as Spiral Labyrinth.

  4. John: Hespira doesn’t deal with the cosmological transition, but with Hapthorn’s attempt to prepare for it. In Spiral he saw close up what kind of world Old Earth would be after the change. He wouldn’t hang around for that world to form itself around him.  The question then becomes:  what else to do?

    I don’t think I’ll ever write about the transition itself.  I set out to write about a man who learns that the world he loves, and to which he is superbly suited, is about to be undone.  The process of his coming to terms with that knowledge is what the books are about.

  5. Excellent point, Matt.  And I still can’t wait to see what happens next.

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