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Bewildering Stories

Matthew Hughes, The Henghis Hapthorn Series
Majestrum, The Spiral Labyrinth, Hespira

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker


Spiral Labyrinth
Author: Matthew Hughes
Publisher: Night Shade Books

In a sea of paranormal and teen-heroine fantasies, it’s a pleasure to read an original series. Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say original, because the Henghis Hapthorn trilogy is clearly inspired by Jack Vance (with a hint of Edger Allen Poe’s mysterious green-spectacled ratiocinator thrown in).

But Hughes can’t pull off the world-weary decadence, à la Jack Vance, that he strives for. I imagine Hughes doing instead a youthful Jack Vance tribute, bashing out a merry tune as a virtuoso all-in-one-band: blowing a horn, shaking a tambourine with his knee, tromping a cymbal while fiddling madly with one hand. There’s a “look at me! I can ride a bicycle on a tightrope! Upside down! Playing a trumpet!” zest to the Henghis Hapthorn series not usually present in Vance (with the exception of Vance’s lively “Planet of Adventure” series).

However much Hughes wishes to emulate Vance’s much-praised prose mannerisms and dying-sun decadence, I suspect he will have to wait another forty years to achieve the proper blasé off-handedness, if he ever achieves it at all. The ornamentation of Hughes’ prose is not decadence but the over-the-top urges of a baroque artist going for broke by adding one more curlicue to that already freighted carving.

But that’s not a bad thing. Henghis Hapthorn, the hero of Mr. Hughes’ series, attempts to approach his experiences in a properly analytical and detached spirit himself. But like those irresistible curlicues, emotions burst through Hapthorn’s logical veneer too: pride, jealousy, fear, curiosity and that ill-contained adventurism. You suspect the man, and the author, of simply having too much fun.

The series consists of three books: Majestrum, The Spiral Labyrinth, and Hespira. The first is the hardest to dive into, as the reader has a lot of background to absorb; in fact I felt the strong need for a prequel. Far into the future, Old Earth is now one of thousands of worlds in the human-colonized “Spray.” Henghis Hapthorn, native of Old Earth, is a “discriminator,” a detective by another name. He is employed in Majestrum” the first in the series, by an outwardly over-bred but ruthless aristocrat to investigate his daughter’s unsuitable suitor.

But Hapthorn’s outwardly simple investigation is complicated by his knowledge the entire universe will soon suffer a cataclysmic reversal. The age of reason and logic is about to be replaced, like the periodic shifting of magnetic poles, by the era of magic (“sympathetic association”) and the power of the will. Henghis himself has already split into two schizophrenic personas: his rational, age-of-reason and his intuitive, age-of-magic self.

Unfortunately for both, others also sense the coming reversal and want to get the jump on their future rivals (mostly by elimination). Power-hungry wizards, as Hapthorn discovers the hard way, are nasty characters. The universe ahead isn’t looking so friendly. Especially not for the “rational” Hapthorn, whose stock-in-trade is about to become a useless crutch.

This inventive series was great fun, once I sorted out the complicated background (Mr. Hughes, there is ample room for a prequel here). Fine and appropriate cover art as well. I liked the series as much as Vance’s zestful “Planet of Adventure” series, and more than Vance’s self-consciously posturing late works. Enjoy!

Copyright © 2013 by Danielle L. Parker

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