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Friday, December 14, 2007

"Majestrum" by Matthew Hughes

Order “MajestrumHERE

Before I got into this whole blogger scene, my number one resource for discovering new authors and titles was the Science Fiction Book Club—which has been frequently mentioned—and one of the many gems that was uncovered for me was Matthew Hughes’Black Brillion” (2004). While I immensely enjoyed the novel, I actually didn’t think about the author again until I had started Fantasy Book Critic and learned of the two books Mr. Hughes had coming out this year—“The Spiral Labyrinth" (September 2007-Night Shade Books) and “The Commons” (October 2007-Robert J. Sawyer Books). Then, because of the September 2007 Spotlight, Matt contacted me personally and not only hooked me up with his novel “Majestrum” (2006), but also an autographed copy! So, for that I’m extremely grateful, but you should know that I’m not reviewing this book just because Matt’s a nice guy ;) He’s also a damn fine writer and if I had known just how good “Majestrum” was going to be, I would have bought the book the very day it was out!

Because there are so many reasons why I loved “Majestrum” I’m not sure where to begin, but since the novel is designated as A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn and is the first volume in an ongoing series from Mr. Hughes, I figured I would start by addressing the question, “Who is Henghis Hapthorn?” The witty reply would be that he’s “one of Old Earth’s foremost freelance discriminators”, but on a more serious note, Henghis Hapthorn is a detective modeled after the world’s most famous detective Sherlock Homes, and first appeared in six short stories that ran in the Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine which are currently collected in Matt’sThe Gist Hunter and Other Stories” (2005). As a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, you can definitely see the resemblance between the two characters—their brilliant intellects, a somewhat bloated ego because of that intelligence, their cynical sense of humor, a flair for the theatrical, and how they both like to hold back answers until the mystery is completely solved…for Henghis, this is usually denoted by his signature phrase “It would be premature to say.” Furthermore, Matt’s writing style reminded me a bit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s more ‘old-fashioned’ prose, albeit with greater wittiness and accessibility, though the biggest comparison I keep hearing is to Jack Vance. Since I haven’t read anything by Mr. Vance, I can’t comment, but apparently the setting is also influenced by Vance’s Dying Earth series, which sounds like something I would be interested in.

Staying on the subject of setting, that was another thing that I really liked about “Majestrum”. Genghis lives in a period aeons in the future where magic and far-fetched technology co-exist, though one area is usually predominant over the other. In this instance, science, or rationalism is ascendant and is represented by such concepts as the Ten Thousand Worlds, the Spray, the Archonate, artificial-intelligent integrators, space travel, multiple dimensions and so forth. As part of the story though, an age of magic—sympathetic association is the preferred term—is drawing near and as a result, ‘dimples’ are bleeding into the universe like demons, thaumaturges (magicians), spell books and other magical occurrences… Personally, I just loved this kind of milieu—it was the perfect blend of fantasy & science fiction and I can’t understand why more writers aren’t employing this kind of a backdrop. Then again, perhaps they are and I just haven’t read them yet, but the only books that came to mind were Eric Van Lustbader’s The Pearl saga. Of course, fans of Matthew Hughes should be familiar with the environment since the author uses the setting in many of his novels and short stories :) Anyways, the most impressive thing about the Archonate universe is how vivid and inventive it is, and major props go out to the Victorian-like capital Olkney which further emphasizes the Sherlock Holmes influence; the Derogation idea; and the amusing concept Corps of Buffoons where career criminals are forced to suffer public displays of ribald humiliation ;)

And now I come to my favorite part of the book…the story. Evidently, “Majestrum” takes place after Henghis’ short story adventures because the book opens with the discriminator dealing with two highly unorthodox problems that were caused by a recent transdimensional voyage that exposed him and his assistant to forces of magic. 1) Hapthorn’s integrator assistant has been transformed from a mechanical tool into a living, breathing creature that has developed a taste for expensive fruits and long naps; and 2) Henghis’ ‘intuition’ has ascended into a “fully formed persona” that shares the same body with the discriminator’s more rational personality. Even more outrageous is that this “alternate” Henghis Hapthorn supposedly represents the kind of person Henghis will become whenever the universe shifts back into an ‘age of magic’. Crazy huh!?! And that’s just the first few pages. The actual plot doesn’t get underway until Henghis is hired by aristocrat Lord Afre in a case to protect his daughter’s virtue. While we get to see some exotic locales as this subplot is going on, things don’t get really interesting until the Archon—the most powerful person on Old Earth—personally employs Henghis to stop a conspiracy to overthrow the Archonate. From here, the mystery only deepens as Henghis, his integrator and his alternate personality—the interaction between the three characters result in some of the most engaging discussions I’ve read in the past few years—must discover the connection between an indecipherable book of magic; a disappearing/reappearing boy; ghastly murders where the eyeballs and other body parts are missing; an ancient, destroyed civilization; and the name Majestrum; all before time runs out! There were a lot of other really cool, exciting things going on as well that I wish I could tell you about, but that would ruin the surprises ;) Suffice it to say that the book’s mystery was great, almost up to the standards of Sir Doyle though the big reveal at the end was a bit disappointing; and as a fan of fantastic sorceries and wild science fiction concepts, “Majestrum” kept me thoroughly entertained :D

It seems lately with every book I’m reading, I’m developing a new favorite. Seriously, if “Majestrum” hadn’t been released last year, it would easily be at or very near the top of my list for 2007. As it is, “Majestrum” will still be one of my favorite books of the year and there’s been quite a few of them to choose from :) In fact, I’m a bit shocked that Matthew Hughes isn’t signed to a major publisher. That’s not a knock against Night Shade Books because they do a wonderful job of continuously putting out high-quality titles, but “Majestrum” is just that good. Perhaps it has something to do with the Dying Earth comparisons, which is the only drawback I could see, but honestly I don’t know. All I do know for certain is that Matthew Hughes is a special talent that deserves a much larger audience and that “Majestrum” is a pretty good starting point, especially with one sequel (The Spiral Labyrinth) already available and “Hespira” coming out next year…

4 comments:

Chris, The Book Swede said...

This sounds really brilliant! I may have to try and get hold of it -- luckily, I'm now pretty much up to speed on my blog, and should even be able to time-stamp some stuff onto the blog over Christmas! ;)

I do like your Spotlight a lot :D Very useful to find cool books, and this looks I definitely missed a good book!

Calibandar said...

Hi Robert

You will be doing a top 20 of best books of 2007 in the next couple of weeks right? I'm very curious to see how you rank your favorites. I have a pretty good idea what you liked this year, but not ranked and compared to one another. The end of the year lists are pretty popular.

As for a reason why Hughes wasn't picked up by one of the major publishers, possibly because of his past with small-time publishers, possibly because the book is rather short, or possibly because they didn't think it good enough? After all you really liked Sword-Edged Blonde as well and that was a Night Shade release as well. And also a short one.

Robert said...

Chris, it was brilliant and I'd recommend contacting Matthew directly about the book. He works hard to promote his stuff and he's a nice guy :) And I'm glad you like the Spotlights! They're a lot of work, but I think they're worth it. At least it helps me to keep track of what's coming out every month ;)

Calibander, true, there could be any number of reasons why it wasn't picked up, but compared to "The Sword-Edged Blonde", I have to admit that I liked "Majestrum" a lot better. As far as the length, that wasn't really an issue in my opinion. Page-wise, it is short yes, but there's so much crammed into the book, it felt very dense...

Regarding a Favorites list, I do have something that will be posted on December 28th, but unfortunately, due to time constraints, I was unable to come up with any rankings. Basically, it's just going to be a list of my favorites in different categories. I wanted to go all indepth, but I just didn't have the time. All will be explained in tomorrow's post...

John (Grasping for the Wind) said...

So you in a few weeks. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you too!

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