Book Reviews 2010 #32-33: The Spiral Labyrinth and Template

A pair of novels set in the Archonate of the penultimate age of Earth, by Matthew Hughes.

Matthew Hughes is an under-appreciated writer. For years he has been toiling in a mainly Jack Vancean sort of vein, turning out stories and novels set in a world where science is just about to turn over to magic, but not quite yet. Old Earth, with a baroque and dizzying array of ancient cultures, is a rich field for Hughes to explore. On an even larger scale, Old Earth is itself but one planet in “The Spray”, Hughes’s answer to Jack Vance’s Oikumene. A dizzying array of planets of even more diversity than Earth itself, Hughes’ fiction allows the reader to experience a full and inexhaustible range of cultures, environments and characters. His prose brings these environments and characters to life, transporting the reader to areas both familiar and absolutely alien for all of their humanity.
In the Spiral Labyrinth, we continue the adventures of Henghis Hapthorn, previously seen in a couple of short stories as well as Majestrum. As a freelance discriminator (private investigator) he is a late-age-of-Earth Sherlock Holmes, with a number of twists. Thanks to the results of previous adventures, his integrator, a semi-sentient computer, has been transformed from a device to a fruit-craving unique creature. Also, his sense of intuition, an invaluable compliment to his finely honed sense of reason and logic, is in fact now a full fledged sub personality within his brain that he can converse with, named Osk Rievor. Even with these handicaps (although he would insist they are advantages), Henghis is the foremost discriminator on Old Earth.
In the Spiral Labyrinth Henghis once again gets plunged into situations far beyond his ken, surviving by applications of luck, verve, reason and intuition. Hughes likes to put his characters through the wringer. The keystone event of Spiral Labyrinth, for example, has Henghis, thanks to the titular device, accidentally transported several centuries into the future–and past the point where the rules of the universe finally change from science and magic. Worse, he has been transported here without Osk Rievor (who knows a little theory of magic), and so he must survive on reason alone, in a land without reason.How does Henghis survive in a world of dragons and spells, and how he manages to get home are the meat and potatoes of the book.
And, like previous novels and stories, Spiral Labyrinth stands alone, but continues to build the life, career and nature of its main character. You certainly can start here, Hughes does a good job enfolding previous events into the narrative in an organic way. However, this does not mean the stories are episodic. I have no doubt that the adventures of this book, and their impact on Hapthorn, will continue to resonate through the next
If you are a Jack Vance fan, or simply enjoy picaresque adventures in a baroque series of settings with an engaging main character, the Henghis Hapthorn stories of Matthew Hughes, including the Spiral Labyrinth, are definitely for you.
In Template, Matthew Hughes starts us far away from Old Earth, on a backward part of the Spray. Conn Labro has been raised from an orphaned birth to be a gaming duelist. Indentured to a Gaming House, his life is mostly duels and fighting for his employer. When his one link to a life outside Horder’s Gaming Emporium, a mysterious old man who is his only friend, is murdered, events sweep up Labro into an intrigue of double-dealing and an even more unusual inheritance that Labro never expected to be heir to. Along with a showgirl tied to his murdered friend, Labro makes a journey toward Old Earth, and beyond, to uncover the mystery of something even greater than a inheritance or his old friend’s death.
His own origin.
Unlike many of the other stories Hughes has written in the Archonate, Template starts us far away from Old Earth, and Old Earth is only a waypoint (albeit a major one) in the rambling journey of the protagonist. Template appears to be Hughes’ interpretation and riff on the themes and ideas of Jack Vance’s Demon King novels. Labro is a lens that allows us to see a wide variety of worlds and characters. Labro’s own provincial attitudes are the barometer by which other (and there are many in this book!) cultures are judged.
Admittedly, Jenore, the aforementioned showgirl, is more of a plot device than a completely fully formed character, and I didn’t quite buy the romance between the characters.This is perhaps the weakest part of the book for me. Perhaps had the book been longer, this weakness might have been addressed.
Still, even given these weaknesses, the writing is strong and bright, and dense. It might be among the strongest writing that I have read from Matthew Hughes, perhaps because we get to see corners of the Spray from the eyes of characters who are new to Hughes, and thus have the contrast of being something different for him. Labro and Mordene are not his usual type of characters to explore and use as focal points. The structure of the plot almost follows Van Vogt’s maxim that plot twists and plot advancement should occur at a breakneck pace. Combine that with a dizzying array A slim and slight volume, I devoured Template rapidly. Fans of Jack Vance, or Matthew Hughes’ prior work, will appreciate Template.