Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Spiral Labyrinth by Matthew Hughes

Whimsy is a tough sell these days. Even something that isn't really whimsy, but can look like it in a dim light, has a difficult time. Witness Matthew Hughes's career in fantasy.

He wrote two wonderful, very funny, very Jack Vance-influenced novels for Warner Aspect, both set in the very far future. (Not quite as far forward as Vance's Dying Earth, but nearly so; Hughes's Earth was aged, out-of-breath, and perhaps living in a complex with good nursing care, but was not quite "dying" per se.) Those novels, Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice, were among the funniest novels of any type published those years and were a pure delight and a joy to read. They sank almost without trace; even a 2-in-1 bookclub edition didn't help their profile much.

Hughes dusted himself off and moved over to Tor, who published his next novel, Black Brillion -- set in the same milieu, with some characters in common with the "Fools" books, but a completely different plot. It was utterly transparent for a new reader, and, again, a thing of pure enjoyment from beginning to end. (By this point, the obvious Vance parallels had receded a bit into the background and other influences, such as P.G. Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle, had become apparent. Even more, the essential Hughesness of Brillion shone through.) As if to prove the relationship between merit and popularity is purely negative, Black Brillion made even less impression on the slack-jawed reading public than his first two SF novels. (You see how the frustration drives me to insults? Hughes rightly should be rich and famous for writing books as entertaining as these.)

And so Hughes packed his literary bags again, ending up at Night Shade Books, a young press that has been growing by leaps and bounds and which is lean and energetic enough to take a risk on a great writer with some bad breaks. They published The Gist Hunter and Other Stories, which collected two series of stories set in the same world as Hughes's novels (as well as some purely individual stories). One of those series focused on the cases of the freelance discriminator Henghis Hapthorn, the finest mind of detection in Hughes's far-future, and a master of empiricism and the scientific method. This, unfortunately, is a problem: the universe periodically shifts from being ruled by the laws of science and probability to being ruled by those of sympathetic association and willpower. One of those great shifts will soon take place, bringing the powers of magic back into ascendance. It's the last thing Hapthorn wants...but he can't do anything to stop it.

Hapthorn moved into novel length with Majestrum, Hughes's second book for Night Shade, and was ever more entangled with the rising power of magic. Now, Night Shade has made it to a third Hughes book with this second Hapthorn novel, The Spiral Labyrinth. (And the card page up front promises a third Hapthorn novel, Hespira, in the near future, which I hope means that Hughes will now be able to stick with one publisher and build more of an audience.)

Spiral Labyrinth is more obviously a sequel to Majestrum than a purely standalone novel; the plot is entirely separate, but we find Hapthorn entangled in the problematic situation that Majestrum left him in (divided in himself and in his assistant). I found it easy to pick back up, but fastidious readers may prefer to start with Majestrum.

Spiral Labyrinth is a slightly more successful novel than Majestrum; the latter is written in Hughes's eternally readable prose, but the plot is a bit more dark and complicated. This is merely a matter of degree; Majestrum is splendidly entertaining, but Spiral hangs together a bit better and has a more satisfying ending. The perfect solution for a new reader would be to get both of them at once and read them straight through -- that would be the best of both worlds. I highly recommend that course of action.


John Joseph Adams said...

I don't know if you're aware of this, but Hughes's forthcoming novel The Commons is basically half of the novel Black Brillion. If you've seen Hughes's stories in F&SF (or in The Gist Hunter and Other Stories), you'll have noticed that some of them feature the familiar character Guth (who appears in a minor role in Black Brillion). Or rather it's probably more precise to say that last part of The Commons parallels Black Brillion, with the opening sections exploring Guth Bandar's backstory and previous explorations of the noosphere.

So if you enjoyed Black Brillion, you'll want to pick up The Commons too.

Matt's actually got a contest going on right now in which he's giving away free books. Details on his website:

Unknown said...


I appreciate the encouragement.

And thank you, John, for promoting my contest.


Anonymous said...

I feel bad (especially since Matt is reading) that I read Black Brillion a couple of years ago, greatly enjoyed it--and completely failed to seek out any more of Matt's novels. I will be rectifying that shortly.

(Word verification: "syrug". A very sticky embrace.)

Anonymous said...

I loved Hughes's first two books and have sought out all his stuff that I can find. I've just finished "The Gist Hunter" and "Majestrum". "The Spiral Labyrinth" arrived from Amazon yesterday and is next on my list to read. Hengis Hapthorn is a truly inspired creation.

I'm less fond of his tales of the noosphere and I found "Black Brillion" somewhat dull. Nevertheless I've ordered "The Commons" from Amazon because I'm a completist, damnit!

But oh! those first two books were brilliant. I just loved them.

Robert Runté said...

I agree that anything by Hughes is a "Must read". But the first two books were my favorites, and it is just bad luck that they didn't go anywhere -- collapsing publishers were the problem, not Matt's writing. It is just a matter of time before his cult following builds into a mass following

And Matt's moving to Nightshade brought my attention to, but they are doing some neat stuff. It is reassurring that as monopoly mainstream publishers continue to cut midlist authors in favour of a half dozen Stephen Kings that there is a new generation of independent publishers growing up in their place.

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