Night Shade Books, Trade Paperback
Matthew Hughes has been writing for quite some time, but what he’s been receiving the most recent acclaim is for his Archonate novels. Set in a far future, the world and stories are a combination of many things, comedy, detective fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. The most common tag for these books, appropriately slapped on the front cover of The Spiral Labyrinth is “Jack Vance meets Sherlock Holmes.” While I don’t have extensive experience reading stories by Vance outside his Dying Earth cycle or very many Sherlock Holmes stories, I’ve touched upon them enough to not argue the description.
The Spiral Labyrinth is itself part of a subset/series within the greater Archonate saga, being the second Tale of Hengis Hapthorn. Hapthorn is a detective, or as he is called in this far future a discriminator. He is hired by a woman with money and social standing to find her missing husband. Aiding Hapthorn on the case is a second personality inhabiting his body, Osk Rievor whose intuition provides balance to Hapthorn’s empirical knowledge, as well as their pet grinnet, an artificial intelligence that is best described as a hybrid of a cat and an ape. If that doesn’t set the stage for a unique and weird trio of characters, I don’t know what does.
Like the title, the plot wends a strange path from mystery to science fiction to fantasy and back gain. A ship the missing man sought seems to be the cause much of the problems, for other people who sought purchase of the ship have gone missing. When Hapthorn lands his ship on a strange planet, something is calling out to him and his mental companion, that is, Osk Reivor. Before Hapthorn can fully react, his logical mind is flung into the future where logic has no place and magic rules the day.
At this point, the story obviously switches its feel and the future is a bit more broken down, less populated and less civilized. At least, this seems to be the case from the hints given through Hapthorn’s observations rather than extraneous dumps of rigid and boring details. In other words, Hughes does an excellent job of placing the reader in Hapthorn’s head as he experiences this future world of magic, and his feelings of discomfort in that world.
The plot itself is somewhat circuitous, but one might suspect as much from the title. Hughes clever hand for dialogue, and spare prose is quite effective. The humor comes through in Hapthorn’s reactions and his internal dialogue, both with himself and especially with his other personality Osk Reivor. Many similar hybrids of mystery and fantasy and/or science fiction employ banter between two characters – protagonist and sidekick let’s say. Brust does this exceptionally well with his Vlad Taltos novels in the dialogue between Vlad and his familiar Loiosh, Jim Butcher does it very well between Harry Dresden and Bob the Skull, so does Hughes with Hapthorn and Osk. This helps to progress the plot in an effective and entertaining manner.
This was my first experience with a Matthew Hughes novel, so I didn’t really have any knowledge of the world or characters, outside of what can be found in a quick browse of the internet. That having been said, Hughes’s style is very approachable and the ebb and flow of the characters with each other and as they navigate the world of science fantasy was very welcoming. As stated, this is the second volume of a series, itself part of a larger world in which Hughes has been crafting stories. This Archonate world is a fun place to visit through Hughes’s stories, thanks to his exceptional wit, character, and dialogue.
© 2010 Rob H. Bedford